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A Palestinian family in Beit Jala 
The following is excerpted from an article written by Fr. Charlie Miller, an American priest who has lived in Israel over the years and currently works for the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. (C) 2001 CNEWA
Born into the 35-family Matar clan in Beit Jala, a quiet village of 12,350 in the shadow of Bethlehem, George had migrated to America shortly after the Six-Day War.  There he worked twenty years in construction and married a beautiful Bethlehem girl, Amy Daboub, who bore him four daughters.  George and Amy dreamed of returning to Palestine to be among their extended family and friends, saving their money for a home in Beit Jala, where “the Matars have lived forever”-- that is, probably since at least the 4th century. And so, in 1989 George and Amy returned to their ancestral homeland, to the living Christian community around the holy places.

Living in a village renowned for its harmony among western-oriented Latin Catholics and Greek Orthodox (including the Matar clan) and a few traditional Muslim families, the girls attended Catholic schools in Bethlehem.  George and Amy built a new house, an attractive, comfortable two-story home for their expanding family, as two boys and another girl were born, and Grandma moved in. 

 Across the street is the home of George’s cousins, Nicola and Ra’ed Matar and their wives. With them live the brothers’ retired parents Elias and Georgette, known for her marvelous malateet, a traditional Beit Jala pastry served in Palestinian hospitality with cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee.    In fact, there are so many Matar families that the street is sometimes jokingly called “Matar Street.”  

The lives of both households are so intertwined and the familial friendships so close that without the proverbial score card a visitor might not know who belonged to which.  Joys and sorrows are shared, and as are the traditional barbeques of lamb or chicken shishlik, with famous Beit Jala apricots for dessert, on the upper balconies of either house as the Matars look out over the peaceful valley with the gray-green leaves of its olive groves below twinkling in the evening sunsets.

The entire district was gearing up for “Bethlehem 2000,” the bi-millennial celebration of the birth of Jesus. The Peace Process, in spite of stops and starts and occasional clashes, seemed to be progressing, with a future independent Palestine taken for granted.  

Until November 15, 2000.  That night their world crashed in upon the Matars. Bullets zinged through the windows of George’s home, pitting the walls he had so lovingly plastered. A wire-guided missile blew in the door, its frame and part of the wall on the front balcony   Four rockets from a helicopter overhead smashed through the roof of Elias and Georgette’s home across the street, destroying most of the house and all Reem’s wedding presents. 

By a miracle no one on “Matar Street” was killed.  When the shooting began that night, everyone in George’s house dived for cover.  After the rocket smashed the wall down, all ten were able to crawl out into a small “cave,” a shallow four-foot deep overhang in the cliff behind the house, thinking they would surely die.  Next day they emerged alive and whole, but their dream house was a bullet-riddled disaster.  The cousins also survived, but Georgette lost her voice in shock, and a Muslim neighbor coming to help was himself wounded by Israeli bullets.

In spite of all, George and Amy decided to stay in Beit Jala.  The Pontifical Mission provided emergency funds to repair damage and the  Palestinian Authority promised no more shooting from Beit Jala. Elias and his sons began work on restoring their home, also with Pontifical Mission help. Life seemed to return to “normal,” although the uprising continued and the local economy nose-dived as pilgrimages were cancelled.

Then on the evening of February 13 the shooting began again.  George and Amy’s family hid downstairs in the “cave” until 9:30. When it seemed quiet enough they climbed up a ladder into the back window of the kitchen to get some supper, but Israeli bullets suddenly began spraying their house again. The family crawled along the floor to a small room downstairs.   When a shell exploded in their cousins’ home across the street, blowing out all the remaining windows in their own home, they ran out into the “cave.”  There was a lot of prayer that night, but once again everyone came through alive and unhurt. 

George and Amy decided they could not spend another night on the firing line.  With so many others also homeless, their relatives could not take in ten more people, so the Palestinian Authority assigned them two rooms in a hotel.  Now, a month later, they come to the still windowless house at 5:30 a.m. so the older girls can study in quiet before the school day, but before dark everyone is back at the hotel.  College hopes are now completely contingent upon scholarship offers, since family income is nil.  Like all other Palestinian mothers, Amy worries that peer pressure might someday drag Zachary into stone-throwing against the soldiers, making him a target for an Israeli sniper.

Across the street, Elias comes every day just to look at his gutted and empty house, as though unable to comprehend what has happened.  Nicola works part time, but pay is sporadic- his boss is saving money to leave and doesn’t care about his employees.  Fortunately, Amal’s salary as a physical therapy teacher at Bethlehem University helps carry them over, but renting three apartments now is costly.  Ra’ed still pays on the loan for his unfinished apartment, destroyed before it was ever occupied.

“Doesn’t anybody care about us?”  one hears time and again from the Palestinians, especially from the Christians, only a 2% minority in the Holy Land.  “The Pontifical Mission is the only agency that is helping us Christians.  Where is the rest of the Christian world?”  “Why don’t they speak out to stop this war?”  Or again, “Don’t the Israelis know we are human beings who only want to live and let live?  We can’t live without the Israelis, and they can’t live without us.  We have to have a Palestinian state, yes, but with open borders.  We need to see each other in love, not hatred, but I’m afraid a solution is still very far away.”  George and Amy want to stay, but what does the future offer for their children? 

damage to Matar's home


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Thus says the LORD: "A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children;  she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not."  - Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18

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(c) 2001 Don Schwager