The Malta Independent 18 May 2021, Tuesday

In defence of the Palestinians

Noel Grima Tuesday, 23 March 2021, 13:16 Last update: about 3 months ago

Bethlehem: Fil-qtieh il-qalb it-tama. Author: Joe Mifsud. Publisher: Moviment Ewro-Mediterranju / 2009. Pages: 156pp

Twelve years ago, the author was an up-and-coming journalist, who had already made a name for himself among the new Labour Party media with a string of books to his name, mainly on partisan issues.

He and Joseph Muscat formed a team and Dr Mifsud was, if anything, the better-known of the two.

Even then, he had already ventured into international politics with a special predilection for the Palestinian side in the thorny Middle East scenario.


In this, he had established a close alliance with Guido de Marco who was Foreign Minister at the time, destined to become President of the Republic.

Dr Mifsud has now moved on, became a lawyer and is a magistrate.

Somehow this slim book had fallen to the bottom of the pile awaiting reviewing but this is not a bad thing after all for it affords a longer view of what is said in it in view of later developments.

Essentially, the book tells of a voyage, among the many carried out by the author to the West Bank, together with Bishop (today Cardinal) Mario Grech and a television team to record a Bla Agenda series from Bethlehem in November 2006.

This account includes parts of homilies by Grech at various places with Biblical background.

Next the author goes back to December 1999 and the state visit by President de Marco to Israel and the West Bank. De Marco turned the usual procedure rather upside down for the delegation; first he visited Bethlehem and only later Israel. But that was because the President of Malta had been invited by Yasser Arafat to the midnight Mass at Bethlehem along with then prime ministers Massimo d'Alema (Italy) and Jose Maria Aznar (Spain).

Contrary to what is done today, de Marco took a whole media delegation with him. One of them was Fr Joe Borg from Media Centre and when the authorities did not want to accept the group inside the church, he managed to slip through telling the guards he was the President's "chaplain". Dr Mifsud claimed he was the President's security official and got in too.

This visit fell between the first and the second Intifada and the situation was already quite tense.

In March 2000, the author was back, this time to report on the visit by Pope John Paul II. The ageing Pope was already severely debilitated but struggled through the strenuous programme and a number of his speeches are included in the book.

The next papal visit was that by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2009. Again, many speeches are included.

The second Intifada began towards the end of September 2000 and was bloodier. Between April and May, around 300 Palestinians, including security officials and militants entered the Basilica of the Nativity and for 39 days lived with the priests and nuns while the basilica was besieged by Israeli forces.

Among those who sought refuge there were militants from Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, some with arms in their hands.

Dr Mifsud seems oblivious to what this invasion in time of war means and insists above all on the right of sanctuary which churches must observe.

There was in this case no end to attempts at mediation by some Maltese such as Franciscan Gwann Abela as well as President Dr Marco. One day when the Palestinian fighters were about to attempt to break out, a priest got a phone call from Pope John Paul who expressed support.

The dangerous break-out was not carried out and after 39 days of siege, 13 militants, wanted for acts of terror, were sent out of Israel, some others were sent to the Gaza Strip and 250 others were just sent home.

Despite this mediation, the second Intifada continued. In November 2002, a 22-year-old Palestinian blew himself up in a packed bus, killing 11 persons including four children.

The Israeli revenge was immediate - Bethlehem was closed down and nobody allowed in or out. On 10 December Dr Mifsud, accompanied this time by fellow (at that time) politicians and today fellow members of the judiciary Toni Abela and Wenzu Mintoff, went to see the situation at close quarters. Dr Mifsud was carrying a number of messages by President de Marco to significant persons among the Palestinians, especially Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli army had already attacked the Arafat headquarters in Ramallah leaving just the building where Arafat lived.

Despite everyone telling him he would not succeed to meet Arafat, Dr Mifsud persisted and at last was allowed to pass through the rubble which used to be Arafat's HQ and meet the ancient leader and give him de Marco's message.

He thought he would not be allowed to visit Bethlehem which was under curfew but a chance encounter with the Lutheran bishop of Jerusalem enabled him (and presumably his two companions) to drive to Bethlehem in the bishop's official car.

The town was shuttered with everyone staying inside and even the religious buildings were closed. But at least the group could say it entered Bethlehem despite the state of siege.

The book also contains a number of appendices including a number of UN resolutions as well as a lovely and detailed description by Pope John Paul II of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land he and a number of Polish bishops had undertaken while the Vatican Council was still meeting and before Pope Paul VI's historic visit.

Lastly, the book includes the proceedings of the Maltese Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, presided by Jason Azzopardi with Dr Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician in October 2006.

Enough time has now passed from those dramatic days to try and get a better perspective. The two states theory is now dead and buried. The wall separating Israelis from Arabs is now complete and to get anywhere on the other side of the wall takes long hours and sometimes is blocked.

On the other side the Wall keeps Israel safe from terrorist attacks but on the other hand the land the Palestinians claim is theirs is now riven by the Wall and the numerous Israeli settlements. The Palestinians are very much an underdog as can be seen by the queues at checkpoints and the daily tribulations of a subject people. On the other hand, many in the West Bank find employment with Israeli firms.

Yet there is peace in Israel and bar a resumption of hostilities, living in Israel is safe and even enjoyable.

It is curious but at the same time telling that the author focuses on Bethlehem rather than on Jerusalem which is more complex for three world religions.

One last thing, on page 34 the author carries a picture of Rami, whose daughter was killed in a Palestinian suicide attack. Rami is one of two fathers who are the protagonists of a recent novel with an impossible name, Apeirogon, which I will be reviewing in the coming weeks.


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