In 1989, the West Bank village of Bayt Sahour made international headlines by staging a successful tax strike against Israeli military authorities. My introduction to Bayt Sahour came six years earlier, in late December 1983, when I attended Latin Christmas Eve celebrations at Manger Square in neighboring Bethlehem. In mid-afternoon, Palestinian scouts in colorful uniforms, carrying banners and playing bagpipes and drums, marched into the square to greet the Latin Patriarch on his arrival from Jerusalem to prepare for Midnight Mass.

Scout processions had been a common sight at Muslim and Christian ceremonies throughout the Occupied Territories before the intifada. Despite their barely subdued militancy, they were permitted by the Israeli authorities because the scouts were sponsored by religious institutions. Perhaps the Israelis also took heart from differences between Muslim and Christian scouts. Muslims, at feasts like ‘Id al-Adha and ‘Id al-Fitr, marched in black-and-white “Fatah” kaffiyyas; their banners bore the nationalist tetrad of green, red, black and white. Among the Christians, the uniforms and banners served solely to distinguish between the scouts’ various sectarian identities (Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Franciscan and so on). Top church leaders, until recently exclusively foreign, have restricted the public discourse of the Christian scouts to the celebration of religious identity only, for fear of offending the Israeli authorities.

At the Bethlehem Christmas procession, no Muslim troops were allowed to march with the Christians, and the Latin Patriarchate effectively censored any expressions of nationalism. Nothing suggested that these young men and women scouts shared a political identity with each other and with the excluded Muslims.

There was one exception. The Bayt Sahour scouts, although organized into sectarian groups like the others, were dressed uniformly. Ranging from their early teens to their mid-thirties, they wore black-and-white kaffiyyas and shoulder patches with the scout fleur-de-lis in the nationalist green, red, black and white colors. People in the crowd were clearly nonplussed not only by the scouts’ overtly political appearance but also by the uniformity accorded to the religious denominations. Later, the Bayt Sahour scouts invited me to come to their town the next day to see “the real Christmas celebration.”

On Christmas Day the winding streets of this hilly town, a mile to the east of Bethlehem, were crowded with local people and bereft of outsiders. The focus of enthusiasm, as in Bethlehem, was the scout troops, but in Bayt Sahour the procession was very different. For one thing, it was much more militant. In Bethlehem the troops had seemed to be flirting with the crowd, calling out to friends and family in the audience and showing off with bravura poses and exaggerated baton tosses; in Bayt Sahour men and women marched in disciplined formation, their faces set and fixed firmly forward. More significant was the strong presence of Muslim troops, not only from Bayt Sahour but also from as far away as Ramallah, Silwan and Jerusalem. Scout uniforms were less flamboyant, and where on the previous day the bright insignia of the various sectarian communities had stood out strongly, here all the scouts had covered the badges of their particular units with green, red, black and white fleur-de-lis patches.

After the parade, they gathered for two hours to chant nationalist slogans, dance with their kaffiyyas wrapped around their heads, and enthusiastically applaud a succession of speakers (scout and civilian alike) who referred to them as “rifles for the pleasure of Abu ‘Ammar’s [Yasser Arafat’s] eyes” while discussing the complexities of organizing a united Muslim and Christian “pan-Palestinian scout movement” in the face of the opposition of church and mosque. [1]

Alternative Identities

Bayt Sahour is a largely Christian town of around 12,000. In 1984, Father Pena of the Franciscan Order estimated that 83 percent was Christian, largely Greek Orthodox but with substantial numbers of Latin and Greek Catholics and much smaller Lutheran and Syrian Orthodox populations. [2] Christians and Muslims I spoke with in Bayt Sahour in January 1989 put the Muslim population between 25 and 30 percent, but this estimate may be inflated by Bayt Sahouran pride in having overcome religious differences. Two of the eight municipal council members are Muslim, but people are quick to point out that they are there as spokespersons for major, family groups which happen to be Muslim. The distinction is significant: Bayt Sahourans see themselves as Palestinians who happen to be either Christian or Muslim, rather than as Christians and Muslims who happen to live in Palestine.

I have returned to Bayt Sahour several times over the years, and have been struck each time by the townspeople’s dedication to a non-sectarian community in the face of attempts by Israelis, Islamist activists and foreign-led churches to separate Muslim from Christian in the Occupied Territories. Israeli encouragement of Palestinian sectarianism is a continuation of the policy of divide-and-rule it has used against “non-Jewish minorities” in Israel and the Occupied Territories since 1948. [3] The state’s covert support of the Muslim Brothers through the mid-1980s and the free rein it gave to the Hamas movement until May 1989 are facets of a strategy of dividing Palestinians along sectarian lines so as to undermine the foundations of the nationalist movement. [4]

Between 1982 and 1987, the Muslim Brothers for their part orchestrated a campaign of violence and intimidation against the secularist movements, severely disrupting their activities on university campuses throughout the Occupied Territories. Christians, as a “people of the Book,” are not attacked by the Islamists as Christians per se. Palestinian Christians dismiss Israeli attempts to get them thinking that the Muslims are turning against them. A Hamas communique condemning “the wealthy Christians of Bayt Sahour” for having “drunk and danced with the Israelis since the beginning of the intifada” was immediately identified as an Israeli forgery.

In large part, the foreign-dominated Christian churches define Palestine as the “Holy Land” and treat it as a repository of sanctity for the edification of priests and pilgrims. Since 1948, the churches have maintained and expanded their property holdings, gained residence permits for monks, nuns and clergy, and facilitated the flow of their pilgrims by nurturing good relations with the state of Israel — which meant, even more than before, ignoring the plight of Palestinian Christians. [5] One man in Bayt Sahour, where over 80 percent of the Christian population is Greek Orthodox, expressed the feelings of local Christians toward the Church quite succinctly: “We have two imperialisms here — the Zionists and the Greeks…. They [the Greeks] are more interested in religion than in us.”

Bayt Sahourans are committed to the idea of unifying different religious communities within the borders of a single secular state, and they reject the sectarian tendency to define public space and public identities in religious terms. The sections of the town are not referred to in millet terms — Christian Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Syrian Quarter and so forth — but bear the names of significant locales in the history of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood: They call the highest section of town Shuqayf Castle, and refer to other areas as Tal al-Za‘atar and Shatila. Religious difference is similarly not a factor in determining the character of interaction between individuals: “We do not remember [that] we are from different religions unless somebody from outside reminds us,” one person told me. “We are Christians and Muslims in spirit and in our hearts, but in public we are Palestinian.”

Strategic Identities

Repudiating public markers of religious identity does not signal a renunciation of religion itself. The houses in which I listened to the most virulent rejections of sectarianism were dense with signs of religiosity: Pictures of the Virgin Mary (in both Christian and Muslim houses) or of Mecca (in Muslim houses) were hung next to photographs of relatives and neighbors who had been jailed or killed by the Israelis. Religion in Bayt Sahour, as in much of Palestine, is a significant aspect of people’s identity, and to deny the people religion in the name of nationalism is no more feasible than denying them nationhood in the name of religion.

In the days before the intifada, Bayt Sahourans celebrated Christmas and other religious feasts, arguing that the expression of Palestinian culture is in itself a nationalist act. As one scout told me in 1985: “It is on the feast days that you see the nation of Palestine on its streets.” The decision not to celebrate Christmas in 1988 or 1989, either on the streets or within the homes, signals an escalation in the stakes rather than a move to abandon cultural expression in favor of revolutionary puritanism. It testifies powerfully to the feeling that identity cannot be celebrated without the statehood that would grant people integrity: “We want to celebrate Christmas with dignity, the way it was before the Israelis were here.”

Bayt Sahour’s non-sectarian strategies of resistance to Israeli occupation have evolved out of the town’s traditions. Muslims and Christians see themselves as having lived together in the community since its beginnings; myths of the town’s origins refer to settlement by two families — the Muslim Juraysh and the Christian ‘Ajjaj. Relations between Christians and Muslims both within Bayt Sahour and in interactions with neighboring (largely Muslim) villages have been good, facilitated by shared interests. Abu ‘Atallah, an 87-year old Christian, says that: “The Muslims and the Christians are brothers since my great-great-great-grandfather.” He said that women from the nearby Bedouin village of Za‘atara used to sleep in Christian homes when they came to market in Bayt Sahour, and that Bayt Sahouran women would sleep with confidence in Za‘atara when they went to the hills to collect thorn plants for kindling.

One local teacher, a devout Muslim, told me that his father, born into a large and indigent family from a Muslim village near Hebron, had been “adopted” in 1917, when he was 11, by a Christian mason from Bayt Sahour who had quarried building stone in the village. The teacher, who subsequently attended Bethlehem University, recalled a childhood of going to Sunday School with his Christian “cousins,” sharing Muslim celebrations with his family, and attending each others’ feasts. “We carry ‘araq [an anise-flavored liquor] to their weddings,” he told me. “We bring to them what makes them happy. We are not fanatic; we do not have such sensitivities. We are trying to keep living in the same way, not being influenced by the occupation mentality. They [the Israelis] are trying to break apart a culture we have built over centuries.”

Bayt Sahour, unlike nearby Bethlehem and Bayt Jala, has the advantage of retaining a “knowable community.” Both Bethlehem and Bayt Jala were swollen by refugees in 1948, and both have lost large numbers of residents to the Palestinian diaspora. Bayt Sahour, perhaps because it was the furthest east of the three towns when Israel conquered the western plains in 1948, has not had to take in substantial numbers of refugees. Emigration from Bayt Sahour has been light. Individual Bayt Sahourans who emigrate leave their property in the hands of family members rather than selling it because “no one in Bayt Sahour leaves the land forever; they always intend to come back.” Bayt Sahour remains “an integral community with a long tradition” capable of working cooperatively to build on that stable social base.

People know and depend on each other, and recount a collective history which stretches back for generations through the stories they have heard from parents and grandparents. That history’s landmarks, which I heard referred to time and time again, are occasions when the community fought under a single banner to protect what people perceived as their common interest. One man recounted stories he had heard from his grandparents about Bayt Sahour’s resistance to the Ottoman draft during World War I (“People here were under people who claimed to be Muslims but who oppressed the Muslims, too. They had to ask themselves: ‘What are we? Is this a religious war or not? Is this an occupation?’”). Other stories spoke of Muslims and Christians marching together to Nabi Musa in opposition to the British Mandate; of Baathist, Nasserist and finally Communist demonstrations against the Jordanian occupation; and of the long history of Bayt Sahouran support for the Popular Front and the Democratic Front during the period of Israeli rule.

Bayt Sahourans may, of course, mythologize somewhat in narrating the history of their community, but such mythologizing serves an important social and political function by providing people with images of the kind of support they can expect from neighbors when they are in need of help or when they are attempting to mobilize political programs. The imagined community of the stories has taken on substance during the intifada as Bayt Sahourans organized popular committees, mobilized tax resistance, and developed mutual aid and self-sufficiency projects.

Resistance Identities

The Israeli occupation has forced Bayt Sahourans to consider their traditional non-sectarian solidarity in a new light, as army depredations have demonstrated to Christians and Muslims that “there is another who is enemy to us both.” On the walls of many houses in Bayt Sahour I saw the picture of a young man, Basim Rishmawi, who disappeared in 1981 on the evening of April 11. The Israeli military returned his severely mutilated body after a week, claiming that he had been killed when a bomb he had been making exploded prematurely. No one believed the story, and people say the fact Rishmawi died rather than anyone else was arbitrary. His death has become an emblem of the fate that any Bayt Sahouran can expect: “It could have happened to anybody, and by chance the victim was Basim.” Last year, Edmond Ghanim was killed while walking down the main street when a soldier dropped a stone on him from the third floor of the municipality building. The same arbitrariness is evident in the tax raids. People have learned that all are the same in the eyes of the occupier and have drawn the obvious conclusion: “We see that one day it is one person and the next day another. The following day it may be us, so we say khalas [enough] and begin to work to stop it.”

This recognition that Israeli occupation threatens the community as a whole has led Bayt Sahourans to mobilize the resources of the community against that occupation. Strategies like the refusal of the entire citizenry to pay taxes to the military government have succeeded here because Bayt Sahourans have refused to allow the Israelis to create a divide between their individual interests and their collective commitment to liberation. In Bayt Sahour people have provided networks to share the community’s resources with the 250 or so households attacked by the tax officers. They have refused to let the Israelis isolate particular persons to be punished as “examples” to the community. When Israeli soldiers raided Bayt Sahour’s central market in July 1988, confiscating the identity cards of merchants and customers in order to deprive them of mobility and other privileges until they paid taxes, the headquarters of the military administration in Bethlehem was flooded with Bayt Sahourans who turned in their identity cards in solidarity.

Israel’s strategy of “making sure the Arabs have something to lose” has collapsed in Bayt Sahour, a town which has a lot to lose. Bayt Sahour has been able to generate substantial wealth out of its own factories, artisans’ workshops and retail shops, and very few of its people have to work for Israeli businesses. The choice of keeping their goods at the price of their dignity has proved unalluring to Bayt Sahourans even after more than 250 homes and businesses have been stripped of goods to the value of $5 million. The community remains committed to “not one shekel for the occupation.” The logic of consumerism has, in fact, been inverted. “Those of us who have not had our things confiscated are envious of those who have,” one woman told me. “It is like your neighbor building a new house.”

The resources of religion, so often mobilized to divide and oppose the Palestinian people, have been appropriated by the people of Bayt Sahour and marshaled in the defense of their national aspirations. People remember with pleasure the moment when Sheikh Saad al-Din al-‘Alami, mufti of Jerusalem and head of the Islamic Council, stood at the pulpit of Bayt Sahour’s Orthodox church and pronounced a fatwa (religious edict) against the purchase of the confiscated Bayt Sahouran goods Israeli tax officials were putting up for auction in Tel Aviv. On Christmas Eve, South African bishop Desmond Tutu addressed a massive crowd at Shepherd’s Field Church and drew direct comparisons between the situation of blacks in his country and Palestinians under Israel.

These powerful rhetorical moments, addressed to an international audience, are aspects of a larger project, a quieter project. One man in Bayt Sahour put it best when he told me in January 1990 that “we must nationalize our beliefs and rebuild our customs so they reflect our national life.” This particular national-colonialist struggle seems, in Bayt Sahour, to have progressed a long way.


[1] Between 1983 and 1987, I maintained contact with the “pan-Palestinian scout movement” which, in that period, expanded considerably. In March 1987 it was working in close collaboration with Mubarak Awad’s Center for the Study of Non-Violence in organizing a West Bank boycott of Israeli goods. In January 1989 I asked about the scouts and was told “the scouts have closed up their buildings…. They made the connections, and will open again when they are needed.”
[2] “Christian Presence in the Holy Land,” a mimeographed handout from the Christian Information Center, Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem. Pena estimates Bayt Sahour’s total population in 1984 at 8,900, of which 7,400 were Christian (6,000 Greek Orthodox, 670 Roman Catholics, 500 Greek Catholics, 200 Lutherans and 30 Syrian Orthodox). His estimates were drawn from interviews with local parish priests, and the total figure may be low.
[3] See Ian Lustick, Arabs in the Jewish State: Israel’s Control of a National Minority (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980) and Salim Tamari, “Factionalism and Class Formation in Recent Palestinian History,” in Roger Owen, ed., Studies in the Economic and Social History of Palestine in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London: Macmillan, 1982).
[4] See Lisa Taraki, “The Islamic Resistance Movement in the Palestinian Uprising,” Middle East Report 156 (January-February 1989).
[5] There appears to be a correlation between disinterest in the local peoples and control of properties maintained for the delectation of pilgrims. The Greek Catholic and Anglican churches, with few Holy Land monuments to maintain for foreign visitors, have most strongly supported their Palestinian congregations. Two years into the intifada, there are signs from the two most powerful churches that things may be changing. A Palestinian, Michel Sabbah, was appointed Latin Patriarch, and the Greek Orthodox patriarchate drafted a statement, signed by all the major churches in Jerusalem, condemning Israeli brutalities (this was issued on October 26, after three weeks of brutal tax confiscations in Bayt Sahour had made the situation of Orthodox Christians in the territories impossible to disregard).

How to cite this article:

Glenn Bowman "Religion and Political Identity in Bayt Sahour," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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