Protests continue over Israeli occupation of Christian-owned land

By Ecumenical News International
March 3, 2010

Palestinian activists say they will continue protests against the apparent re-occupation of an abandoned Israeli army outpost on the outskirts of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem, despite being repelled by the Israel Defence Forces - writes Judith Sudilovsky.

"We are going to be there. We object to the military presence there, and will demonstrate peacefully against that presence there," said Bethlehem University professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, who belongs to the Greek Melkite Church and lives in Beit Sahour.

People at the 28 February protest said it turned violent after Israeli border police officials fired stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets at a group of about 75 banner-waving demonstrators. They had marched up to the outpost to protest about the Israeli presence there.

Although demonstrators began leaving the area after a sudden heavy downpour of rain, the border police continued firing at the group as they dispersed.

Following a similar incident the previous week, when women, children and older people are said to have participated, the second demonstration consisted mostly of older male leaders. Among them were some young male students - some of whom covered their faces with scarves known as keffiyahs - female students, and some foreigners. No injuries were reported.

Some of the young men began throwing stones after Israeli soldiers started shooting, while other demonstrators tried to stop the young men. Qumsiyeh said the organisers of the protest were, "not happy" with the stone throwing.

From 1967 until April 2006, Israel occupied the IDF outpost and surrounding area, known to Israelis as the Shdema base, and to Palestinians as Ush Ghrab. In addition, Israel occupied some 60 hectares (150 acres) belonging to about 100 families, most of whom are Christians. This land represents almost the only ground that has not been built upon in the vicinity. It had been declared a closed military area.

In April 2006, the army base was transferred. Still, because Israel in 1995 had declared the area to be under Israeli security control, Palestinians have been forbidden from bringing heavy machinery on to the land, although planting and sowing are permitted.

Local residents say that after the Beit Sahour municipality received verbal permission from Israel, it used some of the public land to build a park with a playground, and planned to construct an orthopaedic children's hospital on the rest of a 10 hectares (25 acres) site. However, subsequent requests for the building permits from the Israeli Civil Administration have not been answered.

In 2008, Israeli settlers began to demonstrate at the base against the "Palestinian construction," and in February 2009 the IDF started erecting a new guard tower in the area. Palestinians say this was done under pressure from settlers who are demanding that the area eventually be turned into an Israeli settlement. The IDF has denied this but did not respond to a phone inquiry from Ecumenical News International.

Sabina Blum, aged 65 and a Swiss volunteer with the World Council of Church's Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme, was at the 28 February protest. She said women and children from Beit Sahour had asked her and other programme members to attend the demonstration.

"We know from people it is very important. They are afraid they will lose the playground. This is the only playground for the children of Beit Sahour," said Blum.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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