The narrator of PBS Frontline’s The Siege of Bethlehem — a film documenting the thirty-nine day standoff between armed Palestinian factions inside the Church of Nativity and the Israel Defense Forces in 2002 during the Second Intifada— declares that as the standoff neared its end, the IDF changed strategies. Instead of the “conciliation and trust-building” tactic, the army would be going for “a more hard-line approach” the narrator says. But this really raises the question: what exactly is meant by conciliation and trust-building if it leaves eight Palestinians dead?
The strategy shift follows an incident in which the IDF shoots “pyrotechnics,”or explosives not intended to kill but to wage psychological warfare, on the holed-up militants.
But the explosives do not adhere to “conciliation and trust-building,” and one hits the church, starting a fire in where the Palestinian militants and civilians remain.
Maybe the narrator is referring to a covert, doublethink strategy called “Operation Conciliation and Trust-Building”?
Turns out that is not the case.
The siege of Bethlehem was the culmination of Operation Defensive Shield, a military campaign Israel waged on the West Bank beginning in March 2002. More than 20,000 IDF soldiers invaded West Bank cities like Ramallah and Jenin, both as retribution for a series of devastating attacks on Israelis and to quell Palestinian resistance to the occupation at the height of the Second Intifada.
When soldiers reached occupied Bethlehem on April 2nd, some 200 Palestinian militants and civilians took shelter in the Church of the Nativity and the impasse began. The historic episode is the subject of the Palestinian production of “The Siege” performed by the Jenin Freedom Theatre, which is currently showing in New York to much fanfare.
At an event called “The Other Side of the Siege,” NYU’s Taub Center for Israel Studies screened the PBS documentary for the forty-five people or so that showed up. IDF Colonel (res.) Lior Lotan, the chief Israeli negotiator during the siege and the film’s main character, followed the screening with an hour-long elaboration of events.
During the brief intermission between screening and talk, two men in the back row could be overheard realizing they both had tickets to the Jenin Freedom Theatre production, two blocks away. Not wanting to be late, they slipped out of the room just as Lotan stepped up to the podium.
He began with a joke, off the film’s final scene, in which Lotan mediates between an Orthodox monk, a Franciscan monk and Armenian monk over who will be the first to re-enter the church.
“I believe the director is not Jewish because he would have known [after] negotiating all your relatives at a Seder, who will sit next to who– he would understand that dealing with these monks and priests is…a very simple task!”
The audience, or at least those who laughed, now grounded in their collective Judaism and implied Zionism, listened to the expert negotiator extol the measured practices of the IDF in contrast to the illogical Palestinian militants.
Echoing the film, which showed the bright, young Israeli soldiers steadfast to the zero hour, Lotan explained that understanding your enemy’s point of view is fundamental to negotiation.
“Perception is a tricky thing when you try to understand someone from another culture, other religions or other political views,” he said, clicking to the next powerpoint slide.
It shows an image of children holding guns, allegedly Palestinian children in Gaza despite an absence of identifying factors. Lotan said they are playing a game of hostage.
He contrasted the culture of war to that of Israelis, to whom army service is a mandatory duty with the ultimate outcome of connecting the citizen to the nation.
“But for them, for these kids.” Lotan said, without a hint of cognizance, “this is heroism. This is kidnapping a soldier of the enemy and holding him without any purpose.”
Much of the audience was old and white, and only made older and whiter during the rest of Lotan’s accompanying powerpoint presentation, with its stock images and shoddy graphs.
Lotan is a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary center in Herzliya, where he founded the counter-terrorism institute, and he is a venture capitalist who specializes in Israeli technology. Thus, the powerpoint was an odd choice.
A half-hour into his talk, the crowd had dwindled to about 30 people, at least one of whom was asleep.
At the end of the colonel’s talk, a friend of Mondoweiss who was in attendance asked Lotan if he had seen the Freedom Theatre’s performance of “The Siege”. The play, which depicts the siege of Bethlehem from the point of view of the Palestinians, began showing on October 12 for a ten-day run at NYU’s Skirball Center, just two blocks away.
According to that friend, Lotan said that he went to the play on opening night.
“He characterized it as a portrait of six ‘very young men’ mostly concerned with the problems in their own lives and how to solve them. It did illustrate, he said, that the people most involved in such a situation had little agency and that the end of their immediate ordeal was decided from above (a theme he had stressed in his own story). He had clearly stayed for the post-performance panel discussion as he mentioned that the ‘director’… said he condensed the stories of many into only six characters for the stage. This, [Lotan] said, was ‘art’ and was distinct from the ‘reality’ of the larger world — his subject.”
The film and discussion with Lotan simply proves the need for the Freedom Theatre’s play to reach a wide audience.
As shown by the documentary, Israeli forces controlled the media on the ground entirely. The negotiation team was also a public relations team, deciding what reporters and camera operators saw, who they spoke to and more importantly, choosing when and when not to provide media access.
To hear Lotan tell the same story fifteen years later proves that Israel intends to control the narrative forever.
Except that Sunday night, very few people were listening.