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Similar Or Different Events? The 1967 war in Bethlehem

Contributed by Terra Sancta School For Girls on 11.03.2006:

Manal Zeytoun

This interview is with my mother, Vivi Jameel Shahin. She was born in Bethlehem on 1 November 1956.

“What was the situation in Palestine before the 1967 war?”

My mother: “The West Bank including East-Jerusalem was under the rule of Jordan. There were always demonstrations against Jordan because people wanted a Palestinian state under a Palestinian authority.”

“What do you remember about the war itself?”

“I can still remember the day of the Israeli attack, it was Monday about ten o’clock in the morning. I was 11 years old. I went with my mother and grandmother to the vegetable market to buy artichokes. It was the very first time we cooked it. At the beginning of the attack we went out on the streets and balconies of the houses. All wanted to see the planes that we thought were Arab. When we realized they were Israeli, we hid in the houses or basements since there were no shelters. During the school year we had been taught how to behave in case of an attack and how we should return home in groups of five rather than in large groups. People from the Jordanian defense forces used to come to school and ring the alarm bell to check whether students behaved in the proper way: with the bodies on the ground, the face directed towards the ground and hands over the back of the heads. There was an order from the municipality that all the windows of the houses and buildings should be painted dark blue or covered with blankets at night so that the houses would stay dark even when one put on the lights.”

“When did you realize that the planes were Israeli ones?”

“Life on that day was normal and fortunately it was summer and there was no school. When we first saw the planes, we thought they were Arab planes from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon that came to attack Israel. When the planes came low, almost near the ground, they started shelling. People still thought that they were Arab planes supporting the Palestinians with food and clothes. All people were outside their houses to watch them. We only realized that the Israelis attacked us when we heard the first explosions. At that moment, our neighbor took his hunting gun and began shooting at the planes. The planes threw bombs at the area from which he shot. He managed to escape to Jordan with the Jordanian army. There were so many families who escaped to Jordan. They put their clothes in sheets, left their houses and furniture, took their children and escaped out of fear. At my grandmother’s house there was what we call a taboon, a clay oven for baking bread. There were people using it when the attack began; they left their bread and hid.”

“What about the Jordanian army?”

“The Jordanian army wanted to surrender after they learned about the Arab defeat. People showed them the way out of Bethlehem to the Jordan river. However, the Israeli planes followed them and shelled them. Some Jordanian soldiers did not know that Jordan had quit so they kept fighting. They were taken as prisoners or killed. I remember that our neighbor, who had a relative living in Jerusalem, told us about a Jordanian soldier who was in the Notre Dame Hotel. He did not know that Jordan had surrendered, and kept fighting and shooting at the Israeli planes until he was killed. Many Jordanian soldiers did not know the way out of Jerusalem to Jordan. Civilians tried to explain the way but most of the soldiers were killed.”

Afterwards I had the following interview with my grandmother whose name is Antoinet Khalil Kando. She was born in Bethlehem on 29 September 1934. Here is the new information that she added:

“What do you remember about the 1967 war?”

“I will never forget that terrible event when we forgot my three-year old daughter and her cousin on the street. Because of our panic we rushed into the neighbors’ house. Fortunately, her brothers, who were also young, took their sister and cousin from the middle of the street with the shelling going on. We all said that children are braver than adults because children do not know what war means.”

“When people saw the planes throwing bombs, some realized that the planes were Israeli and so they looked for basements to hide in, no matter whose basement it was. All our neighbors were hiding in the same basement. Also the people who were walking in the street and who were in their cars hid with us even though we did not know them. Everybody wanted to stay alive. People wanted to hear the news but the Israelis had shelled the electricity generators. So we used radios that worked on batteries. One of our neighbors sent his son to buy batteries for the radio but he was killed near the Syrian Orthodox Church, his head separated from the body. We felt very sad and sorry for him. For six days, people hid in their houses, day and night, staying beside the radios listening to news and hoping that the Arab countries would stand by them and send their armies to defend them.”

I had the following interview with my father. His name is Bishara Malki Zeitoun. He was born in Bethlehem on 4 April 1944.

“What did Palestinians think about the Israelis?“

“The Palestinians used to think that Israel was weak and that the many Arab armies would defeat Israel. However, they always felt sure that there would be a war between Israel and the Palestinians. They used to prepare civilians and students at schools how to behave in case of an attack. The media played an important but negative role in the 1967 war. The press tended to calm the people by telling them that Israel was weak and that the Arab forces from all the Arab countries were ready to face Israel, and that it would be easy to defeat Israel. Jordan, which occupied the West Bank, was not prepared for a war and its capacities were very poor in comparison to Israel. The 1967 war was without any previous warning. It happened suddenly and the sides were not equally prepared; Israel was perfectly prepared while Jordan did not expect a war. They did not think that Israel would attack them.”

“Why didn’t the Arab countries help the Palestinians?”

“I heard on the radio that the Israeli planes shelled the airports in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq so that the Arab aircraft couldn’t help the Palestinians. Since the Israeli planes were underground in secret places, no one could reach them or damage them and that applied to the other weapons too.

“What happened during the war?”

“War broke out on 5 June 1967. People thought that the planes were Iraqi. All were happy because they thought that Iraq was going to attack Israel. The planes flew very high; gradually they came lower. The first place attacked in Bethlehem was the animal market. There were also clashes near the Saint Elias Church [near the present-day checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem], where the Palestinians and Israelis had confrontations using what was called white weapons: knives, poniards, and battle-axes.”

“To stop the intensive bombing, the mayors of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, the Latin Syriac and Armenian priests and the Moslem judge of Bethlehem went all together to a place called Jroon Al-Humus to declare that they had given up. That happened on the seventh day of the attack when Bethlehem was occupied by Israel. I remember that I heard on the radio that Hebron was occupied before Bethlehem. When the Israelis reached the borders of the towns, they used loudspeakers saying that whoever wanted to be safe should raise white flags over their houses. Most people raised white flags because they were very scared of the Jews whom they did not know. Others escaped to Jordan. There were certain men who asked for money to help people pass through to the Jordan River. That was very dangerous and many people drowned. Those who arrived safely in Jordan lived in camps and many of them are still living in camps today. When the Israelis entered Bethlehem, they told the people that they should give up their weapons at the police center. They searched many houses for weapons, and imprisoned many men too.”

“Which places were bombed?”

“Many places and centers were bombed. The Nativity Church was shelled on the Armenian side. A rocket fell beside the Syrian Orthodox Church but it did not explode.”

“What are the differences and similarities socially and economically in your life before and after the 1967 war?”

“Politics affected our economy and even our social life a lot. Before the war, life was much simpler, most people worked inside the town. During the Jordanian rule, there were not so many factories in the country. After the war they began to work in Israel because they earned much more there. Laborers would work long hours. Women, too, worked in Israeli factories. The merchants began to import new kinds of goods and machines from Israel. The incomes of many people increased but at the same time the expenses increased too. Life gradually became more and more expensive and complicated.

“What about the transportation inside and outside Bethlehem?”

“The East and West Bank borders were open; people were able to go to Jerusalem and Amman any time they wanted. We used to visit my sister in Amman and come back to Bethlehem on the same day. We neither needed passports nor permits. There was a taxi station near the police center that served people going to and coming from Jordan. Since there were only a few shops in Bethlehem, we used to buy most commodities, especially clothes, from Jerusalem. Moreover, many of our cousins and relatives went to work in Iraq and Kuwait and brought a lot of things from there, too. Before the war, there were many people who went to work in Kuwait since there were a great many opportunities there, especially in the building trade. However, after the war they could not come back and most of them went to the United States or to European countries.”

“Did you know anything about the Israelis before the war?”

“No, we did not. But we used to think that they were not very strong. When they occupied our countries we were afraid of them because we did not know them. Now, we know that they are a weak and coward nation but with very strong weapons and that they are highly educated especially in the medical and industrial fields.”

“How was your economic situation after the war?”

“Thank God that our house was not shelled, but many other houses and buildings were. People worked for long years to build a house. The shelling cost the civilians a lot because when a house is shelled the furniture, refrigerators and other things in the house are damaged too.”

“Do you see any difference between the 1967 war and the Al-Aqsa Intifada?”

“A big difference. The 1967 war lasted only six days and after these six days the Israelis entered the country. Here in Bethlehem, things were much cheaper than in Israel and groups of Israelis came to the market to buy vegetables, clothes, furniture and other things. There were also Jews from Iraq, Syria and Egypt who spoke Arabic fluently. There was a trade exchange between the Israelis and the Palestinians after the war and the economic situation of the people after the war was better since they went to work in Israel. The workers earned well in Israel. That may have been the reason why the Intifada came late. The war happened in 1967 and the Intifada began in 1987. During the Intifada, life was different but I think the most difficult time is nowadays. The Palestinians do not have enough artillery while the Israelis are well equipped. Israel is using all kinds of weapons. The most difficult thing are the bombings; they bomb many more houses and buildings than during the 1967 war. In addition, they have closed all the checkpoints and prevent goods, fuel and food to reach the towns. There are many laborers who used to work in Israel but who now cannot enter it. This makes their economic situation very difficult. The people who work in Jerusalem cannot reach their work. Students face lots of difficulties when they try to reach their universities and schools. Ramadan is coming soon and after two or three weeks there will be Christmas, but no one feels that it is the time for feasts and celebrations because people can hardly meet their basic needs. Even children in the streets talk about nothing except martyrs, clashes and bombings. This situation is very difficult and we have never seen anything like this.”

My own conclusions: There is a great difference between the mentality of the Palestinians who lived through the 1967 war, and the Palestinians who lived during the Intifada and nowadays. The Palestinians of 1967 were very simple, and they wrongly estimated Israel’s abilities and weapons. But we also see that from long ago up until today the Palestinians are suffering alone and that the Arab leaders are satisfied with blaming Israel. This is very sad.

The Palestinians nowadays are aware of what is going on around them. They have become educated. They also got experience through the miserable life that they have been living under the Israeli occupation.

I noticed that the press is very important in any war. Since there was no national press in Palestine in 1967, the Arab press played a negative role because it did not reveal the facts but conformed to their leaders’ desires. Now we have our national press that does whatever it can to reveal the truth and inform us about the real news of the Palestinian situation.

Palestinians before 1967 were not very educated, only a few of them were. It is easy to occupy an ignorant nation. Now Palestinians look more and more at education and science as a means of progress and as a way to independence.

From: Your Stories Are My Stories: A Palestinian oral history project. Saint Joseph School for Girls, Bethlehem, Wi’am – Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows. Culture and Palestine series AEI-Open Windows 2001. For more information: or

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