By Stephen McKinley
At least two Irish nationals were present in Bethlehem last week, during some of the most serious violence in the Middle East, in years. Both Mary Kelly and John McSweeney were in the West Bank in support of the Palestinians, whom, they said, were suffering some of the worst violence from the Isr’li Defense Force in recent years.
The Isr’li action was triggered by increasingly successful Palestinian suicide bomb attacks in recent weeks, prompting the government of Ariel Sharon to send troops on a broad front throughout the West Bank, searching for terrorists and their leaders.
In Bethlehem, one of the holiest Christian sites, conflicting stories indicated that Palestinians had taken refuge in the Church of the Nativity, and were quickly surrounded by Isr’li troops. The superior firepower of the Isr’lis kept the church under siege.
It was believed that inside the church were nuns, monks, civilians including women and children, and Palestinian fighters.
John McSweeney, a student from Ireland at university in Manchester, made his allegiances clear in an interview with the Echo.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
“What’s happening to the Palestinians is an injustice similar to the injustice of the British against the Irish,” he said. “What Isr’l is doing now is similar to what the British did to the Irish, even down to the methods being used”
“We’ve been here five days. I came in support of the Palestinians, because they’re being denied their fundamental human rights.”
McSweeney, in his 20s, described his surroundings where he was staying, in a refugee camp in Bethlehem.
“There are 1,500 people crammed into 200 square meters, houses on top of houses, no more than a mere room each per family”
“There’s plenty of food. But there is an illegal Isr’li settlement overlooking our camp, and it has all the most modern conveniences.”
He said that the contrast in living conditions was particularly galling to him.
“What Isr’l is doing here is oppression, pure and simple,” he said. “I don’t think Sharon is interested in peace.”
He said that he fully understood the Palestinian position, saying that if people were under pressure enough, they would fight back with whatever means they had, including suicide attacks.
Also in Bethlehem was Mary Kelly, a nurse and human rights activist, and member of the Atlantis Foundation.
Kelly was in the noisy lobby of the Star Hotel in Bethlehem when she spoke to the Echo lasty Friday.
“Nativity Church is under siege,” she said. “Isr’li soldiers tear-gassed members of the press yesterday. We are going to do a hunger strike tomorrow in support of the Palestinians.”
“I see no justice for the Isr’li action. This is not how you fight terror. For example, attacking women and children and little girls is not going to stop terrorist attacks.”
She also said that the Palestinian population “would resist in any way it can.”
Kelly’s interest in causes such as the Palestinian one has been known for many years, and she has campaigned for a range of human-rights issues. Last week’s Sunday Independent dismissed her as having “gained near-iconic status as a traveling Irish conscience in various troublespots.”
She said that her interest in the most recent events in the Middle East was sparked by reports that pregnant Palestinian women were being mistreated by Isr’li soldiers at gunpoint.
Kelly, who is in her 40s, was in Bethlehem for the actual invasion by armored carriers and tanks.
“Jesus, it was desperate here,” she said. “I appeal to the Irish people. This is a holy city. The Isr’lis are trying to make out that there are gunmen in the Church of the Nativity.”
Both Kelly and McSweeney said they would stay as long as they could to help the Palestinians, although they both added that this meant probably another week or so in Bethlehem.
Also in the region is Caoimhe Butterly from Cork, believed to be still inside Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat’s compound in Ramallah. Butterly was a former writer for An Phoblacht and is from Cork. She entered Arafat’s compound last week and has since refused to leave, saying that she is tending to the wounded.