Palestine Visit : Our Stay in Beit Sahour

Palestine Visit : Our Stay in Beit Sahour

By Irfan Engineer

After Jerusalem, overnight we stayed in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian Village. The 30 odd Peace Pilgrimage delegates were distributed themselves amongst various Palestinian families so that we could get to know Palestinians better. Palestinian families were supposed to host two delegates each. I and Sandhya Mhatre were hosted by Simon, his wife Faraaz and their two children. Simon drove us to his house in his car from the office of Alternative Tourism Group and had prepared a special welcome drink and dinner for us. Simon had hosted many others as well in the past and had arranged the basement of his house for guests with independent access. We had a long chat with Simon and Faraaz after dinner. Faraaz was a school teacher, she had to get up early and she therefore excused herself. Simon had constructed his house in defiance of the Israeli dictates and rules. Though the land belonged to him, he and others were not allowed to construct houses even on their land. Beit Sahour is under Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Agreement. The Israeli soldiers would come anytime to inspect if any new construction was in progress by Palestinians without their permission. If applied for, the permission would never be granted. The only option left was to defy and construct houses. About 20 Palestinian families had constructed their houses on the land owned by them on the hill top along with Simon. Construction would go on mostly during night and during the day time the hill top area would look deserted place. To construct houses in this fashion was as good as fighting a war with Israel. For, if caught, the consequences would not be demolition of the “illegal” house, but court martial as it would violate Military Order. After the construction was completed in this fashion, it was again another humongous task to get electricity and water connections. They managed to get that after heavy lobbying and efforts of Palestinian Authority, they managed to get the necessary electricity and water connections. Simon uses his house to host tourists and never tires to tell them about their struggle. Simon’s house was done very tastefully with the cream coloured stones that are available in abundance in the area.

The population of Beit Sahour was about ten thousand. A little more than 50% were Christians and the rest were Muslims. Simon looked at me amazed when I asked him if there were any tensions between Muslims and Christians in Beit Sahour. I apologetically explained to him that we faced communal conflicts in India and hence the question. He had heard about demolition of Babri Mosque though he didn’t know anything about attacks on Christians in India. Did Islamic fundamentalism bother him? Only a bit. Simon was supporter of Al Fatah party of President Abbas, though he also supported Hamas as they were honest and sincere to their cause. However, he disapproved concept of Islamic State as it would exclude the Christian Palestinians. He kept on repeating that religion and politics should not be mixed.

Simon had a business of wood carvings and had his own workshop. The business had a large market outside Beit Sahour but Simon did not have permit to enter Jerusalem and Check points terrified him. Even to go to Ramallah, which is the largest city under the Palestinian Authority, he would have to pass through Jerusalem for which he had no permit. As a result, Simon could not develop his business and had to wait for customers to come to his workshop. That meant only foreign tourists or Israelis could visit his workshop besides residents of Beit Sahour. Simon had traveled several times to US to tap the US market. He got approved orders and shipped his goods. There is a good demand in US for his products. However, he did not get license to export his goods and was also denied permit to travel to US to develop his market. Whenever in US, he would stay with an Indian and even boasted to us his Hindi vocabulary which was limited to 2-3 words. People in Beit Sahour cannot “export” anything outside their village as all the goods would have to pass through Israeli check points and permits depend on absolute discretion of the Israeli Military. The same is true for “imports” in Beit Sahour. Most of the goods used in Simon’s house were “imported”, right from milk, cheese and salt. Even life saving medicines have to be “imported” and Military check points decide how urgently medicines should be allowed to pass the check point and of which company. Needless to say, that all the decisions are based on the consideration of promoting Israeli companies and economy and thwarting Palestinian economy. I was wandering why Simon was still living in Palestine while he could have emigrated to US and developed his business. His answer was, “come what may, I don’t want to leave my land. That is what the Israelis want. I don’t want them to succeed”. I realized that mere survival in Palistine meant commitment on the part of Palestinians. To leave Palestine would be in many cases, a far lucrative and easy option than the daily struggle to live as a colonized human when every aspect of your life depends on your colonizers, except the air you breathe. Entire life in one village with a population of 10,000?

Simon’s 16 year old daughter wanted to study Management in another country, but she quickly corrected herself and said, she will go to Ramallah and get a job there and study and grow up to serve her Palestine. Brave and committed are the children of Palestine who shun the easy option of leaving their country and are able to dream to serve in their Palestine.

Irfan Engineer
Director, Institute of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, Mumbai, India