Plan to Charge Non-Muslims special taxes in Bethlham - Mercedes-Benz Forum

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Plan to Charge Non-Muslims special taxes in Bethlham

The Mayor of Bethlehem is Christian, but It’s Hamas That’s in Charge
It exalts terrorism, wants to wipe out Israel, and is threatening a tax of non-Muslim residents. Its testing ground is the city of Jesus’s birth

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, December 29, 2005 – Thirty thousand pilgrims from all over the world came to Bethlehem for Christmas, one third more than the previous year. The leader of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim, attended the midnight Mass at the basilica of the Nativity. And in his homily, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, an Arab, hailed him as a man of peace, reserving his protest for “the wall raised up before us, forcing us to live as if in a prison, our lands confiscated, our young men carried away at night and thrown into the Israeli prisons.�

But in the city where Jesus was born, relations between Christians and Muslims are more complicated than they appear.

Christians are no longer the majority of the 30,000 inhabitants of the city, as they always were in the past The Muslims are now more numerous than the Christians in the same proportion that the mosques exceed the churches, by a margin of 15 to 10.

The mayor of Bethlehem is still a Christian, as always. Eight out of the fifteen seats on the city council are still reserved for Christians. But in the latest municipal elections, which took place in May of 2005, a coalition with crucial support from the Muslims of Hamas emerged victorious.

The leader of the Hamas contingent in the municipal council of Bethlehem, Hassam El-Masalmeh, exalts the suicide attacks against the Jews, and asserts that these will continue until all of Palestine, including the territory of Israel, is under Palestinian control.

But mayor Victor Batarseh, a practicing Catholic, condemns the terrorist attacks and wants Hamas to stop carrying them out. He says that he is ready for a territorial compromise with Israel in order to bring about a true Palestinian state. But even before the latest municipal elections, he chose Hamas as his main ally, together with another extremist group called Islamic Jihad.

* * *

During the 1990’s, Bethlehem was governed by men connected with Yasser Arafat’s party, Fatah.

These men were accused of corruption and abuses against the Christian population. When the second intifada broke out, in 2000, part of Arafat’s security forces formed a new armed group, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.

In April of 2002, guerillas connected with Fatah, under hot pursuit from Israeli troops, occupied the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and – a lesser-known fact – other convents and Christian institutions in the city. The crisis developed before the eyes of the world, and ended with the liberation of the basilica. The leaders of the uprising were transferred to Gaza, and to a few European countries.

Hamas quickly stepped into the vacuum that was created. It won the favor of a large part of the population of Bethlehem, creating initiatives for health care, the care of orphans, union protection for workers, and fighting corruption. Future mayor Victor Batarseh, 71 years old, a doctor who had once been a militant in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, allied himself with Hamas and against the Fatah party, in view of the municipal elections in May of 2005. His platform was the fight against corruption, transparent government, and the improvement of citizens’ lives. According to his agreement with Hamas, the reasons for religious division between Christians and Muslims were to be kept at bay.

Batarseh was elected mayor, and the coalition he presided over began to put its plans into practice. It banned the use of municipal vehicles for private purposes; it closed unauthorized businesses; it put new rules in place for public works contracts, aimed at eliminating the waste of money; it fired the municipal employees who were on the payroll but didn’t do any work.

The men connected to Fatah reacted in a variety of ways. A few days before Christmas, militants of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades occupied the city hall in Bethlehem, demanding back pay and new hiring.

But the reactions drew upon other fears as well. Hanna Nasser, the previous mayor of Bethlehem, a Christian of the current that is close to Fatah, accused the new administration of “spreading Islamic fundamentalism.�

It is a fear that took shape after the electoral victory of Hamas, not only in Bethlehem’s municipal elections, but also in those of other cities of Cisjordan: Nablus, Jenin, Qalqilya. A new style can already be seen in the municipalities where Hamas is installed: Christian women employed there, who are accustomed to shaking everybody’s hand, are held at a distance by the newly elected, for whom physical contact violates Islamic principles.

The general plan of Hamas also includes the imposition of a special tax, called al-jeziya, upon all of the non-Muslim residents in the Palestinian territories. This tax revives the one applied through all of Islamic history to the dhimmi, the second-class Jewish and Christian citizens.

In an interview with Karby Legget, published in the December 23-26 edition of “The Wall Street Journal,� Masalmeh, the leader of the Hamas contingent at the municipal council of Bethlehem, confirmed: “We in Hamas intend to implement this tax someday. We say it openly – we welcome everyone to Palestine but only if they agree to live under our rules.�

Batarseh, the mayor, doesn’t agree. He doesn’t want the tax, and says it will never be introduced.

He knows well that living with Hamas is difficult. But he says he is convinced that “the only way to make Hamas more moderate is to bring them inside the system.�

It is the same gamble that Mahmoud Abbas has on a number of occasions said he will make: integrating Hamas into the political system so that after this it will abandon terrorism. But neither Israel nor the United States is willing to recognize Hamas as a party to dialogue unless it first abandons terrorism.

General political elections will be held in the Palestinian territories at the end of January. The puzzle that emerges may already have been written in Bethlehem.
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