Marching with Beit Sahour

Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990

Betsy Esch

THE WEST BANK village of Beit Sahour, a predominantly Christian community near Bethlehem with a formerly conservative image, became a symbol for the lntifada this last fall when residents organized a tax resistance campaign. Under sage and then blockaded by the Israeli army, its residents’ automobiles, business assets and personal belongings confiscated, the people of Beit Sahour nonetheless persevered, partly as a consequence of the tremendous support they received from all over Palestine and internationally.

Betsy Esch, an Opinion page editor for The Michigan Daily, participated in an international solidarity delegation to Belt Sahour on November 5. She had previously visited the Occupied Territories last summer on a delegation exploring the prospects of a sister university relationship between the University of Michigan and Bir Zeit University. This is her first-hand account of the day of the march and the sit-in by the American delegation to protest the conduct of the occupation soldiers.

OVER ONE HUNDRED U.S. residents marched from Bethlehem to Beit Sahour November 5 to demonstrate in solidarity with the people of Belt Sahour.

As we witnessed, the people of Beit Sahour have become an inspiration for all of occupied Palestine, throughout which one sees graffiti praising the endurance of the “heroic people of Beit Sahour” (Middle East International, “The defiance of Belt Sahour,” 10/6/89). Such spirit is exactly what the Israelis claimed they would break, yet, at least at the current stage of this battle, there is no evidence to Support this claim.

In fact, the attempt to starve and beat the people into submission while denying world religious leaders the opportunity to enter Belt Sahour and see the situation for themselves and has drawn international attention. Responding to this, the people of Belt Sahour called for a 1Day of Prayer for Peace,’ and extended invitations to Jewish Christian and Muslim religious leaders as well as to Israeli members of the Knesset and the international community.

Peaceful Beginning

Sunday, the morning of the march, the city was “officially” open, though military checkpoints were in place on the road from Bethlehem to Belt Sahour and many cars were turned back. The march itself was allowed to enter the city, though television cameras were detained and demonstrators were expressly forbidden to take pictures.

The march was intentionally nonpolitical and designed as a gesture of spiritual solidarity, though demonstrators had decided in advance that if any aggression was initiated by the army they sit down and passively resist.

The Israelis, feeling quite comfortable that they had set an adequate stage and manipulated the circumstances to their advantage, seemed to have no qualms about their ability to control the situation At the first stop on the march, a military spokesperson told the Americans that they were “free to go and worship.”

The irony of this was remarkable, as the Israelis have continually raided and gassed Palestinian churches and mosques since the Intifada began. But this comment was not random. It made clear the point that this gathering to express Americans’ spiritual solidarity with the Palestinians was not a threat to the Israelis, and that their “willingness” to allow it was in fact proof of the “benign” character of the occupation.

By the time the march had reached its final stop, however, its size and scope had changed. About 7,000 Palestinians had joined—about half the population of Belt Sahour.

Attempts by several small groups of shatob (activist youth) to chant nationalist slogans were at first squelched by adults. This did not last, and soon everyone was joining in the cry “PLO, ISRAEL NO, PLO, OCCUPATION NO.”

The demonstration had become explicitly political and explicitly Palestinian. Kaffiyehs and flags symbols of the Intifada appeared from under jackets and skirts.

The Israeli response to this was not immediate, but when it came, it was effective. After ten or twelve minutes, the army surrounded the demonstration. Conservative counts estimated that there were 400 soldiers in the town that morning. They announced that all of those who did not live in the town must leave immediately. Beit Sahour was once again a closed military zone.

As planned, many of the Americans began to sit down. Protestors were actually able to sustain this resistance for several minutes as the army, intent upon forcing the Palestinians into their homes, momentarily ignored the Americans.

With the Palestinians successfully dispersed, however, the army dragged the protestors to their feet one by one, shoved and in some instances carried them toward Beit Sahour’s limits, and told them to “GET OUT.”
A few of the Americans were shoved by soldiers into houses with Palestinian families. The entire scene was chaotic, frightening, and violent; and yet there was none of the tear gas and gunfire and arrest which typify Israeli response to Palestinian expression and assembly.

The fact that none of those Americans carried from the town were arrested and that no tear gas was used in a situation which was dearly out of the army’s control indicates that in some ways they were cognizant of world opinion.

Many of the American participants were shocked by how they were treated and by the absence of any shame on the part of the Israeli soldiers. Any show of strength by Palestinians cannot be tolerated by the Israelis; to allow such a demonstration would be a definite statement about Palestinians as humans, which the Israelis are not prepared to make.

Two-Month Siege

It was precisely in response to such a show of strength that the Israeli army of occupation waged its two-months’ siege of Belt Sahour and its unified campaign of tax resistance. The Israeli army had stolen property worth over $3 million in “return” for unpaid taxes, and close to 350 people had been arrested. Travel in and out of the city was prohibited, all phone lines were cut, and Beit Sahour was kept under nearly continual curfew, forcing people to stay in their homes at all times.

Many shops in the town, most notably the pharmacies, have been forced to close because all of their merchandise has been confiscated. Israeli defense minister Rabin has said that the Israelis plan to continue their repression as long as it takes them to “break” the will of the people and that he plans to make of Beit Sahour “an example.”

Although there is no reason to doubt Rabin’s word that the brutality will escalate, it is clear that if Beit Sahour has become an “example” of anything it is of the power of unified civil disobedience.

This is apparent for a number of reasons. The Jerusalem Post, an English language paper described by human rights campaigner Professor Israel Shahak as having been created specifically as “breakfast reading” for visiting U.S. State Department officials, recently wrote an editorial entitled “Beit Sahour Reconsidered” (Post, 11/2/89).

In its attempt to criticize Rabin’s position and the tactical value of the siege of Beit Sahour, the Post suggested that the siege may, by and large, have had the contrary effect, of hardening the merchant middle class in the population and playing into the hands of the young militants.

Though this statement does not represent the overall message or intent of the editorial, it demonstrates the exemplary character of the situation in Beit Sahour, which is, in relative terms, an affluent community. By targeting the middle class, rather than encouraging class privilege and thereby fostering divisions, the Israelis have, as the Post suggests, strengthened the already considerable unity of the resistance.

The Logic of Repression

This unified Palestinian resistance, however, is what compels Israeli repression within the logic of the Occupation. Had the Israelis allowed a peaceful demonstration in Belt Sahour by primarily white Americans, the “threat” would have been minimal. Certainly the Israelis envisioned being able to contain the threat within “acceptable” parameters when they permitted the march.

But the Israeli position has been and continues to be that they will accept the bad press they get, even by attacking white Americans in a world where those lives are valued more highly than others, rather than concede the right of activity and self-expression to the Palestinians. And as has been the case with their tactics in Beit Sahour, such Israeli rejection-ism will continue to backfire.

January-February 1990, ATC 24

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