Violence came to Bethlehem last May on a quiet Sunday morning. According to a report from the International Middle East Media Center, on 12 May 2013, Israeli soldiers fired concussion grenades at demonstrators who tried to enter Ush Ghrab, a section of the Bethlehem town of Beit Sahour.

Owned by generations of Palestinians, Israel wants to use the land at Ush Ghrab for part of a planned Jewish settlement.

Attacks by Israeli soldiers on villagers who protest the taking of their land occur regularly throughout the occupied West Bank but until recently, demonstrators at Ush Ghrab had been left alone.

Israel straddles a fine line in Bethlehem. Located close to the Church of the Nativity, birthplace of Jesus, the rights to the historically Christian land are being gauged against the avarice of newcomers eager to take it.

Less than a mile away from the venerated church, an attack on Ush Ghrab appears as an attack on the Christian values brought by the Prophet of Peace.

Surely, the use of force to control peaceful demonstrators does not bode well for Israel eager for the support from fundamental Christians, or for humanitarian values sustained by the rest of the world.

Secret lives shadowed by occupation,

Ush Ghrab, an Arab word meaning, “crows nest” reflects an historic bond between nature and the agricultural heritage of lands farmed by generations of Palestinians. Under occupation, the movements of every Palestinian are controlled by Israel.

Each day thousands of foreign visitors come to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and take the ten-minute bus ride to Shepherds Field where Christians believe shepherds sighted the bright star leading to the birthplace of Jesus.

Closely guarded, tourists are quickly hustled, and warned against leaving the group to explore on their own. They leave without meeting a local Palestinian, and unaware of their desperate plight.

New settlements now encircle the entire Bethlehem area. For a time, the Beit Sahour community remained hopeful that the violence directed at other West Bank demonstrators would not come to them.

Seldom reported in mainstream US media, Americans remain unaware of the daily attacks by hostile Jewish settlers and by the Israeli soldiers charged with defending them.

Tear gas, rubber coated metal bullets, sound grenades and “skunk water” spray are attempts to deter demonstrations against land confiscation; yet, in spite of injuries, arrests and the deaths of ordinary civilians, the protests grow.

A calculated land grab

In April 2006, the Israeli army unilaterally withdrew from their post at Ush Ghrab. Residents in the quiet residential neighborhood rejoiced; but short-lived joy turned to deep concern when Israel imposed a military control order for the entire area.

The Beit Sahour Municipality stepped in and successfully had the order lifted. Israel granted permits for the development of a community recreational park; but the application permits for a children’s hospital funded by Cure International had been repeatedly denied and plans for the hospital at Ush Ghrab had to be abandoned.

Construction of the “peace park” began that April. Shortly thereafter, Israeli protesters began to demonstrate against its existence and against the presence of Palestinians on “their land.” In 2008 Women in Green, an Israeli settler organization, began to arrange activities in the area they call Shdema in preparation for the establishment of a Jewish settlement.

The group claims that Arab Beit Sahour is illegally building the community center on part of their rightful Jewish land. Knesset members Arieh Eldad and Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdore Lieberman who live in settlements supported settler efforts.

In spite of Israeli events held at the abandoned military buildings, off limits to Palestinians, then Prime Minister Salam Fayyad inaugurated the Ush Ghrab Park in 2008.

In October 2009, park construction materials purchased with a loan from USAID were confiscated by the Israeli military. They were never returned. In January 2010, the park was vandalized: the Star of David, Hebrew writing and “Israel is Jewish” were spray painted over the park walls.

Shortly before March 2010, rumors circulated that another Jewish settlement was to be built on the former military site at Ush Ghrab. Local Palestinians feared re-occupation of the land Israel had agreed to turn over to the local municipality.

Late in March, rumors were confirmed when a watchtower was installed and the property on the hill was declared a military outpost off limits to Palestinians.

The army’s decision to allow illegal Israeli settlers to install a settlement outpost on city land used as a public park infuriated local residents. The intention was clear; Bethlehem land at Ush Ghrab was being stolen.

Neighboring villages of Al-Khadar, Wadi Foquin and Al-Walaja had also lost valuable farmland to walls and settlements.

The plan was predictable: declare a military zone, impose Jewish presence, harass and drive off the indigenous Arab population. Ush Ghrab is the calculated prelude to another land grab by avaricious settlers in the historically Arab region.

Sandwiched between the established Jewish settlements of Har Homa and Gush Etzion, Ush Ghrab is strategic because of a nearby bypass road connecting the colonial settlements, thus affording an easy access for colonizers to get to Jerusalem, seven kilometers away. Palestinians are prohibited use the Jewish only roads and are forbidden to enter Jerusalem.

Living history; a past becomes the future

Sunday, October 14, 2012:

I join a group of activists heading for the demonstration site a short distance from the home where I stay. The familiar area has changed. Four years ago, on my first visit to Beit Sahour, hope was high in anticipation of the construction of a new community park.

I had watched the park being built, talked with American volunteers excited about working with Palestinian locals and getting to know real Arabs, Christian and Muslim; and mainly getting to understand the people, a the real basis for peace.

I watched the rocky terrain smoothed, slides and swings and a climbing tower put up; picnic tables, a barbeque and a soccer field followed. By the end of that summer, the park, designated as “Peace Park,” was about complete; volunteers joined the community to celebrate with a party and soccer game on the new field.

For a time, a trailer-size building, the future military outpost, stood abandoned on the site of the one time dream for a children’s hospital. Then, graffiti appeared on its walls – Jewish stars, Hebrew writing – “Israel is Jewish.”

Repainted a few days later, Palestinian flags and “Free Palestine” slogans took over the space; soon it was repainted with a large blue Star of David and Hebrew characters.

Day by day invisible artists competed for the face of the concrete canvas building in the bizarre art fest. The paint war between Beit Sahour Arab residents and Jewish Shdema settlers continued.

When Israel designated the hilltop area a closed military zone, off limits to Palestinians, the dispute was thought settled. It wasn’t.

Now, four years later, Ush Ghrab remains contentious. Demonstrators assemble near the park entrance. Facing the hilltop outpost, they unfurl banners and hold high Palestine flags.

Two soldiers appear and take positions in front of the concrete building on the hill; two more come. More demonstrators arrive; then more soldiers in full battle gear, automatic rifles aimed menacingly at the unarmed gatherers below.

George Rishmawi, IMEMC news director uses a bullhorn to address the community demonstrators and their supporters, imploring them to be steadfast and resistant and to remain nonviolent. Peace activist Mazin Qumsiyeh takes the megaphone; passionate words encourage protesters to continue efforts to resist peacefully.

Talks end with a decision to approach settlement leaders and urge Shdema colonists to stop harassing families and children at the Ush Ghrab Park. George and Mazin lead local residents along the rocky hillside road toward the settlement headquarters.

Several hours pass; I wait by the park, meet a farmer who says he must hurry to tend his spinach garden before dark. The negotiation team returns at dusk, disappointed but hopeful. The leaders report that talk was polite and respectful, but ended as it had before, with promises but no guarantee of change.

Tent-in, a new protest strategy
October 28, 2012

A report by IMEMC stated that on Sunday, dozens of Palestinians and international supporters had set up a tent at Ush Ghrab after church services. The Popular Resistance Committee in Beit Sahour had organized the action aimed to stop settlement construction in the area. The report said that Israeli soldiers arrived but did not interfere.

Setting up “tent cities” on rightful Palestinian territory is a recent non-violent resistance strategy gaining popularity in the West Bank.

Israeli retaliation is usually swift; declared to be a threat to nearby Jewish colonies, or too close to military zones, IDF soldiers pull down the tents and run off or arrest Palestinian “culprits.”

Aware of the consequences, Palestinian protesters say it serves to irritate the soldiers and highlights Israel’s intention to take over all Palestine land.

Sunday November 4, 2012:

It is late Sunday morning when I arrive at Ush Ghrab in the company of activists ready to stand their ground. A tent has already been set up midway on the hillside overlooking the park.

Two Palestinian flags wave in a soft, warm breeze, one at the base of the hill and the other by the entrance to the ragged tent. I stand beside the tent, look down at the little park and family recreation place across the road.

Sunlight glances off the children’s Ferris wheel, livening seats of bright yellow, mossy green and sky blue in a glittery beckoning dance.

Above, the outpost stands in eerie silence; sun-warming rays seem repelled by its lifeless cold. No soldiers in sight, but I think, perhaps watchtower cameras execute a covert survey.

About a dozen people seated inside the tent smoke and talk in a cacophonous mix of Arab and English, French and Spanish; pleasantly jovial, there seems little concern for impending trouble.

I walk alone slowly up the hill; look down at the powdery earth, the rock strewn scrub patches of drought-dusted greenery, my thoughts on its myriad of occupiers.

Potshards and bones turned by farmers’ spades attest to centuries of invaders – Recent, the Ottoman, British, Jordanian and now Israel. Following British reign over the Bethlehem area from 1920 to 1948, Jordanians used the outpost as a military base until 1967 when Israel claimed the hill – spoils of a six-day war.

Capture the Flag; a risky Occupied Village Game
My companions leave the tent; others join them and dozens come toward me up the hill. I watch them climb over thorny briers, twist barbed wire out of the way then hoist themselves up onto a ledge approach at the base of the outpost.

A young man of about eighteen carries two Palestinian flags. The group disappears around a side of the building. About twenty minutes pass before they reappear.

A teenaged girl carries a large Israeli flag. High above the outpost, close to the watchtower, two Palestinian flags wave as if in triumph. Off limits to Palestinians, the defiant mood among the young people reflects victory and empowerment.

They talk excitedly about how they entered the vacant building, scattered papers and turned over chairs before leaving.

A few days later, I left for the states; at home, my thoughts still on that day at Ush Ghrab, and on the rave new generation of young protesters risking for the land they love. What price this short-lived victory? I wonder. And what will be the fate of their beloved land?

A short distance from Ush Ghrab, the Greek Orthodox chapel at Shepherd’s Field holds legacies of the defeated; Roman columns, Greek, Byzantine and Persian art, treasures of the unconquerable. What “gift” will Israel leave?

What next?

Ravaged by a past bathed in bloodshed, Christian and Muslim citizens of Beit Sahour vow to follow the legacy left by the “Prince of Peace.”

A short distance from the Church of the Nativity, they try to hold on to the patch of precious ground, roughly 97 dunums (0.1 square kilometers) that is Ush Ghrab – Palestine soil.

Each day sees more land taken, more lives destroyed, and more neighbors driven off. An uncaring world, hears only Israel’s cry for its right to exist, while desperate Palestinians hover on the brink of extinction.

Sadly, US government policy renders unconditional support for Israel while ignoring Palestinian rights and underplaying orchestrated policies of land theft. Without strong censure of Israel’s disregard for international law and with the eye of the US turned away, there seems little chance for survival.

The US president hypocritically gives Israel the proverbial “slap on the wrist” while allowing settlements to proceed unabated.

Taxpayer aid supplies weapons to ensure Israel remains in “control,” continues confiscation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements and proceeds with what is clearly, a case of ethnic cleansing.
Without the support of a fair broker, anger in the Arab world grows; but so also do worldwide protest movements demanding justice for all.

The basis of the Arab Spring, justice for the millions of Palestinians scattered throughout the world lies at the core. High-level “peace” negotiations, doomed before they start, will continue to fail until the basic human rights of all people are on the table.

Update: June 2013

To celebrate is to exist. An e-mail from a friend in Beit Sahour rings with excitement; at Aosh Gorab (Ush Ghrab) a “good garden was built.”

She expresses her excitement about an upcoming Bethlehem celebration “where you can shop on Star Street at local Palestinian markets and enjoy international music, theatre and dance… and Children will be entertained with games, face painting, interactive theatre and more! Her enthusiasm rises above the oppression of occupation.