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Book Reviewed:

A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy War in a Sacred Place
Joshua Hammer
Free Press
Hardcover; 287 pages; $24.00 U.S./$38.00 CAN
ISBN 0-7432-4413-3

This book can be ordered at Amazon.com. Canadian readers can purchase the book through Amazon.ca.

Reviewed by Paula E. Kirman. This review was originally published in the Edmonton Journal, January 4, 2004. Reprinted with permission from Paula E. Kirman and the Edmonton Journal.

You can read the Edmonton Journal online. Internet subscriptions to the Edmonton Journal are also available.

When Palestinian terrorists made their siege on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - one of Christianity's most holy sites in Israel - the entire world was watching. Television news crews camped out around the area, and journalists from a variety of publications filed blow-by-blow reports during those 39 days in 2002.

Joshua Hammer was one of those journalists assigned to cover the situation. The Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek, Hammer had been for some time delving into the dangerous world of underground organized Palestinian networks, which often plan and act out suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism against Israel, or at least recruit those who do.

A Season in Bethlehem is a comprehensive look at one particular span of time in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through the eyes of those who lived through it - namely, people on the Israeli government's most-wanted list who were holed up in the Church of the Nativity (along with a few innocent bystanders who ran into the church to escape the violence). Hammer describes the drama, often using first-person interviews, as the Israeli armed forced stood guard outside, and food rations and morale dwindled inside. He also provides background into the lives of the key people involved, providing background into the build-up on tension that led to the siege.

Although he attempts to write with a journalist's objectivity, it becomes apparent very early on in the book that Hammer has pro-Palestinian sympathies. Which is not necessarily a bad thing - Hammer puts human faces on the suffering of the average Palestinian in the Israeli-occupied areas, an all too real situation with blame laying on both sides of the conflict. To that end, Hammer does present some balance in perspective, shooting arrows at both Arafat and Sharon.

What Hammer also does is put human faces on some of the worst criminals on the Palestinian side - ones who plot to destroy the nation of Israel, but who in turn make things worse for their own people by forcing Israel to clamp down on the Palestinians in a vain effort to prevent further terrorism. After reading the detailed biographies of these men and what they are capable of (and, in fact, what they have already done), one can alternately end up feeling sorry for the Israelis, by realizing what they have to live in fear of on a daily basis.

If Hammer intended to portray these men as freedom fighters or martyrs, he only succeeded insomuch as to show them as human beings with strengths, weaknesses, and passions. They are part of a generation with a hatred of Israel, who have organized themselves to act independently and ignore the leadership of both Arafat and the government of Israel.

The siege on the Church of the Nativity was such a central focus point in the Middle East conflict because it involved all three major faith groups in the Holy Land coming to a head: Israeli versus Palestinian in a Christian setting. It is impossible to simply be a bystander without emotion entering the equation. A Season in Bethlehem is not impartial, but it is as close to being there as anyone could dare to come.

Paula E. Kirman is a freelance writer, editor, photographer, and website designer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.