A Connecticut woman trapped inside a Palestinian refugee settlement in Bethlehem Thursday described rapidly deteriorating living conditions, with shortages of fresh food, electrical outages and the absence of medical care reaching dangerous levels - all underscored by the sounds of war.
Gale Courey Toensing, a resident of Canaan in Litchfield County and a nonviolence activist who arrived in Israel last week, has been hemmed in for days in a virtual battle zone.
"It's cold at night because the electricity is usually shut off, there are children with pneumonia and other sicknesses who can't get medical care, and the walls rock with mortar explosions and gunfire all the time," she said by cellphone during the day. "I came over here to get a look and a firsthand lesson in how the Israeli occupation is affecting ordinary Palestinians, and boy am I getting that lesson."
Toensing, 56, arrived in Israel on March 28 as part of an 80-member delegation of observers sponsored by the International Solidarity Movement, a group of global activists who oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by conducting nonviolent marches and protests. Toensing is the wife of Craig Toensing, the chairman of the Connecticut State Board of Education. She is an American citizen of Palestinian and Lebanese descent who became interested in the West Bank conflict after studying Palestinian poetry while pursuing a master's degree three years ago.
On Sunday, Toensing was trapped in the Aida Palestinian refugee settlement while visiting the community to observe living conditions among its 4,000 residents. The settlement is a labyrinthine collection of mud-and-cinder-block homes on the southeast side of Bethlehem.
When Israeli tanks circled the Aida neighborhood and began blocking all arrivals and departures by its residents, Toensing said, she and eight other members of her solidarity delegation were advised that it was not safe to travel outside the walls of the settlement and moved in with Palestinian families for safety.
Thursday, she described a nightmarish existence of living within a violent militarized zone created by the Israeli army's occupation of the West Bank in response to suicide bombings in Israel. Toensing said that because Israeli army tanks block all roads into the settlement, and Israeli snipers in the high-rise Inter-Continental Hotel nearby shoot at civilians approaching the perimeter of the settlement, Palestinian residents are virtually imprisoned.
Toensing's first two days in Israel, when she crossed Israeli checkpoints into the West Bank and then spent a day receiving training in nonviolent protest methods, were relatively uneventful. After checking into the Bethlehem Star Hotel, Toensing decided to join a two-day series of marches from the center of Bethlehem to the nearby village of Beit Jala to publicize the blocking of roads by Israeli forces. While marching the first day, Toensing and her fellow activists witnessed Israeli tanks circling Bethlehem and tightening their grip on critical West Bank crossing points.
"That experience was actually quite fascinating because I quickly got an education in how information travels across an occupied land," Toensing said. "Everyone has cellphones. As soon as the tanks roll across a major road, the Palestinians all start calling each other, and each family and village has these elaborate phone-trees set up. If there's shelling 5 miles away, you know it within a few minutes and can either reroute your car or walk in another direction."
Toensing and her group managed to safely return to the Bethlehem Star after their march, but they weren't as fortunate the next day. Israeli tanks blocked the route of their return march toward Beit Jala and, Toensing said, Israeli troops began shooting in front of their path to stop the activists from approaching the army position.
"Two members of our group, a Nigerian man and an American woman, were injured by shrapnel and ricocheting bullets, and it was all we could do just getting them back to safety and medical treatment," Toensing said.
Toensing said that she has "never watched so much television in my life" because all she can do most days is huddle in the safety of her host family's modest home in the Aida settlement. Movement between houses and a community center where Toensing frequently visits is relatively safe, she said, but certain areas within the settlement are quite dangerous.
"There's one particular corner where for about 15 feet a pedestrian is visible to the top floors of the Inter-Continental Hotel," Toensing said. "My host family has told me to be very careful and really dash across that space very fast, because the Israeli soldiers are shooting at anything that moves."
Toensing says that her host family and Palestinian leaders in the settlement have told her that at least 10 residents of Aida have been killed this year, usually following Israeli army incursions into the settlement during which soldiers are conducting searches or razing the homes of suspected terrorists.
The war's impact on Palestinian children has affected her the most, Toensing said.
"I'm an American, from rural Connecticut, and I jump every time there's another artillery explosion or machine gun fire," Toensing said. "But the Palestinian children are so used to this by now that they don't even flinch. Gunfire around the edges of the community seems normal to them."
Toensing said that she "appreciates Israel's need to assure its security," and that she feels American media have tried to present both sides of the conflict. But the experience of being trapped in a refugee settlement has convinced her that the unique situation and motivation of Palestinians is hard to divine from a distance. In the last few days, through Palestinians she has met at Aida, Toensing has been in touch with a few of the men holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which has been surrounded by Israeli tanks and security forces.
"As soon as the men of the settlement heard on their cellphones that the Israeli tanks were rolling into the West Bank, they headed directly into Bethlehem," Toensing said. "During earlier invasions of the settlement by Israeli forces, all the young men were rounded up and jailed as suspected terrorists. So, they all headed for Bethlehem over the weekend and then got trapped by the closing of the streets. Many of them are in the Church of the Nativity because it was the only safe place to go."
Toensing originally planned to leave Israel on April 12, but said that she now "has no idea" how or when she'll be able to leave. She will celebrate her birthday on Sunday, when her host family has promised to throw her a party. Attempts by other members of her Solidarity Movement group to reach the relative safety of Israel, on convoys arranged by the American Embassy in Israel, have so far proved unsuccessful.
Toensing has a son, aged 17, and a daughter, 33, and has spoken with her family in Canaan's Falls Village section by cellphone since she was trapped in the Aida settlement.
"We are all very worried about Gale's safety," her husband said on Thursday afternoon. "But we respect her passion for social justice and civil rights and we understand why she is there."
"I came to the West Bank as someone committed to nonviolent resolution of conflict," Toensing said. "And I am still committed to that. But this visit with the Palestinian people has also taught me how people can be terrorized into despair. Suicide bombings are an act of desperation, but now I have seen for myself where that desperation comes from."
Copyright © 2002 by The Hartford Courant