In times of war, television cameras take sides. In May of this year independent filmmaker Jacquie Soohen, along with nine members of the International Solidarity Movement, entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem bringing food to the 160 Palestinians who were under siege after seeking sanctuary.
‘The media travelled with the occupying army and covered the siege from the Israeli perspective,’ says Jacquie. She wanted to tell the truth from the inside, ‘to have a document of the siege in order to counter false reports of the Israeli army. I wanted above all to film the men inside the Church as people.’ Over the next two weeks she shot the only footage taken inside the Church.
‘We walked quickly and deliberately past the tank and the soldiers, who looked dumbfounded. They fired shots behind us but by that time I was close to the small wooden entrance, the “door of humility”. All of a sudden we were in a dark vestibule, unloading the food from our bags with our hearts pounding. Then we found ourselves surrounded by a crowd of cheering Palestinians, clapping, yelling and singing. On the ground, by the main altar, there was a pool of blood from a man who was shot dead only a few hours before trying to retrieve bags of food left on the roof by the people of Bethlehem.’
‘The first group of people I met as I walked through the Church were a group of maybe ten men in their twenties on security duty huddled around a small pan filled with a green broth. They held up a spoon and offered me some of the liquid and pointed to the trees inside the Franciscan courtyard. The soup was made from the leaves of the lemon trees and oil used to light the lamps.’ Even that they were only eating once every three days. The food the group had brought in only lasted another four days. Jacquie says, ‘Almost everyone had lost between 20 and 40 pounds.’
‘There were all kinds of men,’ she recalls. ‘Students, a pharmacist, a cook – but the majority were Palestinian police, some were even security guards for the Church. They were not the faceless terrorists that Israel and the media would have us believe; they couldn’t stop speaking about returning to their families. They were not extraordinary men.’
When the internationals asked why those who weren’t wanted as militants didn’t leave, they discovered that the Israeli army had refused to provide any list of the ‘wanted’ – and though only 13 out of 160 were militants all had been given an ultimatum of facing arrest or death. ‘As the chief negotiator for the Palestinians said: “Anyone who believes in a Palestinian state is wanted by the Israelis. Every Palestinian is wanted.”’
‘At night we would sit and talk endlessly, and you could feel that these were men who had never been listened to and so wanted to tell you everything. Almost all had been to Israeli prison for months or years and brutally tortured.’
The 1,600-year-old Church of the Nativity is one of the most beautiful in the world. But it was cold and damp inside. ‘Most of the men, too weak to walk, spent their days huddled in blankets along the sides of the main basilica and many contracted pneumonia.’ Jacquie and the other internationals were put in the grotto to sleep – thought to be the location of the manger where Christ was born – as it was the safest part of the Church, away from sniper bullets.
‘The second morning we were there a man was killed by an Israeli sniper. Only the night before we had stayed up talking to him and he had lent his kaffia to one of the other internationals to keep her warm. In the morning he had been hanging out his laundry and shaving his beard, hopeful that a solution to the siege was at hand and that he would soon see his wife and 10 children. I remember seeing him carried from the courtyard where the small well was into the main basilica. He was shot in the lung and we watched him gasp for air as he drowned in his own blood. His arms were outstretched underneath the main altar and an old man held his hand and alternately pressed it up against his forehead and kissed his palm.’
The 23 hours of unique footage she filmed represent, she claims, ‘an historical document that would provide invaluable insight into the event – the true humanitarian conditions inside the Church, for example. Many of the images would be incredibly damning to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). For instance, I filmed the shooting of the man inside the Church. The footage makes it clear that he was not attacking the IDF, he didn’t even have a gun at the time he was shot. This directly contradicts the IDF version of events, which claimed that he was firing at the Israelis when he was shot. I also documented the damage to the Church, including where the two fires occurred. The glass inside and the path of bullet holes also contradict the Israeli claim that the Palestinians started the fire. It is clear that the Church was shot at from the outside.’
As the siege ended and Jacquie was dragged from the Church the Israeli army seized two of her tapes. She had concealed five more tapes in the Church which were also discovered and taken. The Israeli army then gave selected excerpts of it to the BBC for a Correspondent programme ‘The Siege of Bethlehem’, and US public television network PBS. She says, ‘They excerpted footage out of context and manipulated it to suit their view of the siege, avoiding the use of the key footage that provided critical insight into the events, or the people inside. The wilful collaboration of the BBC and PBS with the Israeli army is a dangerous precedent.’ There are 12 more tapes she gave to a member of the Church clergy who was also trapped in the siege. Caught in the crossfire of a delicate political situation the cleric has refused to return them.
‘I am hoping,’ confesses Jacquie, ‘that there will be enough pressure for these historical documents that they will be returned.’
Jacquie Soohen talked with Katharine Ainger