Although millions of people around the world watched Bethlehem’s millennial celebration on CNN, those not present on the scene missed some interesting background details. The event was held in an open square surrounded by five-story buildings, and by 10 PM, tens of thousands of people had crammed into the square. As we waited for the festivities to begin, a large, 20-foot high, bright neon sign flashed out the message: “The Municipality of Bethlehem Welcomes His Excellency President Yasser Arafat.” I wish they would make up their minds: Is he king or president?
The assembled onlookers eagerly anticipated the “release” of the 2,000 doves at the stroke of midnight. Just before midnight we noticed a lot of commotion on the roof of one of the buildings. Then, at exactly 12 AM, several uniformed Palestinian Authority (PA) soldiers threw several hundred startled birds from the roof. I use the term “threw” because there is no way that what happened could be characterized as a “release.” Doves are not nocturnal animals; they usually spend their nights sleeping. Representatives of the PA, in their infinite wisdom, had practiced this event the night before, and upon discovering that doves will not fly at night, they came up with the brilliant idea of throwing them from the roof. What followed was a terrifying scene; hundreds of disoriented birds flew around the square in a helter-skelter fashion. The horrified birds were beating their wings frantically in panic. At this moment, the PA released a barrage of fireworks directly into the swarm of terrified birds. I personally witnessed about a half-dozen birds falling to the ground near my feet, where they were subsequently trampled by the surging crowd. Some fell to the ground immediately after being thrown from the roof, while others flew straight into walls and then fell, broken and suffering. After watching this carnage for a few minutes, I realized that there was a good reason why less than 2,000 birds had been released: many must have been casualties of the previous night’s practice session. I felt a deep pang of pity for the birds, whose violent end was determined, ironically, by their value as symbols of peace and freedom. Unfortunately, the doves had been captured and used by those who understood and respected neither. I voiced this sardonic observation to some Bethlehem residents, who responded, “The PA doesn’t respect its own people. Why do you expect them to respect a few pigeons?”
As injured doves continued to rain down upon the crowd, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blared from several huge speakers surrounding the square. I could not see what connection linked Beethoven to Bethlehem, other than the first syllable of the two names. But, aside from that, I wondered what we were supposed to be so joyous about. Were we to celebrate a year in which another 100,000 Iraqi civilians perished as a result of sanctions and unauthorized bombings? A year in which dozens of schoolchildren were maimed in Lebanon? A year that saw Palestinian homes demolished at an unprecedented rate?
Although the fireworks were quite spectacular, in the end they were nothing more than a grandiose gesture lacking any real impact. The analogy with our own impotent leadership, which, despite so much fanfare, has not yet managed to free a single grain of Palestinian soil, was inescapable. As I left the square at 4 AM, I saw garbage collectors by busily sweeping away the martyred birds along with the discarded candy wrappers and broken whiskey bottles of the New Year’s Eve festivities. I could not help wondering if this is to be the fate of our intifada.