Bethlehem wall digs deep into the hearts of humans


OPINION:Behind the cruel edifice of a wall around the birthplace of Jesus, an enclave of university students triumph in the face of adversity, writes John Kelly

IT WAS late Friday afternoon and I was finishing up my week's work in Bethlehem University when Brother Jack put his head round my door and shouted: "Hi John, every Friday a few of us go up to the wall - would you like to join us?"

Conscious though I was of "the Wall", the 70km-long, eight-metre-high monstrosity that attempts to divide Palestine from Israel, I thought in my naivety he was referring to a local pub. I said: "Sure, great, be right with you", only to find that it was indeed the wall and we were there to say the rosary walking up and down past the Israeli armed guards at the main checkpoint leading to Jerusalem.

There were about 10 of us, a few De La Salle Brothers from Bethlehem University, some nuns from the Caritas Baby Hospital and a couple of locals, one of whom was an elderly lady whose lovely olive and lemon back garden had been cut in half and destroyed by the construction of the wall a few years before.

As we walked up and down saying the rosary, in full view of the Israeli guards, Jack hacked a bit off the wall with his crucifix and gave it to me. I have it framed in my study. The wall almost completely circumscribes the small town of Bethlehem and it has a number of checkpoints, each with Israeli armed guards. It is impossible, for me at any rate, not to compare this situation with the Nazi's Warsaw Ghetto and second World War checkpoints.

As with the Jews in that terrible city of the early 1940s, the Palestinians are being treated like scum by the Israeli guards. Bethlehem resembles a ghetto where the local population is not permitted by the Israeli authorities to leave by the main roads. Illegal though it is by United Nations Charter and the International Bill of Human Rights, this is occupied territory, and it is a very hostile occupation.

The distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is some 10km, but Palestinians must take a 26km secondary dirt road passing through Israeli checkpoints which are often closed with no warning or explanation. Palestinians in the West Bank are not permitted to enter Jerusalem without a date- and time-limited pass from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) - more often than not refused.

This has made the operation of the small but very courageous Bethlehem University very difficult. Before this wall was built, the majority of students and staff lived outside the Bethlehem area, mostly in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron - and yes, even Gaza. While some of the staff have passes that allow them to travel on the more direct routes, most students do not. In effect, the student population is now restricted to those living in Bethlehem, within the wall.

Likewise in Gaza, the Israeli authorities do not allow university students travel to universities in the EU and the USA where they have been accepted for postgraduate studies. As a strategy for future peace and reconciliation, this makes no sense.

It is the students, more than any other sector of the Palestine communities, who are suffering with non-stop harassment and humiliation by Israeli checkpoint soldiers. Palestinian student Rula (22) dreads the journey every day to and from Jerusalem. She says: "Sometimes I cannot concentrate in my lectures because I am . . . worried what the Israelis will do to me on my way home."

For no reason, they often have to take off their shoes, have their laptop computers confiscated, undergo strip searches and be made wait hours, with no explanation, being sneered at.

Strangely, for us non-Arabs, these checkpoint guards are generally quite affable and send you on your way with "have a nice day" American-style. Dr Hala al-Yamani, a professor in the faculty of education in Bethlehem University, says she has noticed a dramatic decline in her students' concentration and motivation.

"When you are facing this sort of pressure or humiliation, your feelings towards yourself change and you feel worthless."

Despite this, Dr al-Yamani says this year's graduation of more than 530 Bethlehem University students proves they are strong and committed.

"Despite these troubles, they say 'hey, I want to do it and I will. We've got that power that nothing will stop us. When you lose your home, and you lose your land, and you lose everything, you have to prove yourself and we don't have any way other than by education'."

This is indeed a fine university, with the highest international academic standards and procedures. Inside those walls there is a different world where the students, Christians, Muslims and those of no religion, live in harmony, shut out physically and spiritually from the harsh and cruel realities of the Israeli occupation outside.

• Dr John Kelly is a former registrar of University College Dublin and is chairman of the Friends of Bethlehem University in Ireland,