Roots of Resistance: Advent in Beit Sahour, November 5, 1989

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Palestinian women and children demonstrate on January 3, 1988 in Al-Ram in the West Bank.
(Photo: Esaias Baitel/AFP/Getty Images)

This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.

In the valley east of Bethlehem lies the Shepherd’s Field from whence, we are told, shepherds were summoned to witness the birth of the Prince of Peace. While nearly everyone agrees that the nativity took place in Bethlehem, at least three fields are said to be the place where the shepherds first saw the star.

Typically, each site has been declared “authentic” by whichever Christian sect claims custodianship over it. Indeed the traditional arguments over who can pray where in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem or who is to clean which stones in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem have bemused and often frustrated pilgrims for centuries. Unity is a scarce commodity in the history of the Christian church, and unity is hard to discover in an area where thee monotheistic faiths are often at odds, though proclaiming the oneness of God.

There is, however, one thing that all three Shepherds’ Fields have in common: in order to get from each of them to the city of Bethlehem, one has to go through the village of Beit Sahour. The full meaning of the convergence in Beit Sahour was revealed to me on Sunday, November 5, 1989 when I shepherded my flock of students to an ecumenical “pray-in” in the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church of Beit Sahour.

Some people from the village had invited us to attend services held throughout the town that day, but I was apprehensive about going. For forty-two days, from the 20th of September, the town had been placed under night curfew by Israeli Occupation forces. Night curfew meant that no one could enter or leave the village from five in the afternoon until five in the morning. Many times, however, the curfew lasted the whole day; and the area was often declared a closed military zone- closed to outside visitors.

Because the “pray-in” had received international publicity (a group of one hundred and twenty Americans arrived just to be there on November 5), I feared we would not be allowed into the town. I also worried about taking young Americans, even as invited guests, into what could be a volatile situation. However, my students were eager to go, and some Israeli friends who organized carloads of Israeli peace activists, said that violence would be unlikely with so many foreign visitors in attendance. They assured me that, at worst, we would be turned back at a roadblock.

I sought to arrive early by taking the first public bus from East Jerusalem. As the students and I boarded the bus and began our eight-mile drive, I looked out the window and recalled all I had read and hear about this remarkable village. Beit Sahour is a town of about 12,000 people, eighty percent Christian and twenty percent Muslim. It is one of the most prosperous and homogenous villages in Palestine, full of professionals and middle class merchants. It is a village of cottage industries, where, operating form individual homes, at lease six hundred small factories turn out olive wood products, mother of pearl jewelry, textiles, and other goods that supply merchants in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The highly educated population interacted with Israelis quite a bit over the years and had initiated informal dialogue groups even before the beginning of he Intifada in December, 1987. A representative of one of the peace groups, Veronica Cohen from Oz ve Shalom, (strength and peace), urged my group to visit Beit Sahour in order to witness that Palestinian and Israeli coexistence could indeed be possible.

Such hopes for coexistence were severely strained by events and responses that stemmed from the Intifada, but many Israelis tried to continue to support their friends. Hard times had come to Beit Sahour after the townspeople decided to resist the Occupation nonviolently by refusing to pay taxes. For reasons best known to themselves the Israeli authorities decided to make an example of Beit Sahour by coming down hard on the tax resisters. It is true that Beit Sahour became an example, but not in the way the Israelis had intended. The solidarity of the families, the sophistication of their leadership, their ingenuity, and their courage all contributed to a unified nonviolent resistance that would have made Gandhi himself proud.

Professors were arrested for selling seeds, which people under siege would use to grow their own food. Tax resisters were thrown into jail; when released, their factories were closed and their machines confiscated so that they could not make money even to pay back their taxes.; let alone putting food on the table for their families. With every arrest came manifestos often borrowed from America’s own struggle for freedom from the British. The most famous of these maxims “No taxation without representation,” spread through the West Bank along with stories about the courage and determination of the Beit Sahouris.

On October 3, 1989 a news conference took place at the National Palace Hotel in Jerusalem in order to draw attention to the plight of the people of Beit Sahour. The area around the National Palace Hotel was declared a closed military zone. Palestinians ruefully observed that Mayor Teddy Kolleck’s proclamation about a “united Jerusalem” was little more than a fiction—since military law is applied almost exclusively to occupied territory. Although the press conference was canceled, a statement released the next day read:

Beit Sahour is the essential embodiment of the Palestinian human will in its confrontation with the full brutality of the dehumanizing Israeli military occupation. In its commitment to nonviolence and its continuing efforts at maintaining a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue for peace, Beit Sahour is the glowing face of the Intifada as a process of social transformation and nation-building. Employing the utmost self-restraint and popular cohesiveness, it has successful endured and resisted the full blast of Israeli terror as translated into a deliberate and systematic policy of collective punishment and intimidation.

This the Israeli authorities’ practices reveal the real nature of its verbal claims to peace. While pretending to offer a peace plan through “free and democratic” elections, it proceed to silence the voice of reason among Palestinians, and to crush the call for peace, freedom and reconciliation in an attempt to stifle the refreshing breath of democracy which Beit Sahour represents.

Even before the Intifada there had been widespread tax resistance, because Palestinians, who have been under occupation since 1967, soon realized that their taxes were paying for their own occupation rather than being returned to them in the form of services to the communities. While it is clear under international law that an occupying power has the right to collect taxes assessed by the former government, it is also stipulated that such taxes be returned in services. Further, there is no provision for raising the tax rates set by the former government, yet Israel increased income tax from seven to thirty-nine percent and imposed two new taxes, a Value Added Tax and a tax on vehicles.

Palestinians watched as new roads were built connecting new Israeli settlements while Palestinian schools and universities were closed, while health services decreased- even while insurance costs increased. When Palestinians asked to see how their tax dollars were being spent, they were told that the budget for the West Bank and Gaza was not open for inspection. The words of a citizen of Beit Sahour catch the growing frustration: “I will pay taxes only to my government and only when I receive some benefit from them.”

During the forty-two day curfew the Israeli military went from house to house confiscating property of those who owed taxes and, in some cases, taking property from those who did not owe taxes. The Israelis claimed that everything confiscated would be sold at auction and applied to taxes, but the amount collected far exceed what was owed, leading most residents of Beit Sahour to recognize the raids as a form of punishment meted out to those who dared to resist the Occupation.

Estimates of the amount of goods taken range from $1.5 to $7.5 million. Sewing machines, lathes for woodcarving, equipment for mother-of-pearl jewelry, as well as television sets, furniture, and even beds were taken from the homes. Religious objects were left. Drugs were opened and left to spoil in pharmacies. Grocery stores were plundered. Cars were impounded. Bank accounts were frozen and money was taken from residents as payment for back taxes.

On October 31 the Israelis lifted the curfew and declared that they had broken the back of the tax revolt. If so, it was news to the community of Beit Sahour, which began days of celebration and received congratulations and visits from Palestinians from all over the Wet Bank. Beit Sahour’s nonviolent resistance had brought the Israelis to a standstill. In October, on a day when the residents of Beit Sahour were allowed to leave the village, a group of young people arrived at the Hakawati Theater in East Jerusalem to see a performance of the Debke, a traditional Palestinian folk dance. They arrived at the theater only to find that all the seats for the performance had been sold. A friend of mine watched as they dejectedly to turned to go home, but he called to them to follow him inside. Once inside the auditorium my friend went on stage to appeal to an overflowing crowd: “Palestinians, here are the young heroes of Beit Sahour but there are not tickets for them.” Immediately the first rows of the theater were vacated and the youths seated.

I was thinking of that moment when I suddenly realized that when our bus had arrived at the Bethlehem stop and was about to go on to Beit Sahor. About a half a mile down the road from Bethlehem we were stopped by an Israeli roadblock. A young soldier got on the bus, saw that almost all the passengers were foreigners, and said that the town had been closed to outsiders by military orders. He ordered us back to Bethlehem. He added that not even the Israeli prime minister could get into Beit Sahour that Sunday.

“Very well, we’ll stay here and we will pray in the road.” When I said this the soldier left and a few moments later a young officer approached to ask if we were journalists. I explained that we were from America—students who had come for a worship service. “Very well, you can go. Have a nice prayer.” Rather than speculate about the tone of these last remarks I hurriedly gathered the students. We walked past about thirty soldiers and their roadblock towards the spire of the Latin Church.

As we approached the church, I saw that the streets and gardens were mobbed with people. They smiled and waved to us as we passed. Many people were talking outside the church, but because I thought we might not get a seat, I led my group inside. As we entered we were given olive branches. Inside the church we saw many Palestinians crowded near the back because in the front there was a vast empty area reserved for visitors. Although we could have moved forward, I claimed for us a row near the door. The church filled up slowly because the roadblocks were causing major delays, especially for Israelis who, we heard, were being denied admission by the soldiers. In the church I noticed many Orthodox Jews, recognizable by their kippot (head covering). I was told that these men and women from the religious Israeli peace movement had entered the town the night before because they (correctly) predicted that the town would be closed to them the next day. I spotted Veronica Cohen and others who mixed freely and familiarly with their Palestinian partners from the dialogue groups.

The church was still rather empty when the services began. After a welcome to all of us who had made it through the town to the church, the choir sang “God of Heaven, Shower Us with Peace.” The Deputy Latin Patriarch told us that the pope was praying for the city and for peace in the region. People began to filter in, and the services were punctuated with whispers as the congregation recognized well-known Israeli, American and Palestinian dignitaries, as well as dignitaries of other nationalities.

The whispers rose to a buzz when the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic congregations joined us. Shortly thereafter the priest announced that most Israelis and Muslim Palestinians coming from Jerusalem had been held up at the roadblocks. The Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sa’ed Eddin al-Alami, was detained and could not attend the service. Murmurs of disappointment swept through the crowd, but the service continued. A few minutes later we heard loud shouting from the courtyard. I turned to my students to see if they were feeling as apprehensive as I. The church was very crowded now, and I worried about what a confrontation with the army would mean if people began to panic. But the shouts were not for the army.

At the entrance of the church I saw a frail man with a sheikh’s turban who, supported on both sides by strong young men, slowly made his way down the aisle. Shekih al-Alalmi and his followers had arrived after all—many entering a Christian church for the first time in their lives. With his entrance the ritual of the service was suspended, but prayers continued as hundreds of olive branches, including ours, were waved. Christians and Jews rose to applaud the Muslims’ entrance, and people began to weep and embrace one another. The solidarity brought about by human longing and human will had, for the moment, triumphed over the alienation produced by military force.

I whispered to my students soon thereafter that we should leave in order to make room for more Palestinians, and we began to walk to Bethlehem. We came across the soldiers at our checkpoint as they were putting on their riot control gear. They lowered their plastic face shields and picked up their wooden clubs, moving towards the church at double pace. I looked through plastic visors and saw the faces of anxious young men, the age of my own students. Fortunately there was little violence; for when the army reached the church they found Americans sitting in the road and children throwing pieces of candy, not rocks.

When we passed the checkpoint, we were welcomed by those who were forbidden entrance to the village. It seems we were the first to leave the service. I found I could not concentrate on the questions hurled at me because I was thinking about a Christmas card made by the people of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Though crudely drawn, it depicted a manger constructed as an arch over a cradle of hay. The keystone of the arch bore the names of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. The cradle was empty, and beside the cradle lay a masked wounded Palestinian, crying out the word “Help!”

I was moved when I had received the card in Jerusalem, but at the roadblock on November 5, as the images of the card came to my mind, I realized that the artist had not captured the whole truth. The names on the stones were correct, but it was simply not true that the cradle was empty. People who had decided to rise about their hatreds to meet in a spirit of reconciliation and love had made the Advent possible in Beit Sahour. The vision of those early shepherds still shone brightly. After months of looking in vain for signs of hope, I sensed the promise of a new beginning. My prayer, as I rode back to Jerusalem to return to our hotel near the Via Dolorosa, the Path of Sorrow, was that the road leading from Beit Sahour would continue to be the starting point on the path of peace.

Postscript: In the Spring of 1990 the entire village of Beit Sahour was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.