Beit Sahour, occupied West Bank – The Citadel sits in the old city of Beit Sahour – a restaurant, coffee shop and community centre. Throughout the year, it is a revolving door of local regulars, tourists and foreigners who call the Bethlehem area home.
The outdoor patio, slightly below ground level, looks at two walls branded with signatures of Palestinian resistance. One is covered by paintings of icons, from Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akhleh to activist Khader Adnan. The other bears quotes, in Arabic and English.
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“If we fail to defend our just cause, then we should change the defenders, not the cause,” the wall reads in tribute to Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani.
As the sun set on the fourth day of the war, tourists had left and few foreigners remained, but regulars stayed stationed in front of ashtrays on intricately engraved coffee tables, trading news and life updates simultaneously.
Baha Hilu, the organiser of cultural and political events at the Citadel, had had a long day. He wore a knit wool cap and a T-shirt in a matching olive green colour, the words “Intifada 48” written on the back like a sports jersey. He spoke in poignant one-liners informed by his sociological background, but more importantly, by his ability to articulate the structures of oppression that shape the life of a Palestinian.
His day started by arranging an anxious Swiss tour group’s departure, after they found themselves stuck in Bethlehem with the near complete closure of checkpoints, amid mounting apprehensions that the cloud of war that had already enveloped the Gaza Strip could soon spread to the West Bank.
At 8am he had loaded them into a Palestinian white-plated bus that left from Bethlehem to a checkpoint east of the city. The checkpoint, miraculously open, was where the group switched to an Israeli yellow-plated bus that would take them to the Jordan crossing – the Ben Gurion airport was no longer an option. As Baha drove away, he watched Israeli forces intercept the bus and close the checkpoint after it passed through.
Later that day, he heard the news from a friend in Gaza City – she and her family lost their home in the Israeli bombing. They were now displaced people. Homeless.
By the time he sat down, it was nearly 6pm. Baha was tired – physically, mentally and emotionally. The whole world was looking at him, at Palestine, he said, but they couldn’t see him at all.
“This is different,” was the one statement that stayed consistent among conversations in the Citadel.
Baha agreed – he had never seen Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinians before. Yet, he pointed out, “the outcome is always the same”.
He spoke to the conception that Palestinians are “used to this” – to war. “We are survivors of Israeli apartheid. It is applied to the best of us and to the worst of us,” he said. “We are forced into despair to the point where death is more merciful than life.”
“Every Palestinian killed is a miracle wasted,” he said, rubbing his temple with one hand, holding a cigarette in the other.
Nineteen-year-old Maryam shared a similar sentiment. “People make it seem like we’re used to war, but we’re not,” she said. “I was supposed to start university in Haifa next week.” Her silver earrings swung back and forth as she shook her head.
“I guess that’s not happening.”
Nader, Taha, Ibrahim and Malik sat around a nearby table. They picked from a bag of Mr Chips, paprika flavoured, and Lay’s. Packs of Marlboro, Parliament and Gauloises were depleting fast.
“Don’t worry,” Ibrahim reassured, unlike gasoline, water, and canned goods, they were sure they wouldn’t run out of tobacco.
As the night went on, more people sat down at the Citadel. The conversation continued in a growing circle. A young woman from Romania, who had arrived in Bethlehem only three weeks earlier, spoke up. She was working for an NGO documenting Israeli crimes of international law and on a three-month stay.
“My parents are freaking out, but I want to stay,” she said. “For as long as I can.”
She added that many of her foreign friends had already left. She was living alone.
A voice from across the circle suggested a game night at the Citadel the next day. Everyone was excited about the idea and offered to bring a different board game or deck of cards. Even poker was on the table.
“The buy-in is 200 shekels,” Baha joked, the equivalent of $50. The group groaned in unison, suggesting that the loser buys a pack of cigarettes instead. Yes, they agreed, it was decided.
As the conversation continued, Nader and Ibrahim watched a live video on TikTok of scenes unfolding less than 10 minutes away, at Jacir Palace, a major hotel. People crowded around the phone watching a jagged line of fire spread across the street. Everyone had been there before, everyone knew someone who lived within a quarter-mile radius, if it wasn’t themselves. Gunshots rang out on the screen. Eyes bulged as a man fell to the ground at the hands of Israeli forces.
Minutes later, phones lit up with notifications from WhatsApp and Telegram news-update group chats.
“19:54hrs, WB, Bethlehem: a Palestinian was seriously injured during ongoing clashes with IF in front of [Jacir] palace / Rachel tomb 300 checkpoint. Avoid the area.”
“Would the situation escalate in the West Bank?” It’s a question many of those at the Citadel wondered out loud. Already, isolated incidents like the one at Jacir Palace were steadily increasing.
“This is nothing,” Taha said of what had happened so far. “This is only a snack.”
Source: Al Jazeera