The Army May Be Gone, but They're Still Stuck

In a taxi carrying a number of laborers (without permits) from Bethlehem to Jerusalem yesterday morning, someone commented jokingly that the "Gaza, Bethlehem First" plan had meant that, "they've brought us 200 Bedouin." The man laughed, pointing at the numerous traffic cops in their camouflage gear dotted throughout the city directing the light traffic.

During Jordanian rule in the city, "Bedouin" was a euphemism for traffic cops. The taxi passenger was thus pointing out to his companions that there are no more Palestinian security forces, all that is left are traffic police with "a shameful look in their eyes," as another passenger commented.

The members of the other security forces (the national force, preventive security, intelligence) are yet to make much of an appearance, and it is still unclear what their role will be.

Not many of the details of the deal worked out between Israel and Palestinian Authority representatives Sunday night are known in Bethlehem. All they know is that the security forces are meant to stop terrorist attacks being launched from the West Bank city and to arrest wanted men on information provided by Israel.

But what is left of the security forces that will allow them to carry out these tasks, was a question many in the city asked yesterday. There are no buildings or offices left, most have been razed to the ground. Commanders and officers have been arrested, or deported or killed. There are some who say the PA requested the release of a number of commanders who were arrested as part of the deal, but this was turned down.

Residents did not take advantage of the Israel Defense Forces' departure from the city, after some two months of reoccupation, and did not take to the streets on masse. "The main problem is the closure, the fact that we cannot leave Bethlehem," said one Palestinian. "An unemployed laborer sat at home during the curfew, with the family, and now too he sits at home, under closure." The markets and stores that reopened yesterday did not provide much entertainment for someone who has lost every source of income and all his savings in the last year.

The streets last night were empty of cars "as though there was a curfew." People stayed at home out of choice, skeptical and far from happy, though as one person said they "are not opposed to the agreement."

Residents are now at a stage of asking questions, of what will be, of what is next. They find it difficult to believe Israel's intentions (is there a guarantee that they will not assassinate wanted people?) They doubt the PA's political and security abilities, they do not know how the events in other towns and cities will affect them, and they are worried by the cordon.

The Al-Khader checkpoint, on the Tunnel Road, which prevents people from leaving Bethlehem and limits the number coming in, was particularly strict yesterday, noted the residents. The same could be said about the checkpoints in the Wadi Nar area (the eastern road that links Bethlehem and Jerusalem), though "the Israelis close one way and straight away someone organizes another dirt road" to Jerusalem.

The tanks have moved 500 meters, said the residents, indicating the tight blockade on the city. The villages have been cut off from the city, and the city from the other parts of the West Bank - and this is the particularly tough part, says S., an attorney whose place of work is north of Jerusalem. The checkpoints and the prohibition on leaving Bethlehem, whether the Israeli army is inside the city or outside it, all mean that S. cannot get to work in the A-Ram neighborhood.

He left his new, beautiful home in an olive grove about a month ago and managed to sneak away from Bethlehem with his family but without any permits, and is now renting in one of the crowded, noisy, neglected neighborhoods in the Jerusalem-Ramallah area. All so that he could continue to work. "But how many people can do what I did?" he asks rhetorically.