IDF Lifts Siege on Beit Sahur, Saying It It Quashed Tax Revolt

The Israel Defense Force lifted its siege of Beit Sahur on Tuesday, claiming a “successful” operation against residents of the West Bank village, who had refused to pay their taxes.

The Israeli authorities said all persons who owed taxes had either paid them, had their property confiscated or been arrested during the five-week confrontation.

But there was no sign that the tax revolt ended voluntarily in the affluent, mainly Christian Arab town. The confrontation, however, was attracting international media attention, most of it harmful to Israel’s image.

The authorities took punitive measures against the entire population, instead of simply going after the 320 local merchants who originally balked at paying taxes.

That was because the IDF and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin saw the tax revolt as a test of strength against the leadership of the Palestinian uprising. Rabin declared only last week that the tough measures would continue as long as tax resistance lasted.

The IDF claimed the revolt was tightly organized by local committees affiliated with the extremist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

More moderate Palestinian groups, such as Al Fatah, were forced to comply, and merchants preferred to lose property rather than defy the leadership of the intifada, the Israelis said.

HAD GENERATED CRITICISM ABROAD

The IDF seized over a million dollars’ worth of property, including merchandise, individual bank accounts and 33 vehicles. The military authorities arrested 40 recalcitrant merchants and, so far, has put four of them on trial.

While public opinion in most countries may regard the seizure of property in lieu of taxes as reasonable, the collective punishment imposed on Beit Sahur generated criticism against Israel abroad.

The army’s measures included dusk-to-dawn curfews, the cut-off of telephones and other utilities, and the total isolation of the town. No one was allowed to enter or leave without permission of the IDF.

That policy backfired last Friday, when Israeli troops denied entry to three leaders of Jerusalem’s Christian clergy: the patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic churches.

They immediately called a news conference, at which they accused the Israeli authorities of denying them the right to pray with their congregants in Beit Sahur.

A mass prayer meeting was announced there for next Sunday. World leaders, including President Bush, were invited to send representatives.

The Israeli authorities, contemplating a situation where hundreds of worshipers would be barred from entering the town, began to relent last weekend. On Sunday, the IDF allowed seven left-wing Knesset members to visit Beit Sahur.

The authorities still insist there was no justification for the tax revolt, except as a ploy of the intifada.

Residents disagree. They charge that they do not receive public services commensurate with their tax burden. They object to the use of their taxes to pay the salaries of hundreds of Israeli civil servants in the West Bank and to maintain IDF soldiers there.

The authorities say the taxes, channeled through the civil administration, never leave the territory and provide services to its residents.

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