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.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

From Sami Awad:
Christmas in Bethlehem; A Time for Joy and Resilience

I received the most wonderful article in my in-box today. Here's a taste:
The colored strings of lights are now decorating its streets. As you drive past homes you now see Christmas trees proudly placed in front of windows so that all may see. Manger Street is full of traffic at night but no one is complaining for everyone is waiting their turn to receive candy from one of the many Santa Clauses dancing with joy in the street. Everywhere you go you hear Christmas songs played from small radios placed in front of stores or on balconies. In Manger Square, the main Christmas tree shines with bright colors and decorations. The joy is doubled in this holy city this year as both the Palestinian Christians and the Muslim communities celebrate. Christmas and Eid Al-Adha (the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice) have come together this year.
Check out the rest of the article on Sami Awad's wonderful blog (with a fresh new, lovely look): Never Give Up

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hannah, a wonderful woman I had the privilege of working with in International Women's Peace Service, is an American Jew, co-founder of Birthright Unplugged and ceaseless supporter of the Palestinian struggle. She has some wonderful things to say:

I am feeling optimistic about Palestine.

I know it sounds crazy. How can I use “optimistic” and “Palestine” in the same sentence when conditions on the ground only seem to get worse? Israeli settlements continue to expand on a daily basis, the checkpoints and segregated road system are becoming more and more institutionalized, Israel is holding 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners illegally in Israeli jails, Gaza is under heavy attack and the borders are entirely controlled by Israel, preventing people from getting their basic human needs met.

We can never forget these things, we can never forget the daily suffering of the people, and yet I do dare to say I am optimistic. Why? Ehud Olmert. Let me clarify. Better yet, let’s let him clarify:

"The day will come when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights. As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished."

That’s right, the Prime Minister of Israel is currently trying to negotiate a “two-state solution” specifically because he realizes that if he doesn’t, Palestinians might begin to demand, en masse, equal rights to Israelis. Furthermore, he worries, the world might begin to see Israel as an apartheid state. In actuality, most of the world already sees Israel this way, but Olmert is worried that even Israel’s most ardent supporters will begin to catch up with the rest of the world.

"The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us," he told Ha’aretz, "because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents."

Perhaps Olmert is giving American Jews too much credit here, but he does expose a basic contradiction in the minds of most American people, Jewish and not: Most of us, at least in theory, support equal rights for all residents of a country. Most of us do NOT support rights given on the basis of ethnicity and religion, especially when the ethnicity/religion being prioritized is one that excludes the vast majority of the country’s indigenous population. We cannot, of course, forget our own history of ethnic cleansing on this continent. But we must not use the existence of past atrocities to justify present ones.

I am optimistic not because I think the process of ethnic cleansing and apartheid in Israel/Palestine is going to end tomorrow, but because I can feel the ideology behind these policies beginning to collapse. For years the true meaning of political Zionism has been as ignored as its effects on Palestinian daily life. And suddenly it is beginning to break open. Olmert’s comments last week are reminiscent of those of early Zionist leaders who talked openly of transfer and ethnic cleansing in order to create an artificial Jewish majority in historic Palestine.

“We must expel the Arabs and take their places and if we have to use force to guarantee our own right to settle in those places – then we have force at our disposal.” – David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, 1937

So this idea of a “two-state solution” a la Olmert, which I would argue provides neither a “state” nor a “solution” for the Palestinian people, is the new transfer. It is no longer popular in the world to openly discuss expulsion (though there are political parties in Israel that advocate this), but Olmert hopes that by creating a Palestinian “state” on a tiny portion of historic Palestine, he can accomplish the same goal: maintaining an ethno-religious state exclusively for the Jewish people in most of historic Palestine. His plan, as all other plans Israeli leaders have tried to “negotiate,” ignores the basic rights of the two thirds of the Palestinian population who are refugees. They, like all other refugees in the world, have the internationally recognized right to return to their lands and receive compensation for loss and damages. This should not be up for negotiation.

So why am I optimistic?

Why do I think Olmert will fail, if not in the short term, at least in the long term? There are many signs.

The first and most important is that Palestinian people are holding on. Sometimes by a thread, but holding on nonetheless. Despite the hope of many in Israel, Palestinians will not disappear. They engage in daily acts of nonviolent resistance, from demonstrations against the Wall and land confiscation, to simply remaining in their homes against all odds. Young people are joining organizations designed to preserve their culture and identity. Older Palestinians have said to me, “We lived through the Ottoman Empire, we lived through the British Mandate, we lived through Jordanian rule, and we will live through Israeli occupation.” This too shall pass.

In Israel, it seems that within the traditional “Zionist left,” Jewish Israelis are beginning to have open conversations about the exclusivity of Zionism as a political ideology, and are questioning it more and more.

In the United States, I have been traveling around speaking to groups about Palestine, and they get it. Even those whose prior information has come only from US mainstream media, when they hear what is actually happening, they get it. When we explain the difference between being Jewish (a religion or ethnicity), Israeli (a citizenship), and Zionist (an ideology), people understand.

Does Israel have a right to exist? people ask. What does that mean? Do countries really have
rights, or do people have rights? The Jewish people have a right to exist, the Israeli people have a right to exist, but what does “Israel” mean? Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people. It is not a state of its citizens. It is a state of many people who are not its citizens, like myself, and is not the state of many people who are its citizens, like the twenty percent of its population that is Palestinian. So if we ask a Palestinian person, “Do you recognize the right for there to be a country on your historic homeland that explicitly excludes you?” what kind of response should we expect?

So when Olmert warns that we will “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights” and that “the state of Israel [will be] finished,” I get a little flutter of excitement. I think of the 171 Palestinian organizations who have called on the international community to begin campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until Israel complies with international law. This is already a South African-style struggle, and we outside of Palestine need to do our part. Especially those of us who live in the US, the country that gives Israel more than $10 million every single day, must take responsibility for the atrocities committed in our name and with our money.

Ultimately, this is our role as Americans. It is to begin campaigns in our churches, synagogues, mosques, universities, cities, unions, etc. It is not to broker false negotiations between occupier and occupied, and it is not to muse over solutions the way I have above. But one can dream. And as a Jewish American, I know that while it might be scary to some, while it will require a lot of imagination, the end of Israel as a Jewish state could mean the beginning of democracy, human rights, and some semblance of justice in a land that has almost forgotten what that means.

Friday, December 07, 2007

At-Tuwani: Demonstrators Walk in Solidarity to Tuba Village
3 December 2007

On Saturday, 1 December, more than 200 Israelis, Palestinians and internationals walked from At-Tuwani to the nearby village of Tuba. The walk highlighted the violent harassment and other severe difficulties faced by villagers in the Southern Hebron Hills of the West Bank. These difficulties continue to worsen with the growth of unauthorized* Israeli settlement outposts.

Located a few kilometers outside the larger Palestinian city of Yatta, At-Tuwani serves as a gateway to trade, education and healthcare for a handful of more remote villages. Tuba is just a 20 minute walk southeast of At-Tuwani by the most direct route, which the people of Tuba traveled regularly before the construction of the Ma'on settlement (1984) and adjacent unauthorized outpost of Havot Ma'on (2000). Since then, settler attacks have forced Palestinians to take a longer route, which is about one hour on foot or by donkey.

Settler violence has also blocked Tuba villagers from reaching their fields for routine plowing, sowing and grazing. The Israeli peace organization, Ta'ayush, which cosponsored Saturday's march, hoped that a large Israeli activist presence would enable Tuba farmers to plow without harassment.

Initially the Israeli army tried to block the demonstrators from leaving At-Tuwani, but the large crowd peacefully pushed through the army cordon and continued over the hills to Tuba. The Palestinians successfully plowed and sowed their fields with only minor disruptions. Two Israeli settlers ran down into a field and tried to disrupt the work, but soldiers prevented them from doing so. An Israeli soldier also tried to disrupt plowing by confiscating the key of the tractor, but the farmer restarted it and continued working.

After a peaceful gathering with Tuba villagers outside their caves, the demonstrators returned to At-Tuwani in the afternoon on a path next to the outpost. Clapping and singing, they walked past dozens of Havot Ma'on settlers who came out to watch, dressed in white Shabbat robes. Some younger settlers tried to disrupt the procession, but Israeli soldiers and police restrained them.

Later in the evening, Israeli settlers attacked a boy from Tuba and stole his donkey. Two CPTers and two members of Michigan Peace Teams spent the night in Tuba, in case of further retaliation by settlers, but there was none.

*Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law; however, the settlement outposts are illegal under Israeli law.

Note: Tuba and its fields are situated within a vast tract of land that the Israeli government threatens to confiscate and use as a military firing range. This case is still under jurisdiction. If the Israeli Supreme Court finds in favor of the state and the army, they will expel all the villagers from their homes.