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The Civil Disobedience of Beit Sahour

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 17.03.2006:

Beit Sahour, on the way from Bethlehem to Herodion, is a Palestinian town of 13,000 with a Christian majority and a Moslem minority. It engaged in a different kind of Intifadah. It took up the flag of nonviolent civil disobedience against the Israeli occupation.

Civil disobedience in Beit Sahour began with the idea of “home economy.” Well-off families adopted a regime of self-imposed austerity, while a group of Beit Sahourians opened a nursery and gave guidance on how to grow one’s own vegetables. The security forces, however, did not like the idea. To them, dispersing violent demonstrations is child’s play compared to fighting “the battle of the vegetables.” Some of the group was put in jail, but the tomatoes went on growing in the small gardens, and the chickens went on laying fresh eggs.

In May 1988 the story of tax disobedience started. Taxes were a heavy burden on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (O.T.). They felt that all taxes collected from the O.T. should come back to its administration. So when the Unified Leadership asked the people to stop paying taxes, it represented the will of the people. This request was not something imposed on the residents of Beit Sahour. They immediately responded and began refusing to pay taxes to the Israeli Civil Administration. The Occupation Authorities began an all-out campaign to crush the tax resistance with widespread raids, arrests, curfews and the confiscation of commercial and private properties of the people of Beit Sahour. The Defense Minister of Israel said that he would break the Beit Sahour tax resistance at all costs even if it meant keeping the town under curfew for two months.

Something had to be done. The next morning there was a whisper all over the town calling Beit Sahourians to gather at the municipality to discuss the possible means of retaliation. Nobody knew how it started, but a process of delivering the identity cards started in order to send them back to the Military Governer. Giving back the identity cards was the best answer for what the Military Occupation had initiated in the town. It was a reaction fitting perfectly with the idea of civil disobedience. For the ID was a main symbol of oppression: It was the first thing requested by the military when they stopped people. They used it for harrassment, for anyone caught without it was subject to beating, humiliation and possible detention. So “let us throw it away, let us get rid of this symbol of our oppression,” the residents of Beit Sahour said. Subsequently Beit Sahour had to live for two weeks under curfew. The reaction of the residents was a challenge to the military occupation. At the same time it created a new, courageous image of the Beit Sahourians which helped to keep the tax collectors away for several months.

During 1989, the military and tax officers began inspecting the possibilities for raiding Beit Sahour again. The first wave started during June. Groups of old people were arrested. The military kept them at detention centers, trying to figure out the reaction of the residents of Beit Sahour. They also wanted to infiltrate the population through these groups. However, the military failed to do so as a perfect system of support was created in Beit Sahour expressing solidarity to all families of those who were detained. Both sides, Beit Sahourians and the Military, prepared themselves for the battle to come.

The Military decided to move further. The Defence Minister declared that he was going to teach Beit Sahour a lesson. On September 19, 1989, the town was sieged. All entrances were blocked, and thousands of soldiers accompanied by tax officers started the biggest taxation raid in recent history. The town was denied any access to medical or food supply. The supplies of anyone coming from Bethlehem and caught at the border were confiscated. The soldiers helped the tax officers to take over a building and to make it into their headquarters. They started to wake up people at night, taking them from their houses to the military detention centre in Bethlehem. The next morning the tax officers would confiscate the contents of the people’s houses or their businesses. Most of the people were taxed twice, for the value added tax and for the income tax.

After three weeks of tax raids, some people who were waiting for their turn, became nervous: “Why isn’t my turn coming? Something is wrong.” So they would wait for officers in the armoured cars to pass, stop the car and ask the officers: “Listen my name is …. I am on your list. I have been waiting for you, tell me, when are you coming?” The officers would become furious and start beating them.

The Beit Sahourians were offered to get everything back for one shekel, but the soldiers couldn’t find a single person willing to give them one shekel. It was a matter of principle. At one house when they started driving away after having finished the dirty work, they heard a voice calling them to stop. A wicked smile appeared on their faces: “Finally someone will pay.” The lady who called carried something in her hand and without hesitation, with full confidence and courage, she threw the remote control at them and shouted: “You forgot this.”

The curfew lasted for forty-five days. In the last days of the raid, a resolution was introduced in the United Nations Security Council, calling upon Israel to stop the tax raids and to return all the confiscated goods. The resolution was vetoed by the United States. The institutions of Beit Sahour, including religious, social and cultural centres, sent a letter to President Bush asking him “Why Mr. President…? We were proud to raise the same slogan of the American revolution against the British, ‘No Taxation Without Representation’, the same slogan of the Boston Tea Party.”

Al Mawrid, Stories from Bethlehem. Manual for English language teaching. Ramallah, 1996

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