Quiet in Beit Jala

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Twelve-year old Firas El Yateem is negotiating the string of his kite around an electric line. A few days ago Firas feeling that things have gotten quite yet unable to go places with his family because of the Israeli siege, decided to begin making and flying kites. Within days the skies of Beit Jala, where he lives with his extended family, has been filled with kites of all shapes and sizes. When I saw the scene during a visit to his family, who are relatives, I remembered how many Palestinians drew the Palestinian flag on kites as a sign of Palestinian nationalism. “There is no more need to do that.” Firas’ mother told me. The Palestinian flag is no longer illegal and therefore kids don’t feel the need to fly kites with the national flag.

The Palestinian flag might not be illegal, but Palestinians are not much closer to independence even if they no longer need to wave the flag in front of Israeli soldiers. Little known Beit Jala has had more than its share of trouble causing destruction of homes and livelihoods in addition to the fear that is felt every time a helicopter flies overhead or the sound of a fire cracker is heard. Bassem El Yateem, Firas’s father, an olive wood craftsman has not worked since October. “All our work depends on tourism and this industry has been totally destroyed in the past six months. Eyebrows were raised when someone said that a 15 year old boy living next door has been making ‘good’ money making and selling kites. Yesterday he sold 10 kites at 15 shekels each, we were told. “Maybe I should give up my craftwork and start making kits, Bassem kidded.

Bassem’s two sisters have not been able to live in their homes for months ever since their two story old Arab-style home was among those that received direct hits from the Israelis. The families moved to the Yateem home which is located in a safer quarter of town. Efforts to restore their homes have not yet begun although municipal assessors have visited them and estimated the cost of renovation in the amount of $30,000. Belgium is said to have expressed willingness to help support the restoration. The Palestinian Authority has committed to advance the family $2,000 towards the physical restoration of their house.

Perhaps the most difficult problem to be cured is the fear that the shelling to residential homes often leaving people to speculate on the after effects of fear. The Yateems are expecting a newborn. When they visited their doctor they discovered that they will be having twins. They think that the reason that they will give birth to twins is fear because of the recent violence. They quote their doctor as saying that the number of pregnant Palestinian women expecting twins has sharply increased of late.

But danger and fear were not in the air when we visited the Yateems Tuesday. They said it has been a long time since they felt safe enough to cook a barbecue outside. Bassem, is confident the cease fire is holding. “Look,” he pointed me to two Palestinian security jeeps who drove by patrolling the area, just in case any renegade armed Palestinians wanted to break the cease fire.

Over dinner every one was concerned to know what to expect next. While some are worried that the violence might break again, the extended family’s major concern, now that, there is relative quite, is economic. The siege and the adverse economic effects on industry and tourism was tops on everyone’s mind.

Another source of concern was the situation in Hebron, a natural economic partner to the Bethlehem area, especially with Jerusalem closed. The main roads to Hebron have been closed causing the normally 25 minute drive to take nearly two hours. An apartheid system seems to be shaping over the roads with the minority Israeli settlers allowed to use the main road while the majority Palestinian drivers forced to use side and at times unpaved roads.

After months of violence and tension Beit Jala residents seem to be enjoying some of the fruits of the Tenet-sponsored cease-fire. How long will this quite last and will it lead to genuine peace talks is anyone’s guess. For the time being Firas and his kites rather than Israeli apache helicopters are filling the skies of Beit Jala. His parents and his extended family will enjoy every second of this quite hoping that the current ceasefire can soon be translated through political talks into a genuine peace

Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

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