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Christmas greetings from Bethlehem

January 24, 2014 at 2:55 am

The festive season has begun. In Bethlehem, a large Christmas tree stands tall in Manger Square. The tree is a gift to the Palestinians from USAID, the lead US government agency primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid.

Just five minutes down the road, in Aida Refugee Camp, clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli soldiers are a regular occurrence. For weeks residents have been ducking tear canisters and rubber coated steel bullets on an almost daily basis. The weapons, fired by Israeli soldiers, like the decorations that adorn the tree, were made in the US.

This year residents of the camp erected their own Christmas tree in Manger Square. The tree was adorned with US-made tear gas canisters, stun grenades, and ammunition that had been fired at Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces in the camp the day before.

They hoped to highlight the “hypocrisy” of the US, which, while donating $40,000 to fund the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, has also equipped the Israeli military with 670 million weapons over a nine year period. In those 9 years, soldiers belonging to that same military have killed 2,960 unarmed Palestinians.

Signs on the Christmas tree read, “US military industrial complex stop making our Christmas hell by sending us your aid and sending Israel your guns,” and “Thank-you for the Christmas decorations but Israel kills us also with your tax money.”

The signs hoped to draw attention to the fact that despite the schools, roads and bridges paid for by USAID, the US government still donates $3.15 billion per year in military aid to Israel.

“They help us with schools and hospitals, but they also help occupy us. The United States is complicit in the Israeli occupation,” said one camp resident who had taken part in decorating the tree, Mustafa Al-Arraj to Ma’an News. “They give us $1 for some project and then give Israel $1 million to hit us with tear gas and shoot us.”

“People are being beaten and attacked daily,” said Al-Arraj. “We want to show the other side of the Americans in this country.”

“We won’t just take US money and say thank you and shut up,” he said.

Following the erection of the tree, Mustafa was arrested on reported charges of vandalism with the “goal of destroying Christmas.” He was however released later that day.

Christmas is the season where Bethlehem sees the biggest influx of tourists. The Bethlehem police spokesperson claimed that the grenades would scare tourists and commented, “Bethlehem is a tourist city, not one for grenades.”

Despite being a tourist city, in the nearby refugee camps of Aida, Azza and Dheisheh there are regular clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli soldiers leading to many injuries and fatalities of Palestinian youth. On Friday 6th December two Palestinian men were shot with live ammunition near the entrance to Aida Camp by Israeli snipers using a silenced 22 calibre rifle. The previous Friday another two Palestinian men were shot with live ammunition, during clashes in Aida.

Since three Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers in Yatta, south of Hebron, there have been ongoing protests in Aida Camp, which the Israeli soldiers have been attempting to silence. Camp residents report so much tear gas; it lingers in the streets hours after the soldiers leave. According to residents, an estimated 9 Palestinians have been injured with live ammunition since the protests over the deaths in Yatta began. Last night, over 50 soldiers reportedly stormed the camp around midnight and arrested 6 youths.

The humanitarian situation in Palestine is largely considered an outcome of the political situation. US aid to help build schools in Palestine at the same time as the US supports the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, makes any aid to Palestine a token gesture. Taking a stronger stance in regards to Israeli policies that infringe on the human rights of Palestinians, as well as defy international law, is largely thought to be far more useful to Palestine.

In 2007, the Bush Administration and the Israeli government agreed to a 10-year, $30 billion military aid package spanning from 2009 to 2018. Obama has pledged to continue this arrangement. On the deal, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the time, R. Nicholas Burns, said, “This $30 billion in assistance to Israel is to be an investment in peace, in long term peace – peace cannot be made without strength.”

In contrast, the US gives an average of $500 million per year to the Palestinian Authority, all of which is subject to a vetting process and has, at times, been used as leverage. The US withheld $200 million in 2011 when the PA first sought statehood recognition at the UN, and again in 2012, when Palestine successfully achieved UN “non-member state” status.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.