Letter from Bethlehem: Symbolism of the light

  • Toine van Teeffelen

Photo: Ahed Tamimi from Nabi Saleh

Photo: Ahed Tamimi from Nabi Saleh

Palestinian universities, schools, shops and working places in the West Bank close for a few days after Trump's statement about Jerusalem. Mary and I look out of the window and see how youth from 'Azza refugee camp come together to throw stones at Israel's military bastion around Rachel's Tomb in north Bethlehem.

Mary thinks it will be a "sad Christmas," with the lights out, but I hope not. There are discussions in Bethlehem whether the Christmas celebrations should continue and the Christmas street lights stay on. The lights, among them of the large Christmas tree in Nativity Square, are momentarily switched off, as a sign of mourning.

But new lightning symbols of sumud or steadfastness are shared across the Palestinian homes, especially through Facebook. The 16-year old girl Ahed Tamimi from Nabi Saleh, a village near Ramallah, slaps an armed soldier, with bare hands or fists. Two soldiers stand in front of her family house. She thinks, like her family, that they shouldn't be there, and have to leave. The soldiers refuse.

It is one of the countless incidents that take place, involving youths many of whom remain unknown. Only in a camp like Aida, not far from our house, some 200 youth of the 5000 inhabitants stay in prison. However, a brief video about Ahed's particular challenge goes viral and leads to great interest among Palestinians and great dissatisfaction in Israel. How dare she. It turns out that in past years she tried several times to remove soldiers from Nabi Saleh, by pulling, pushing and biting. Israeli Minister Bennett of Jewish National Home communicated she should get life imprisonment.

A few days later she and her mother are picked up from home, in the middle of the night, and all computers and mobiles removed. Her father does not think that she will always stay behind bars but rather that she is destined to become a leader.

Another symbol of sumud and resistance going viral these days is Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, 29, a Palestinian activist. In a protest not far from the Israeli border of Gaza he was shot dead by the Israeli army, a week ago. He sat in a wheel chair as he lost both legs and his kidney when an Israeli helicopter shot him in 2008 near the Gaza border after he was found replacing an Israeli flag with a Palestinian one.

During the current protests he moved himself on daily base in the direction of the border, as his brother told the media. The Israeli army declared afterwards to have opened fire against the main "instigators" of the protests near the Gazan border. Like Ahed, Ibrahim was not afraid.

Besides resistance, a willingness to sacrifice and much courage, sumud has a different side: continuing daily life-under-pressure. Or: existence is resistance.

Despite intense anger and sadness, Palestinian Christians feel it as their vocation to continue with the Christmas celebrations, so as to show that there is tradition and identity, also in Bethlehem, this special town.

There is of course tension between celebration and resistance. This is well-known from the first and the second Intifada when for instance wedding celebrations could not take place, sometimes because they were made impossible by the Israeli army, sometimes because the political climate was not in favour.

In Bethlehem and environment Christmas lights have again been switched on after three days of mourning. Now you hear once again the familiar Christmas music on the streets. Youth walk through the cars and sell red balloons and Santa Claus caps. The youth unemployment is not so hidden.

Last week the Joint Advocacy Initiative in Beit Sahour made an international appeal to switch off Christmas lights as sign of solidarity and switch them on as sign of commitment to work on a just peace.

See a petition calling for Ahed and all child prisoners to be freed, here: https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/free_ahed/?fKEUnbb

Toine van Teeffelen is Head of Education at the AEI-Open Windows Centre in Bethlehem.

Tags: Ahed Tamimi, Bethlehem, Holy Land, Toine van Teeffelen

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