Thursday, December 27, 2007

Remembering Beit Sahour

A lovely article from I hope they will forgive me for reprinting it in its entirety. Their website is well worth a visit.

We, the people of Bayt Sahur, being an integral part of the Palestinian people and its Intifada, refuse to pay taxes to the occupiers of our land, considering such payment to be a symbol of slavery and oppression. We consider the occupation of one people by another to be a clear violation of all international laws and religions, and it is in violation of the most basic human rights and democratic principles. We strongly believe that every citizen has to pay taxes to his national government in order to enable it to perform its duties and obligations. No taxation without representation!

With this leaflet from November 5, 1989, the people of Bayt Sahur (Beit Sahour) announced the beginning of a campaign of civil disobedience centered around the nonpayment of taxes to the Israeli government. Israel, afraid that such resistance would become a model to other villages and towns throughout the Palestinian territories during the first Intifada, responded to their resistance with force.

Bayt Sahur is a largely Christian village in the West Bank with a population of approximately 12,000. Its Christian population hundreds of years, and local legend asserts that it was Bayt Sahurian shepherds to whom the bright star above Bethlehem signaling the birth of Jesus Christ appeared. The reason for this, the legend goes, is that Bayt Sahurians have a legendary reputation for gossip, and God therefore figured the news of Christ's coming would travel quickest if Bayt Sahurians found out first.

Bayt Sahur was the site of perhaps the most organized and effective Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonialism during the first Intifada. Residents of Bayt Sahur quickly concluded that the Intifada was no passing phenomenon and began organizing their own resistance beginning in January, 1988. Initial attempts at a coordinated, regional network failed, but more localized efforts flourished and soon, much of the town was involved in active resistance to Israeli colonialism.

This resistance took the form of popular committees organized by the citizens of Bayt Sahur at the grassroots. These popular committees, lijan sha'biya in Arabic, were the driving force of the Intifada, and established a security force to fight Israeli settlers and the Israeli army. They also organized commerce, medical care, and even judicial affairs. The people of Bayt Sahur did all this at great personal risk, since many of these activities were illegal, and could even result in their death.

Perhaps the most memorable campaign of resistance that occurred in Bayt Sahur during the Intifada was city resident's refusal to pay taxes to the Israeli government. This followed a call by the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU) from February 5, 1988, to conduct "complete civil disobedience" ('isyan muduni shamil) including the nonpayment of taxes. The Israeli response began in July of that year. On July 7th, a curfew was enacted and numerous people were arrested. A sit-down strike was soon organized to demand the release of all those arrested. This, too, was brutally repressed by Israeli authorities, who arrested hundreds of people who took part in this action, sending many to prison. On July 17th, Archbishop Michel Sabbah threatened to begin a hunger strike unless the curfew was lifted. The Israeli authorities so feared the leader of Palestinian Christians and his ability through his actions to motivate others to resistance, that they called off the curfew that day. These and similar skirmishes continued for over a year, until in September of 1989, Israel decided to put an end to Bayt Sahur's civil disobedience campaign once and for all.

On September 20th, 1989, Israeli troops surrounded Bayt Sahur, setting up military checkpoints, cutting telephone lines, and barring nonresidents entry. Tax officials entered Bayt Sahur with armed security personnel and began raiding businesses and private residences, taking cash when available, but settling for other valuables, such as couches, TV sets, chairs and tables when they had to. On October 4th, Israeli authorities eased their siege and allowed Palestinians to pay taxes. No one did. This enraged Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who declared that Israel was going to "teach a lesson" to Bayt Sahur, knowing that the resistance in Bayt Sahur had to be crushed so that it would not be seen as an effective model of resistance elsewhere in Palestine. Following this declaration, Israeli aggression intensified, finally ending on October 31st, 1989 with the withdrawal of Israeli troops, although not before collecting almost $1.5 million in goods from Palestinian businesses and homes.

Although costly, the withdrawal of Israeli troops was hailed as a victory by the people of Bayt Sahur, who quickly thereafter hosted a Day of Prayer celebration. This celebration was attended by the mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Sa'd al-Din al-'Alami, who was greeted enthusiastically when he visited the churches of Bayt Sahur. In solidarity with the struggle of the people of Bayt Sahur, 'Alami issued a fatwa against the purchase of any goods confiscated by israeli authorities during the month of siege, calling it "stolen property," and declaring that, "It is forbidden or a Muslim, Arab, or any man with a conscience to buy any of these unjustly plundered goods. Purchasing any such item is like participating in the theft of the plundered goods, and whoever does so deserves punishment for stealing his brothers' property." At auction, much of this confiscated property did not sell.

This Christmas, let people of all faiths and denominations remember and honor our Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine, past, present, and future, in their struggle against Israeli apartheid.

(This account owes much to factual information and analysis found in chapter 4 of Glenn Robinson's Building a Palestinian State, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.)

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