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Palm Sunday protest in Bethlehem–and only the Palestinians are still detained

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This past weekend, after Palm Sunday mass at the Nativity church in Bethlehem a large group of people from all faiths, Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists alike, marched from the church toward the Israeli checkpoint that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. They were protesting the restrictions that have been placed on worship in and accessibility to Jerusalem. The large group overwhelmed the Israeli forces who were guarding the checkpoint and they were forced to let the protesters through. As the group marched to Jerusalem they were met by a large police force and were thus forced to return to Bethlehem.

On their return they were assaulted by the Israeli forces at the checkpoint. Around 15 were detained, some violently. Among them was a member of the PLO Executive Committee Abbas Zaki, as well as an AP photographer. Two friends and colleagues, with whom I volunteered last summer, Ahmad Al- Azzah and Marwan Farajeh were also detained. Here, to provide a little more insight on these men is an excerpt from a story that The Palestine Telegraph ran about the demonstration:

“Ahmad Al-Azeh is the head of the Nonviolence Department for the Holy Land Trust. He hails from the Al-Azzeh Refugee Camp and is the father of three young children. Ahmad graduated from Bethlehem University with a degree in Sociology and a minor in Psychology and completed his Masters in Human Rights and Democratization in Malta. His specialization was women’s rights and gender issues.

Marwan Fararjeh, a father of six young children, is responsible for coordinating activities with 19 villages in Bethlehem and its surrounding areas for the Holy Land Trust. His projects involve community building. He organizes campaigns against the Wall and against confiscated lands or lands threatened with confiscation by the Israeli government. “

Of those who were detained, the Israeli and international activists have been released. The 11 Palestinians who were detained have been sent to Ofer Prison until Thursday and after that time they will hopefully be released, but this is not definite. Holy Land Trust has recently released an update about the detention of its employees:

“Our initial information is that the detained men will be released on Thursday, March 31st, and given court dates for the charges brought against them. However, as Bethlehem District and the checkpoint that the Separation Wall that Marwan, Ahmad and the nine other men crossed is considered under the jurisdiction of the IDF, it is possible that they will be detained for a greater period of time, possibly up to six months, under military law”

The only reason that they were not released with the others is because they are Palestinians. These are men who I know would never hurt as much as a fly, and their detention is very troubling to all who know and love them. Last summer I volunteered with the Palestinian NGO Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian Christian Organization in Bethlehem that advocates for non-violence, as well as trains the next generation of leaders determined to end the struggle by non-violent means.

Since I left last summer, the area of Bethlehem, which includes Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, as well as smaller villages such as Al-Masara, has increasingly fallen under the grip of Israeli harassment. The army has moved into the area of Ush Ghrab, near Beit Sahour, where settlers are determined to take more land from Palestinians. In the past few weeks, Israeli forces were uprooting olive trees in Beit Jala so they could erect more of the separation barrier. There have also been a number of Israeli night raids on P.A.-controlled Bethlehem itself, and there have been a number of detentions. As I am currently in the States, it is a very unsettling feeling not being able to stand in solidarity with my Palestinian brothers as they are sitting in a prison cell.

It is important to stress that many of these men who were detained work and organize with the Popular Committees in the Bethlehem area that stage the weekly protests against the occupation. As you know, Israel has been ramping up its harassment of these groups, threatening them with arrest, entering villages late at night and declaring areas closed military zones. And this is only my opinion, but I believe that most of these men were targeted for detention at the demonstration. The Israelis no doubt know who they are, and are familiar with their activities.

So, while I am waiting for my friends to be released on Thursday as scheduled, I’m not going to hold my breath about it. They may very well be held longer. This is why myself, my friends, all those concerned are making a concerted effort to get as much info out about these injustices as possible. Then, maybe the collective voice of humanity will raise itself to demand an end to the mistreatment of Palestinians as well as an end to Israel’s self defeating policies.

Matthew Walleser

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