- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

A SEASON IN BETHLEHEM: UNHOLY WAR IN A SACRED PLACE

By Joshua Hammer

Free Press, $24, 290 pages

REVIEWED BY SOL SCHINDLER

Joshua Hammer arrived in Israel as Newsweek bureau chief in the fall of 2000, just as the Palestinian intifada began to develop. As events rolled on he focused more and more on the ancient town of Bethlehem, a less than 20-minute drive from his home in Jerusalem. He was intrigued by the large Christian element that had been there for generations and its convoluted relationship with the relatively recently arrived Muslims who had taken up residence in the outskirts.

With the aid of an interpreter Mr. Hammer became acquainted with the area’s leading families, both Christian and Muslim. His new book, “A Season in Bethlehem,” is a result of the many conversations that served as the basis of his reporting. It is not an attempt, he says, for an all-encompassing examination of the intifada, but rather an effort to hold one piece of the mosaic under light, and to give an account of the events and their consequences that took place in a particular area.

Bethlehem had been a Christian town since time immemorial, and when Israel replaced Jordan as the ruling authority it continued to have the same municipal structure. The Christian authorities, who had all been left in place by Israel, by no means welcomed the occupation but recognized the improved economic climate that had developed because of an open border with Israel and attempted to encourage economic growth by maintaining social stability.

Some considered this collaboration with the enemy. After the Oslo accord, the Palestinian Authority appointed a new governor, Mohammed Al-Madani, a secular Muslim and a staunch supporter of Yasser Arafat. Mr. Madani as a member of Fatah, the military arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had participated in a number of military operations and had been wounded in Lebanon fighting the Christian militia there. Nevertheless, according to the author, he felt that the time for armed violence was past. He supported civil disobedience, but felt that the intifada lost its way when guns were substituted for stones.

The new police chief, Gen. Ala Hosni, basically agreed with the governor and together they could have been a formidable team.

One of the characteristics of the Palestinian Authority was the multitude of intelligence agencies it supported, each funded separately and reporting not through a chain of command but directly to Yasser Arafat. The new governor found this a problem since in effect the intelligence agencies did what they pleased in the area, whether it was extorting money from merchants or shooting at Israelis simply to make trouble. He, and his police chief, were powerless to control them.

The author quotes Gen. Hosni as saying, in regard to the continual breaking of truce agreements, that he could have crushed the semi-autonomous militias from the very first but without a political decision to stop the violence he was powerless. He is further quoted as saying that deep down he knew, “Arafat didn’t want to finish off the violence. Arafat said or implied, control it, but do not extinguish it.”

It soon became apparent that although there were many figureheads of authority, real authority rested only with whoever had the most guns. That clearly was not the governor. The author’s interviews with various militia leaders are sympathetic and instructive, but his most compelling account concerns the 38-day siege of the Church of the Nativity, where over l30 Palestinian gunmen fled for refuge from pursuing Israeli army units.

This bizarre event seemed virtually designed for television and of course was thoroughly covered. It ended with the leaders going into a relatively comfortable exile in foreign countries and the rank and file dispersed.

Mr. Hammer is a gripping writer, and does his utmost to be impartial. As was his purpose he sheds light on some aspects of the intifada. The book is marred, however, by what could be called trite profundity. For example, as if to prove his complete objectivity, he closes with a screed castigating both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat.

It is difficult to argue with what he says but it also seems rather irrelevant. No one, not even his mother, has ever considered Ariel Sharon a candidate for sainthood, and his popularity in Israel had never been that great. Yasser Arafat’s biggest sin is not the widespread corruption in his administration, which the author rightly deplores, but the fact that he has led the Palestinians from one disaster to another, in Jordan, Lebanon, and now Palestine. The number of lives lost because of his obstinacy in opposing constructive peace talks is appalling. That is what he should be criticized for.

The book ends before the American roadmap for peace became accepted.

Today Israeli troops are gone from Bethlehem and the area is once again under Palestinian administration while Yasser Arafat lies ignored in the background. One can only hope that the fragile peace that began as this review was being written can endure, and that Bethlehem will endure as a shrine for the world.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.


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