Part 1 of 6: The Little Town of Bethlehem: Occupied Territory
On my third trip to Israel and Palestine, I was one of over fifty internationals who gathered on the evening of March 11, 2006 in the second floor conference room at the Bethlehem Hotel. We had come together for Sabeel’s [Arabic for The Way] 5th International Conference and Reality Tour through the West Bank.
Sabeel is a Jerusalem based ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians. Inspired by the NONVIOLENT life and teaching of Jesus Christ, Sabeel strives to develop a spirituality based on love, justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for the different national and faith communities.
Mrs. Hind Khoury, the Palestinian Ambassador to France and a Representative of the Board of Directors of Sabeel, spoke with fierce urgency,
"The truth has been hidden, and it has been maneuvered by an oppressive and violent occupation. Sabeel explains the Christian perspective on the occupation and Sabeel calls for nonviolent resistance. This occupation violates every single human right imaginable. Governments today are getting their own way to serve their own interests which are: money and power.
"It is ethnic cleansing that is happening in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is a ghetto, an island, an open air prison! When the gate in Beit Jala is done, it will completely isolate Bethlehem from her sister city Jerusalem which is only three miles away.
"Before Hamas won the elections there were 370 checkpoints. There are now 25% more. Because of the moral bankruptcy of the PA, Hamas won the elections and they should not be feared. They have an open mind and open heart and many of them say: ‘Fight them with love.’
"The International community put conditions on Hamas, but it is not about Israel’s existence we are speaking of, it is the existence of Palestine and Human Rights that must be addressed! The world is unbalanced and the polarization just increases the violence. Civil society must become responsible."
Reverend Chris Ferguson, Representative for the World Council of Churches received a round of applause when he stated,
"I go to Bethlehem because of the Biblical injunction to visit the prisoners. In 2001, the World Council of Churches, the Middle East Council of Churches and others decided that the world ecumenical community was not doing enough about this conflict. Now, we have joined hands and are working together globally to mobilize the international society to demand policy change. The absence of settlers does not mean there is freedom in Gaza."
He spoke those words seven months after the "Disengagement" in Gaza, but in reality the Israeli government still controlled all access to Gaza by land, sea and air. Only 25 of over 150 settlements were dismantled, and only 8,475 of over 436,000 settlers; less than 2 % of settlers were evacuated. As of October 2005, 12,800 new settlers had moved into the West Bank, which is 50%, more settlers than were evacuated. Gaza is less than 6% of the Occupied Territories and that leaves 94% of Palestinian territories under the boot of the IDF.
On my second day of my third stay in the Little Town of Bethlehem: Occupied Territory, my group met four of the newly elected members of Hamas, and for the fourth time I met the Mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh. The Mayor spoke once more about the dire need for tourists and pilgrims to sleep and eat in Bethlehem for unemployment was well over 50%. People have not been able to pay their taxes due to unemployment and the Bethlehem Municipality had already been borrowing money to pay its own employees.
The first time I met Mayor Batarseh was when he traveled to Orlando to meet with Mayor Buddy Dyer, with the hope to re-ignite The Twinning Agreement that was signed in May 2001 by the then Mayors of Bethlehem and Orlando. The Twinning Agreement is a sister-pact that affirmed Orlando and Bethlehem would encourage tourism to the other and promote a global community. I followed up on Mayor Batarseh’s visit with my own visit to Mayor Buddy Dyer’s office one week after the Mayors had met. I informed the Orlando Mayor’s public relations representative about an opportunity to help the city of Bethlehem and was seeking the Mayors support in getting the word out about two events that were already scheduled and my involvement with Palestinian Children’s Welfare Fund.
Palestinian Children’s Welfare Fund http://www.pcwf.org imports goods crafted by the artisans in Bethlehem that volunteers sell throughout the world. We return 100% of all proceeds back to the crafts people and the remaining profit goes to help support the children who endure in the nearly sixty year old refugee camps of the Holy Land.
Mayor Buddy Dyer did not even have the common courtesy to respond to any of my three follow up emails. I also informed The Orlando Sentinel newspaper, about the opportunity for the Central Florida community to do something to make true the words of the Twinning Agreement without traveling all the way to the Little Town of Bethlehem: Occupied Territory.
I was ignored by all.
Every time Politicians shake hands and smile for the camera after signing a proclamation, a resolution, a road map, I will forever more remember that Christ called politicians "foxes", meaning they only look out for themselves.
But in March, 2006, a most unique politician, truth teller and prophet, Mayor Batarseh, informed my group,
"When the occupation is ended there will be peace. If the world boycotted Israel for six months they would comply with the UN Resolutions which is all we want! There is state terrorism and Israel must be forced to recognize our right to exist. For the past ten years Hamas has worked with and helped the poorest of people, they have built schools and orphanages. The PA took the money but Hamas was providing the social services!
"Israel is a state built on religious beliefs. The US and EU and all the free world are against theocracies. But Israel has the right to do anything! The world needs to WAKE UP! If there is no peace in the Holy Land there can be no peace anywhere. End the occupation and there will be peace the very next day. All the terrorism in the world can be traced back to the Palestinian situation. All the money spent on weapons and war could eliminate world poverty."
My Sabeel group also met with four newly elected Hamas members, but we never got to meet any terrorists.
Two had been elected to the Palestinian Parliament/PLC and two to the Municipality/local government. PLC Representative, Anwer M. Zboun, lives in the Abiet refugee camp and has a Masters Degree in Physics.
Thirty-three year old Mahmoud Alkhatib lives in Aida refugee camp and has obtained a Masters Degree in Islamic Studies. Khaled Saada and Salah Shuka were elected to the Municipality/local government. Our translator was George Rishmawi, whom I first met in June 2005 when he worked for Holy Land Trust. George is currently the Coordinator for the Greek Catholic Church Center for Holy Land Studies and he was my ‘shepherd’ when I went to Beit Jala, to meet little George the little boy on the top right of the WAWA Banner for the first time.
Mr. Zboun greeted us in English with a broad smile on his face and stated,
"We welcome you to our home and the Holy City of Bethlehem. We are suppose to be terrorists, are you afraid?"
We all laughed then Zboun continued earnestly,
"We are a Palestinian resistance movement and we are not against any people. We are against the occupation. We want to rebuild what the occupation has destroyed. Hamas was born from the suffering of the Palestinian people and we belong to the global Muslim movement. It was on December 14, 1987 after an Israeli driver killed nine Palestinians that the first Intifada [uprising] began and the Islamic Resistance movement in Palestine was renamed Hamas.
"Hamas is a national liberation movement based on Sharia; Islamic Laws and Orders. Hamas is not against any religion. We are not a terrorist movement, but we resist the occupation. Christians voted for us for many reasons and they know we are faithful to this cause: that God knows better than we ourselves know what is for our benefit. We do not force anyone to believe as we do. The public and private schools both teach Islam and Christianity.
"In November 1988 Arafat issued a birth certificate for the Palestinian State and under religion he stated: ‘None.’ This is because we are a secular state. As Muslims and Christians we live together peacefully and our attitude is citizenship is for everyone. Everybody should have freedom of belief, traditions and a personal life. Hamas does not propose anything that contradicts Christianity.
"Our slogan is: Remove Suffering for everyone. The issue of Israel is about the occupation. We have no problems with religious beliefs; our problem is that Israel is illegally occupying our land. Since March 2005, we have honored a unilateral cease-fire. But Israel martyred 200 Palestinians, injured 1,200 and has detained 3,500. Many are under the age of sixteen. In the last two weeks Israel has killed twenty-five Palestinian and yet we have maintained the cease-fire. Israel does not recognize us and recognition takes both sides.
"Abbas has stated that we do recognize Israel, but there must be clear borders and Israel does not yet have them. The PA recognized Israel ten years ago but we Palestinians are detained in an open air prison. We resist the occupation which is our right guaranteed under International Law. International Law demands Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders, release the prisoners, and stop the assassinations, illegal wall and home demolitions.
"Hamas defines terrorism as a violation of the rights of others and their property. Bush defined terrorism as evil. We are weak with resources and our voice is not heard in the West, only the voice of America and Israel gets press. America asked us to hold democratic elections and we did. We thank everyone who was involved in our transparent and democratic elections. We did what the USA asked and now they are punishing our people. Democracies are supposed to respect and not intervene in what others want.
"We had democratic and transparent elections and how are we rewarded? By the EU and the USA who have cut funds to the poorest of people who live under occupation. Hamas suggested that the International community monitor all the financial aid to assure that it went to the people and not to Hamas. We offered this suggestion to the world and we have been ignored.
"So now we look to the Arab and Muslim world to strengthen our local infrastructure and economy and hope to bring back investors. We know there are people in Europe and America who will not allow us to go hungry. We believe aid and support are in Gods hands and not governments."
All Quotes from Chapter 6, MEMOIRS of a Nice Irish-American 'Girl's' Life in Occupied Territory, by Eileen Fleming
The above first published on the www:
June 3, 2007 and @