BETHLEHEM, West Bank — A writer seeks the surprise of a “man bites dog” story. The most violent times of the Second Intifada, which took place under the leaden winter skies of early 2002, gave me mine. I wrote about Arabs in the rain.
It was raining in the city of Jesus’ birth throughout “The Collaborator of Bethlehem,” the first of my Palestinian crime novels. I set the story during the brief Middle Eastern winter because it makes the place look different, not as one might expect.
That’s what I wanted to do for the Palestinians — to make readers look at them as real people, not as the stereotypes we’re accustomed to seeing in the news. Not as violent types rioting in the baking sunshine. But slouching through the drizzle, sitting in their overcoats on their living room couches with no heat.
As I crossed the checkpoint and went through the gate in the Israeli wall around the town, the skies darkened, flat and gray this week, too. By the time I greeted my friend Walid, a former bodyguard to Yasser Arafat, the sky was pouring already.
“The city seems a bit livelier than it was the run-up to last Christmas,” I said.
"Yes,” said Walid, who also happens to be a Palestinian weight-lifting champion (he dead-lifts 680 pounds). “But underneath, it’s very dangerous and everyone fears a Third Intifada.”
Again, not what you'd expect. Palestinians are supposed to be on the way to a better life, with the security and economic improvements pushed by U.S. diplomats and advisers. Stutteringly, without much help from their Israeli counterparts or their own civil strife, but getting there. Still like the rain in this desert town, that view warrants another look.
Palestinian newspapers have reported in the last week that the Fatah Party is preparing for new demonstrations against Israel, which it will dub the “Third Intifada.” (The First Intifada, from 1987 to 1993, was considered a success among Palestinians, because the abiding image was of young boys throwing stones at Israeli tanks. The Second Intifada, 2000 to 2005, failed, because it turned quickly to armed violence and brought the wrath of the Israeli army fully onto Palestinian civilians.)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reported to have given his support to a new intifada, provided it eschews firearms. Disappointed with the U.S. failure to force an absolute freeze on Israeli settlement construction, Fatah wants to unleash protests of the kind that take place every Friday at the Israeli “separation barrier” near the villages of Bilin and Na’alin. Stone-throwing and tear gas are the order of the day there.
But Hamas would be unlikely to stick to stones. In Bethlehem, Palestinian officials say Hamas has been working underground to rebuild its power — the West Bank is under Fatah’s control and many Hamas men have been jailed. A Third Intifada would be an opportunity for the Islamist group to come into the open, to confront Israeli soldiers and, more worrisome for many Bethlehem residents, to take on the Palestinian Authority and perhaps win control of the city.
Walid and I headed to Dehaisha Refugee Camp. It’s home to 16,000 people, including the fictional character in my books, schoolteacher-detective Omar Yussef (and the real-life figure on whom I based him). I always love being in Dehaisha. It isn’t what you’d expect from the city of childhood Christmas carols.
It’s densely packed, clinging to a hillside. Buildings in poured concrete and cinder block rising to four stories. Colorful graffiti about the dead of the intifadas and about hope for a kind of freedom that seems far off. In the rain, water floods down the steep streets, because there’s inadequate drainage.
In the long, narrow alley where the Akhras clan lives, there was the taint of urine in the damp air, as the drains backed up. On the shuttered front of a small workshop, posters marked the death in March 2002 of Ayat al-Akhras. She was 18. She witnessed her cousin’s death, killed by Israeli soldiers. She decided to take revenge. She became the third female suicide bomber of the Second Intifada. She killed a supermarket guard and an Israeli girl almost her own age. Now she’s a faded poster and, outside the school where my fictional Omar teaches, she’s a large stencil painted black onto a pedestrian bridge, brandishing a pistol.
Her uncle Lutfi al-Akhras hobbled along the street. He greeted me with a left-handed shake. His right hand is a paralyzed fist, since he took a bullet in 1990. You could say he should’ve got the message before that blow. Earlier in the First Intifada, in 1988, an Israeli bullet shattered his left knee and took away part of his head. Beneath his thinning black hair, a quarter of his skull is plastic. He lets me touch it, from time to time.
Lutfi led me up the cold stairs to his apartment. A bare room, a couple of couches, a television tuned to a Japanese cartoon with Arabic voice-over on a Jordanian channel, a spartan kitchen and a simple bathroom. His wife was back in the bedroom and, though Lutfi is not particularly religious, she stayed there until I left, out of modesty.
His daughter came out to say hello. She’s 10 years old, but she looks 7 at most. I assume it’s the lack of nutrition. After all, Lutfi can’t work with his disabilities. He gets an allowance of 1,350 shekels a month from the Palestinian Authority. That’s about $375. “It isn’t much,” he said. “Well, it isn’t really anything.”
With his good hand, Lutfi shakily cooked some coffee on the stove. Flavored with cardamom, it was thick and good. He was hopeful German mediators could do a deal between Hamas and Israel to free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier held in Gaza. Perhaps, he said, the deal would be done by the end of the week, when Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha, marking the new moon that ends the Hajj pilgrimage.
I asked him what he thought of the talk among Palestinian leaders of a Third Intifada. “God willing, it won’t happen.” With his good hand, he lifted his useless arm and was quiet. It was as though he were thinking about his crippling in a time of intifada, his niece’s dreadful sacrifice, and wondering how many more lives would be ended or ruined by a new round of violence.
His train of thought seemed to flash from his own disaster and its consequences to those of the Palestinian future. “Thirteen hundred shekels, it’s really nothing,” he murmurs. “God willing, this thing won’t happen. God willing.”