The biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ is one of the few places on the West Bank that still has a sizeable Christian population, with many of the Christians living in the shadows of the Church of the Nativity, built over the reputed site of the manger. The Palestinian Christians are for the most part multilingual, private-school-educated, and property-owning. They are also victims of their own success, their ranks thinned by generations of emigration to the Americas and Europe. They fret less about the Israelis at their doorstep than the growing population of Muslims, who have become the majority in Bethlehem after being displaced in the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel. The old Christian businessmen zealously guard their right to ban Muslims from their private club where they retreat to drink alcohol and play bingo. The Palestinian Christian translator, Samir Zedan, who is one of many fascinating presences in this book, tells Hammer he would rather his son marry an Israeli Jew than a Palestinian Muslim. Many grumble openly that Bethlehem was better off under the Israeli occupation than under Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian self-rule. For the Palestinian Christians, Hammer writes, “the game was about survival, about negotiating a path of least resistance between the Israelis on one side, Muslims on the other.”
At the other extreme of Palestinian society is the extended Abayat family, descendants of nomadic Bedouin who have established roots around Bethlehem. Thugs and car thieves in the eyes of Bethlehem society, the Abayats were elevated to the top of the heap with the coming of the second Intifada, the uprising against Israel that began in 2000. As leaders of the al Aqsa “Martyrs Brigade,” they swagger through Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity with their M-16s and Kalashnikovs, scaring away Palestinians and tourists alike. They extort money from Christian businessmen. The most compelling portrait in the book is of militia leader Atef Abayat, a James Dean-type with a shock of hair over his forehead and an L&M filter cigarette dangling from his lips. Abayat is a self-styled godfather, who can be homicidal one moment and sweetly generous the next. Hammer depicts a man who spends hours at his rooftop aviary with a collection of doves, canaries, finches, and lovebirds, cleaning their cages, clipping their wings, and even singing to them. Yet in a particularly chilling scene, Abayat plays a card game in which the loser is obliged to kill an Israeli soldier. When Abayat loses the game, he walks calmly to a rooftop overlooking a nearby Jewish shrine and pumps two bullets into the chest of a 19-year-old private walking back to his compound.
Bethlehem is one of the weirder places on the planet. The gloomy churches, the religious kitsch in the souvenir shops, the storybook quality of the name and the underlying tragedy of the Israel-Palestinian conflict all make Bethlehem a popular dateline for foreign correspondents. The city is located just outside of Jerusalem, which has one of the biggest number of foreign correspondents in the world. As a result, it is hard to find any Bethlehem resident who hasn’t been interviewed by a journalist. But somehow Hammer, the Newsweek correspondent in Jerusalem, has gotten deeper into place than anyone else. He seems never to cease chipping away at the layers of faade. This is a world drawn in many nuanced shades of gray, where one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Hammer refrains from making judgment calls about right and wrong and is honest enough to admit he often cannot tell the difference. “I found myself whipsawed back and forth in my reactions,” he writes. “Talking to Israeli soldiers and civilians, I could fully understand their anger and frustration But whenever I traveled to Bethlehem or other cities in the West Bank and felt the sullen rage and despondency of people shut indoors for days on end, or talked to family members of innocent civilians who had been shot dead for violating curfews, I was yanked back in the other direction.”
The last third of the book is devoted to the 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in April and May of 2002. It is a grand finale in which the worlds of the Muslims and Christians collide in the epic setting of the basilica. With the Israeli army in hot pursuit, the bedraggled Palestinian guerrillas take refuge amid the ancient limestone columns and gilded icons, using crates of new church bells sent by the Pope to block the doors. At the very end, Hammer goes to Spain to follow the Palestinian guerrilla leader into exile as part of a deal brokered by the European Union to end the siege. This is Ibrahim Abayat, who becomes commander of the “Martyrs’ Brigade” after Atef Abayat is assassinated by the Israelis. By now, we’re familiar with Ibrahim; he, in fact, was the Abayat who was responsible for the honor killing of his cousin, a mother of six, and of countless killings of Israelis. In an ironic ending after the death of so many, the murderous Ibrahim ends up in cushy exile in a hunting lodge as a guest of the Spanish government, chain-smoking Marlboros and watching the continuing drama of the Intifada on television.
Barbara Demick was The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jerusalem correspondent for four years. She is now Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.