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Bethlehem

Neighbouring settlement, opposing settlement

Rights & dissent

Betlehem

You have to get into a settlement. The one right over there, at your fingertips. You have to enter, see, and understand. How do its residents live? How do they perceive the world? You have to climb up to the summit of the nearby mountain. Without knowing what I’m going to tell them, I have no idea what awaits me. The guard spots me and I shoot off a huge smile in return. Stay natural, stay calm. I’m not well- prepared; I hope to do an interview, or at least take a few photos.

“Hi!”

The little tourist that I am, I explain to him: I’m curious, I’m interested in settlements. I’d really like to enter, just to see, just to look. The soldier is sympathetic. He leafs through my passport. You have an Egyptian entry stamp! No, I assure him, I was there last year only, I’m not returning from there directly.

“Are you Jewish?”

“No.”

“Catholic?”

“Yes.”

He spells out my three given names with difficulty. They sound so French. Then my surname, several times. It doesn’t sound Jewish in the least. I consider using one of the most garden-variety names in France. Thanks, Dad, for not being called Abdallah.

“Oh, you live in Paris! Right by the Toor Efel!” Yes, yes, I respond, and I immediately seize the opportunity to change the subject and to make myself seem more friendly. He speaks a little French, used to live not far from my quarter. But that’s not enough.

“Are you alone?”

“No, my friends are in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”

I can’t say that I’m coming from the farm, right down there, right before his eyes. I’m smiling a lot, a lot. I have to get in.

He believes me. I think. But he has to call his commanding officer. They won’t even open my bag, what luck, what would they have said if they’d found the recorder. But I don’t have the right to take photos, nor any video within the settlement. They suggest I get some water. I guess that’ll do, I like the idea of a trip to the supermarket. I have to run into people.

How can I reach these people so far from my culture, from my education? “These are people, only people,” Ghassan the Palestinian farmer whispered to me.

Empty. There are only houses – large ones, more or less. Nothing else. The streets are practically deserted. A young redheaded man with a beard passes by. He seems very nice. I could approach him, and in a few choice words ask him for an interview in an inconspicuous place. I won’t ask him for anything other than the way to the supermarket. It’s too soon.

Empty. Nothing. Still more houses, then finally the supermarket, a little grocery store of no great interest, and I chat with the cashier. He lives in Jerusalem. I need to ask him straight away. There are very few opportunities to converse with the people here. He’s okay with the interview but not here, later, elsewhere, in Jerusalem. I’ll call him.

Empty. Nothing. Still more houses, huge, beautiful, clean, tidy. But how do they all live here, so far from the world, from reality? A man gestures to me. It’s the soldier from the entry point.

Is he watching me? We chat quite pleasantly, and he guides me to the water tower for the “beautiful view.” He comes from Peru. He was born there, not here, of course.

“It’s really religious here.”

“Yes, I can see that.” Yes, I’ve seen kippahs, everywhere, on the heads of all the men and the young boys, and fine veils covering the heads of the women.

“You can’t take pictures of the houses. They won’t like it.”

“But can I take pictures of the view?”

“Yes, sure. But be careful. Not of the houses.”

Message received. I climb up to the water tower that dominates the landscape. I feel weird, as though on the other side of a mirror: there, just below and across, are the Palestinian farm, my tent, and my belongings.

A young man and an old woman are having a discussion at the foot of the column painted in white and sky blue, in the colors of their flag, filled with some liquid Grail. They speak French, I plunge in and we’re off on a long exchange. And then I can’t help myself anymore. I have to record what they’re saying. So I rummage through my bag in search of my reflex camera, feint, and discreetly turn on my recorder.

The young man named Emmanuel studied at the university in the settlement across the way. Extremely gentle and attentive to his grandmother, Judith – a chubby woman with a steely character and pious above all else – he talks to me a little about the conflict. He’s intelligent, but so afraid. He’s afraid of terrorism, “and that alone,“ he says. Justification comes from these multiple guard patrols, from surveillance, from mistrust.

“We’re forced to do this,” he tells me.

Forced to protect themselves. But is this abundance of security a sign of guilt? The worst is that I think I understand their fears and their insecurities. And even so, I’d like to tell him that those they fear, for the most part, resemble them.

Judith tells me about Paris, about Austria, then the Holy Land, and also about the founder of the largest settlement in the area. A rich man from Manhattan, “the centre of the world,” she stresses in one and the same breath. A man who lived “an ideal life surrounded by great donors and who came to build, since there was nothing here.” Nothing, aside from spectacular landscapes. Nothing, aside from villages.

“How are Monsieur Hollande and his partner doing?”

“Oh! He’s president now.”

“I know. I follow French news.”

“At least he’s better than Sarkozy…”

Damn, what am I saying?

“Hollande is more pro-Palestinian, but as for Sarkozy…” She won’t say anything else for several minutes.

I’m searching for the origin of this sadness, this heavy burden hidden under her wrinkles, which pushes her to talk, blinded by her religion. A woman who seems so charming, so strong and intelligent, but whose conviction to impede the truth upsets me. I’d like to soothe her.

I point out the surroundings, questioning Emmanuel. Index finger extended toward the farm, he tells me, “That, I don’t know.” How can he not know, how can he not realise that last year, just across from his house, 5000 people out of the entire world crossed over? How can he not hear the children’s rhymes? But I’m convinced that he honestly knows nothing, or not much. Nobody has told him anything. Nobody will tell him anything. If he only knew that those people across there have no water, what would he do? What would he say?

Emmanuel and Judith have left. I head back. A young boy, twelve years old perhaps, came quickly on his bike. As free as the air, his pretty kippah stays firmly in place. All children dream of flying on their bikes. At the exit point, in the little box where the soldier is lodged, a new face bids me farewell: the same bearded youth who had crossed my path earlier. To think I hesitated to interview him…

The SD cards from my recordings hidden in my bra – will the world ever know what I was able to capture during my brief visit – I leave the settlement.

Descending the little mountain, leaving the road for the pebbly path toward the farm, airplanes pierce the sky. They are deafening. They come and go on all sides, from north to south, from east to west, all day, all week, all month, and all year. They have to guard, protect, and maintain this climate of ultra surveillance and intimidation. They have to prevent all communication, for the benefit of fear and mistrust, in order to advance toward…what?

This is the third part in a series of chronicles from Palestine. Find the firsts parts here and here. Translated by Angela Häkkilä; edited by Ben Slade and Stephanie Watt.

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