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Most of Them Don’t Have Any Bullets

December 26, 2008 Bethlehem, Christmas Eve. I’m at the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square with Tariq, trying to get into midnight mass. We’re pushing and being pushed. Tariq has a big film camera and a Barbie-pink press card … Read More

By / March 16, 2009
December 26, 2008
Bethlehem, Christmas Eve. I’m at the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square with Tariq, trying to get into midnight mass. We’re pushing and being pushed. Tariq has a big film camera and a Barbie-pink press card he got from God knows where. All evening we’ve driven round the town, a simple route made circuitous by roadblocks, and he’s flashed the press card, and mostly the soldiers have let us through.

I have never seen so much hardware in my life – feel like I should be packing myself. There are vans of soldiers in camouflage, police on every corner, some in blue, others in green with black woollen headgear, pulled down to their eyes and up over their mouths, keeping out the cold.

At the entrance to the church nervous men in suits talk into their jackets and have curly white wires coming out of the back of their heads. Then there’s us, and about a million awestruck tourists from all over the world.

People from Bethlehem don’t really come here for midnight mass, says Tariq, although they’d like to. You need a ticket to get in, and those are hard to get – unless you’re a visitor or a politician, like the Palestinian president Abu Mazen, who’s coming here tonight. But Tariq got tickets earlier today, and he pushes me ahead of him, waving them at officials who are holding back the crowd.

In the church lobby it’s kind of frenzied, with a step-through metal detector, like an airport check-in speeded up with guns. ‘No photos,’ a security man says, and Tariq has to hand his camera in. He gets into an argument with one of the guards, and I stand there trying to look relaxed, thinking, Christ, just one bullet and there’d be a Rambo-style shootout in this place.

‘Don’t worry,’ says Tariq, looking at me. ‘Most of them don’t have any – how do you call them?’

‘Bullets?’

‘Yeah – most of them don’t have any bullets. It’s not like you think.’ He goes back to arguing with the guard.

I look down and see a little guy with a moustache sitting in a chair. He’s one of a cluster of officials, just kind of hanging around. He has on a navy flying jacket and holds a metal detector in his hand, which he keeps running over his arm-pocket zip and giggling as he sets it off. He tries it out on the buttons, and it goes off again. I catch his eye and giggle. His superior barks out something stern, but stifles a smile as he turns his head away.

The service is packed so we stand in the corridor, which is lined with bodyguards sweating into their suits. Tall men in dark overcoats pace about. Each politician or important person has his own security detail, Tariq says, and there are some here to protect the priests.

A wave of people pushes forwards. ‘Back! Back! Get back! Do you understand English? Get back!’ shouts one of the overcoated men, pushing us up against the wall, and a troop of black berets marches someone down the corridor, hurrying him through a side-door, which is then slammed shut. This happens several times. Each time a different man and a different style of uniform.

Abu Mazen arrives. He’s feet away, walking smartly, with snow-white hair. His men rush him into the room and slam the door. Minutes later it opens again and the Palestinian president is hustled past us, into the service at the heart of the church.

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