Behind the Headlines: in Streets of Bethlehem, Tourists Become ‘extras’ in Intifada Drama

Manger Square in Bethlehem presents an extra-ordinary scene these days.

Colorfully dressed tourists, mainly from Europe, descend from their tour buses only to be surrounded by self-appointed guides, who offer (in broken English) tours of the nearby Church of the Nativity and other historic sights.

Shopkeepers rub their hands, smiling from ear to ear. "Welcome, welcome," they call from their doorways, displaying all manner of wares.

But only a few dozen yards away, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youths race and dodge up and down the steps of the marketplace, through the narrow alleys and over the rooftops, absorbed in their duel of rocks and bottles against rubber bullets.

The 21-month-old Palestinian uprising, or intifada, continues relentlessly. In places like Bethlehem, however, tourism is down, but not out.

In fact, the tourists seem to be interested spectators and sometime players in the daily drama.

The soldiers do their job calmly, matter of factly, as if engaging in a familiar ritual.

They collar suspects, check IDs against wanted lists, make arrests or send people on their way.

The tourists watch as if the scene was staged for their amusement. They are "extras" in some Hollywood production, a biblical epic, considering the surroundings.

Sometimes they get hurt, but it seems to be all part of the act.

On one recent day, the exchange of stones and bullets began in earnest at 11 in the morning.

The streets were crowded with tourists shopping. Laden with bundles of newly purchased souvenirs, they climbed the market steps, navigated between soldiers with firearms at the ready, apparently unconcerned that a bullet might hit them.

LIKE A SOCCER MATCH

Shopkeepers standing in front of their shops watched the scene like fans at a soccer match, weighing the odds on both sides.

Suddenly, an Austrian youth exploring the oriental market was hit in the arm by a stone.

"Do they throw stones at everyone or just at soldiers?" he asked with a mixture of innocence and sang-froid.

A group of tourists from Poland on a religious pilgrimage to the Christian holy sites was more curious than frightened when it heard shots.

Cameras in hand, they stood side by side with shopkeepers and a television crew. One of them remarked aptly, "We have seen this on TV. Now we see if for real."

"You must solve this problem, you must," another tourist exhorted. The Poles admitted that they had problems at home. "But nothing of this sort," they insisted.

There is a certain ambivalence in Bethlehem nowadays about tourists.

"Of course, we are happy to see them coming, but…" said one merchant as he walked away from the latest confrontation between Palestinian youths and the Israeli soldiers.

The city is full of stories about Israeli security men who pose as tourists in order to lay their hands on local troublemakers.

Two affidavits presented this week to the police and Attorney General Yosef Harish claimed that the Israelis posing as tourists exercised brutal force against local youths.

According to an affidavit submitted by 19-year-old Sharif Mousa Zuwabar, men in civilian clothes shot at him after a stone-throwing incident in the marketplace on Aug. 19.

"I saw four men in civilian clothes, with bags and a camera," he wrote in his affidavit.

"I was sure they were tourists. One of them was about two meters away from me. He pulled a pistol out of his bag and shot at my right leg. Then, from a distance of 10 centimeters, he shot at my left leg," he said.

Similar complaints were included in the second affidavit.

The army said both complaints were by youths who were involved in stone and brick throwing attacks.

Knesset member Yossi Sarid of the Citizens Rights Movement asked Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin last week to order an inquiry into the incident. "If the affidavits are reliable, it is one of the more serious cases in the history of the intifada," Sarid said.

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