Israelis Drop Efforts to Crush Arab Tax Revolt


Israeli troops and tax officials withdrew from Beit Sahur on Tuesday, ending a near-siege that failed to crush a tax revolt. For six weeks, they had restricted access to Beit Sahur and confiscated household and industrial goods from defiant residents.

The withdrawal ended one of the most unusual episodes of the Arab uprising. Beit Sahur, a middle-class community of 12,000 people at the edge of Bethlehem, was the first and only town in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest the occupation by resisting every form of Israeli taxation.

The protest enraged Israeli officials, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed to “teach them a lesson.” Israeli authorities forbade outsiders to enter, intercepted supplies of food, cut telephone lines, arrested dozens of tax resisters and, most recently, threatened to freeze the bank accounts of all residents.


Still, almost no one paid, despite raids on homes day and night and heated debate within the community about whether it would not be better to work out some sort of deal with the authorities. Complaints from church officials in Jerusalem and from Pope John Paul II in Rome--Beit Sahur is largely Christian--were mounting as the confrontation dragged on.

On Tuesday, as troops swept aside stone and sand roadblocks, residents celebrated by chanting, “Israelis, out!” and singing the Palestinian anthem, “My Homeland, My Homeland.”

Privately, residents were cautious, aware that the blockade could be restored at any time.

“I am happy,” said Raji Qumsiyeh, an upholsterer who lost his living room and dining room furniture and his television set to the tax men. “But the soldiers could come back in two days or two weeks. We don’t know.”

The troops maintained a large encampment in fields next to the site where Christians believe angels announced the birth of Christ. As they pulled out Tuesday, a military communique announced that “tax collection and law and order will continue . . . in the future as planned.”

Army officials sought to put the best face on the decision to withdraw. They said that $1.5 million worth of goods had been taken from more than 300 families, and they expressed satisfaction that no other town had taken up Beit Sahur’s cry of “no taxation without representation.”

Brig. Gen. Shaike Erez, military governor of the West Bank, told Israel Radio that he was “convinced the tax rebellion is broken.”


The dispute put Israel in an awkward position. The troops were not dealing with people throwing stones or gasoline bombs but with people who folded their arms in passive resistance. And closing the town to outsiders recalled uncomfortable images of the repression of Jews in Europe. During the tax raids, soldiers tried to bar reporters, members of the Parliament and clergymen from entering the town.

Israeli critics of the situation saw it not as a question of tax collection but of authority.

“The nature of what happened was a contest over who is the sovereign in Beit Sahur,” commented Dedi Zucker, a leftist member of Parliament. “It hasn’t been proved that Israel is the real sovereign in Beit Sahur.”

In the more than 22 months of the uprising against Israeli rule, Palestinians have reduced their tax payments by an estimated 50% or more. Last spring, the government curtailed health benefits and sought to justify the measure on grounds that the Palestinians were withholding taxes.

Although Beit Sahur became something of a symbol abroad, it is not at all clear that its example will be followed by others. As a matter of rebel policy, many towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have decided that some taxes should be paid in order to keep the struggling economy afloat.

In Nablus, considered the most militant of West Bank towns, factory owners and farmers are encouraged to pay taxes to keep up employment and exports. Exporters cannot send goods abroad without the permission of the Israeli government.


In Bethlehem, many merchants pay taxes to keep the town open to tourists.

In Beit Sahur, there was a deep division, along generational lines, over the wisdom of holding out. Mayor Hanna Atrash tried to negotiate a truce with the military authorities so that residents would have time to reconsider. But young activists held out for a total strike. They burned the car of a resident who went to pay his taxes in an effort to keep soldiers from confiscating goods from his pharmacy.

Activists in Gaza and Nablus were heard to grumble about the attention received by the town for losing television sets and stereo equipment while elsewhere, the toll of dead mounted daily at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

Other places are caught up in intra-Arab violence, with Palestinian militants killing suspected collaborators. On Tuesday in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza, masked youths hacked to death a nurse who worked at a local hospital. She was accused of giving the names of wounded activists to Israeli agents.

Last week, five masked attackers stabbed a nurse to death at the same hospital. They painted slogans on a wall accusing the victim of collaborating with Israeli security forces.

More than 125 Palestinians have been killed by other Palestinians since the uprising began. Israeli soldiers have killed about 600 Arabs.