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The Star in the East

Hard-hit by the intifada, the town of Beit Sahour adds a new angle to the Palestinians’ struggle.

Now in the third year of the intifada, the residents of Beit Sahour continue to carve their own largely non-violent path through the revolt against Israeli occupation and what they consider unfair taxation. While the 12,000 mostly Christian residents of the town have suffered the loss of millions of dollars in confiscated goods and lost business (far more, they claim, than their taxes would have amounted to), and many have been imprisoned, they have earned international respect and established a sense of solidarity among Moslem and Christian brothers and sisters, as well as among many Israeli Jews. They have given a new dimension to the Palestinians’ struggle.

Beit Sahour, located on the site of the biblical Shepherd’s Field, spreads out from the lower slopes of the hills on which Bethlehem developed, its homes extending almost to the fringe of the desert. Its residents live in neighborhoods usually composed of close relatives; there are as many as 40 such neighborhoods.

The environment has always been one of widespread social and cultural activity, strong family ties and united neighborhoods, resulting in a great sense of loyalty to the town. Unlike many other Christian towns like Bethlehem, Beit Sahour has not had much of an emigration problem. Its percentage of university graduates is the highest in the West Bank, and it provides the Bethlehem area as well as other parts of Palestine with doctors, teachers and university professors, engineers and other professionals.

Last year, Beit Sahourans, described by one resident as “urban, but with a village cohesiveness,” put that unity to work, turning what was previously a matter of individual noncompliance in paying taxes into a concerted community effort. Their demands: representation and services for the taxes levied on them.

When the tax strike took life in the summer of 1989, the Israeli authorities responded with harsh measures. Soldiers raided between 350 and 360 houses, stores and factories seizing furniture, cars, craftmen’s tools, anything. A staff member of the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem noted that during a visit to a friend’s home in January, soldiers came and took everything they could transport out of the house.

“While the family is upper middle class, they are unable to access the funds that remain in their savings account,” the staff member reported. “Their savings are almost depleted and now all accounts in Beit Sahour are frozen. Even monies donated by European charitable institutions are frozen.”

There are no longer any local Arab policemen. Schools are often closed. The number of poor families is rising as trade is disrupted. Yet the resolve of the Beit Sahourans remains firm.

“We no longer fear anything,” said shop owner Umm Majdi, “because we are used to everything.”

There have, of course, been the collective punishments Arabs all over Palestine have come to know: economic pressures, check points, communication blackouts, transportation limits and curfews. There have been violent clashes between youths and soldiers, and scores of residents, both young and old, were arrested.

But the intifada in Beit Sahour has not been without positive developments. Dialogue with Israeli peace activists has been going on for some time. According to one Jewish participant, Veronica Cohen, the groups “are not meeting in order to know each other as human beings – that’s understood – but rather to deal with the hard questions.”

One such encounter involved Jewish families spending the Sabbath overnight with families in Beit Sahour. Ms. Cohen reported that the experience was frightening for many of the Jewish participants: They and their children would he sleeping in an Arab town with the nearest Jew a 40 or 50 minute walk away. But the children, even though some did not share a common language, got along in five minutes.

The suffering of Beit Sahour also provoked a rare demonstration of solidarity between Jerusalem’s Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs last fall, when the three tried to enter the town to provide moral and material support. Soldiers, however, held their entourages back, prompting the patriarchs to leave. Two days later the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Diodoros I, came alone with greetings from the other patriarchs for all Beit Sahourans, who are mostly Greek Orthodox and Greek or Latin Catholics.

In his recently published book, “Let Us Be Free – A narrative before and during the intifada,” Brother Patrick White, F.S.C., of Bethlehem University, recalled a time before the imprisonment of a town leader, Jad Isaac, when soldiers ordered him to remove from his house a symbol of a so-called “front organization”: an emblem of the star of Bethlehem with a meteor. At his writing, Isaac was still in prison.

“I am not sure whether the emblem of the Star of Bethlehem is still near the gables of Doctor Jad’s house,” Brother White wrote. “For me the Star over Bethlehem signifies faith and hope for better things. Jad, in his enthusiasm, had faith and hope in his people and a confidence that they could do well together. Like those visiting astrologers to Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, he observed the Star at its rising and rose, as it were, to its challenge.”

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