ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Caught in the Middle

The Matar family of Beit Jala experiences firsthand the horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When valedictorian Kristie Matar addressed her graduating class at St. Joseph’s High School in Bethlehem and quoted President Kennedy – “don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – her father knew he had made the right decision in moving back home.

Born into the Matar clan in Beit Jala, a quiet village of 12,350 in the shadow of Bethlehem, George had migrated to the United States in 1967, shortly after the Six-Day War. There he worked for 20 years in construction and married a beautiful Bethlehem woman, Amy Daboub; they had four daughters. George and Amy dreamed of returning to Palestine to live among their extended family and friends, saving their money for a home in Beit Jala, where “the Matars have lived forever.” In 1989 George and Amy returned to their ancestral homeland, to the living Christian community around the holy places.

George and Amy built a new house, a comfortable two-floor home for their expanding family: two boys and another girl were born in Palestine; Grandma moved in later. Since George worked in maintenance and construction in the neighboring Jewish settlement of Gilo, he did the plastering, plumbing and electrical work himself. Seizing opportunities comes naturally to Amy as well as George, so an extra downstairs kitchen was designed for the pizza business she had planned.

With five of the seven children in school, Amy keeps in touch with their teachers, frequently participating in school and church events, both in their own Orthodox parish and among Catholics in Bethlehem.

Although George never attended high school, while in the States he realized the importance of education and vowed that his children would go to college. Kristie has completed two years at Bethlehem University. Dina, 18, and Tanya, 17, graduate this May from St. Joseph’s and are awaiting college acceptance letters. Eighth-grader Robin has her eyes on the stars and a career in astronomy. Nine-year-old Zachary and first-grader Priscilla attend the Rosary Sister’s school in Beit Jala. At home a sign on the wall reads, “English only spoken here.” The children are raised to cherish their Palestinian heritage, but also to understand the value of their knowledge of English, already three-year-old Mark’s mother tongue.

George himself is an intelligent and articulate man. Fluent in Hebrew due to his work with Jewish settlers in Gilo, he loves to read to his children the Old Testament in its original language.

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

Nicola and wife Amal have a two-year-old, Selena. Ra’ed’s job in maintenance at Bethlehem University earned enough for him to marry Reem in September 2000. According to Palestinian custom, they have begun construction on a third-floor apartment above his parents and brother, taking out a substantial loan in order to do so.

The lives of both households are so intertwined and the familial friendships so close that without the proverbial scorecard a visitor might not know who belonged to whom. On the upper balconies of either house, as the Matars look out over the peaceful valley, joys and sorrows are shared, as are the traditional barbecues of lamb or chicken shishlik, with luscious Beit Jala apricots for dessert.

So George and Amy knew they had made the right decisions the day Kristie called upon her classmates to strive generously in the building of their new Palestine.

Yes, there were inconveniences and indignities imposed by the Israeli occupation, but the Matars had learned to cope. Their years of saving and planning in the U.S. opened new opportunities for their seven children in Palestine.

The entire district was gearing up for “Bethlehem 2000,” the bimillennial celebration of the birth of Jesus. With help from donor countries, streets were repaved and beautified, new hotels were built for the anticipated flood of pilgrims, work was plentiful and a new prosperity was in the making. The peace process, in spite of its fits, starts and occasional clashes, seemed to be progressing, with a future independent Palestine taken for granted.

Until 15 November.

That night the world crashed down on the Matars. Bullets zinged through the windows of George’s home, pitting the walls he so lovingly plastered. A guided missile destroyed the front door, its frame and part of the wall on the front balcony. Four helicopter rockets smashed through the roof of Elias and Georgette’s home across the street, destroying most of the house and all of Reem’s wedding presents.

Six weeks before, the pent-up frustrations of Palestinians, sparked by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Islam’s third holiest site, the el-Aksa Mosque, exploded in a revolt against the occupation. Palestinian youths threw stones at Israeli police, who responded by killing several and wounding hundreds.

A Palestinian paramilitary movement, the Tanzim, began to shoot at Gilo, a Jewish settlement built on Palestinian land.

From Beit Jala, the Tanzim fired on Gilo from behind the homes of the Matar family. The Israelis retaliated: on 15 November an artillery assault targeted “Matar Street” and other parts of the neighborhood. Hundreds of homes were hit; many were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.

Miraculously, no one on Matar Street was killed. When the shooting began, everyone in George’s house sought cover. After a rocket smashed one wall, all 10 crawled into a “cave,” a shallow, four-foot overhang in a cliff behind the house. That night, they all thought they were going to die.

The Matars emerged the next day, alive and whole, but their dream house was a bullet-riddled disaster. Their cousins also survived, but Georgette lost her voice from the shock and Israeli bullets wounded a Muslim neighbor who tried to help.

George and Amy decided to remain in Beit Jala. CNEWA’s Pontifical Mission staff arrived from Jerusalem, providing funds for emergency repairs. Nicola and Ra’ed began work on restoring their home, also with Pontifical Mission’s help. Life seemed to return to “normal,” although the uprising continued and the local economy nose-dived as pilgrimages were canceled.

Then on the evening of 13 February the shooting began again. George and Amy’s family hid in the cave for a few hours. When it seemed quiet enough they climbed up a ladder into the back window of the kitchen to prepare supper. Suddenly Israeli bullets sprayed their house. The family crawled along the floor to a small room downstairs. When a shell exploded in their cousin’s home across the street and blew out all the remaining windows in their own home, they ran back to the cave for shelter. There was a lot of prayer that night, but once again everyone came through 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 10 more people, so the Palestinian Authority provided them with two rooms in a hotel.

Months later, they still come to their windowless house before dawn so the older girls can study in quiet before the school day begins; before dark, however, the Matars are back at the hotel. Since family income is now nil, college hopes are completely contingent upon scholarship offers. Like all other Palestinian mothers, Amy worries that peer pressure might someday drag Zachary into stone throwing, making him a target for an Israeli sniper.

Across the street, Elias comes every day to look at his gutted house; he is unable to comprehend what has happened. Nicola works part time, but pay is sporadic. Fortunately, Amal’s salary as a physical therapy teacher at Bethlehem University helps, but renting three apartments is costly. Ra’ed still pays for the loan on his apartment, destroyed before it was ever occupied.

“We can’t live without the Israelis, and they can’t live without us,” reflects one family member. “We need to see each other in love, not hatred, but I’m afraid a solution is still very far away.”

George and Amy share these sentiments. They want to stay in Palestine, but what does the future hold for their children?

Update. On Easter Monday we received word that the Matar family house again came under fire. The Matars dove for the floor and crawled their way downstairs as Israeli bullets flew through the house. The family crawled to their cave, where they spent the rest of the day as bullets screamed past them. Spirits again shattered, they were not able to leave until Tuesday morning.

Father Charles Miller, S.M., is CNEWA’s Jerusalem-based Director of Pilgrimages.

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