The award-winning new Israeli film Beit Lehem (Bethlehem) captured reality with
its shocking depiction of the horrific reality we lived through during the years
of the second intifada.
Those were horrible years for both Israelis and
So many lives were destroyed by the violence which hit us
all, and with it a dimension of hatred across the conflict lines more intense
than ever seen before.
I founded IPCRI, the Israel Palestinian Center for
Research and Information, a joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank dedicated to
advancing the two-state solution to the conflict, in March 1988, during the four
months of the first intifada.
The first intifada ignited a spirit of hope
as the Palestinian leadership used the popular uprising to put forward an agenda
of mutual recognition and a call for compromise based on the pre-1967
The local Palestinian leadership and the popular uprising
imposed that agenda on the national leadership of the PLO, which was in faraway
Tunis. In November 1989 the PLO adopted that new agenda, which led to an peace
process which unfortunately has not yet come to its inevitable end: a
Palestinian state next to Israel, living side by side in peace.
we moved IPCRI’s office from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. As a joint
Israeli-Palestinian organization we decided that we wanted to give Israelis more
opportunities to come to the Palestinian side. Bethlehem was quite peaceful in
those days. There was a lot of building and economic growth and a lot of
Initially when Israelis would come to our office for the first time
they were afraid and we would have to drive to meet them at Checkpoint 300 (so
named because it was 300 meters from Rachel’s Tomb) or at Rachel’s Tomb. From
there they would follow us to our office another kilometer south. The second
time they came to the office, they would come directly, without fear.
second intifada officially began with the visit of opposition leader Ariel
Sharon to the Temple Mount on Thursday, September 28, 2000. I was in the office
in Bethlehem and all was quiet. On Friday, September 29, I was up north on the
Wadi Ara road, driving past the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm. There was a
demonstration taking place on the road and we immediately noticed that the tone
of the language on the signs people were holding was much harsher than we had
We had dinner that evening in the Arab village Baka
al-Gharbiyeh with some friends from Kibbutz Barkai.
After dark the entire
area was in flames. Demonstrations broke out in Jerusalem after Friday prayers
and spread across the West Bank and all over Gaza. The Galilee was in flames and
there was a sense that the country was under siege. Saturday night was Erev Rosh
Hashanah and throughout the holiday horrible scenes of violence were
During the holiday Knesset Member Avshalom Vilan (Meretz)
called me and said, “Gershon, we have to do something to stop this madness.” I
made some phone calls and we arranged to visit General Jabril Rajoub, the
commander of the Palestinian Preventive Security forces in the West Bank, when
the holiday ended Sunday evening.
Vilan had been an officer under prime
minister Ehud Barak in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. Barak gave
permission for us to enter Ramallah.
I was with a Palestinian colleague
and Vilan came with MK Mossi Raz. We met at the Beitunia checkpoint near the
Preventive Security headquarters. Both sides knew we were coming and stopped
shooting so we could pass.
We parked our cars on the Israeli side and
walked across the checkpoint to be taken in Palestinian jeeps to Rajoub’s
Over the next few hours we had PLO chairman Yasser Arafat
on one phone and Barak on the other, trying to put an end to the violence on the
fourth night of the second intifada.
According to all present at the
time, we came very close. There was agreement on five out of six points for
putting an end to the violence. But we were not successful and the violence
continued, reaching horrific dimensions.
The next week I was almost
killed at a Palestinian checkpoint in Bethlehem that until then was unmanned. As
I passed through the checkpoint, eight Palestinian armed security personnel
jumped out of nowhere with AK-47s. One opened my car door and demanded that I
drive. Without thinking, I turned off the motor, threw the keys on the floor of
the car and demanded that they call Rajoub, or the commander of the Preventive
Security Force in Bethlehem, who had visited me in my office that
The guy in the car next to me questioned me at gunpoint about my
relationship with Rajoub. As we waited for a response from Rajoub, with his gun
almost in my gut, he said “don’t be scared.”
But I was. After about 15
minutes another officer came and said they had orders to safely escort me out of
That was the last time I drove into Bethlehem with my car
during the second intifada. A few days later two Israeli reserve soldiers
mistakenly drove into a Palestinian checkpoint and were ordered to drive to
Ramallah, where they were lynched by a passing funeral procession.
West Bank and Gaza rapidly fell into total chaos; many people began calling it
“intifouda” (meaning chaos) rather than intifada. The streets of Bethlehem and
other Palestinian towns and cities fell under the reign of masked men with guns.
There were so many guns on the streets of Palestine in those days, it seemed
more people had them than didn’t.
The film Beit Lehem showed that very
vividly. As I watched the film and recalled that period I also thought about how
different the situation is today. While the occupation remains and Palestinians
are still struggling for freedom, there is a return of full law and order in the
West Bank. There are no guns on the streets, other than authorized ones in the
hands of the police and Palestinian security forces.
security forces coordinate and cooperate in the fight against terrorism. PA
President Mahmoud Abbas and his previous prime minister Salam Fayyad passed laws
that made it illegal to carry weapons. They rebuilt the rule of law and
dismantled the infrastructure of terrorism that had taken hold of the
Watching the film reminded me that the Palestinian
leadership in the West Bank retook control of the streets not as a favor to
Israel, but as a necessity for their own society. They had the help of the
United States and others, but the achievements of creating calm and law and
order belong to them and to the Palestinian people.
There is still much
to be done to build a Palestinian state and to break free from Israeli control.
The film Beit Lehem reminds us of how far they have come.
The writer is
the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and
Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator
of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book,
Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora
Bitan in Hebrew, and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas is
forthcoming from The Toby Press.
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