Three years ago, Bassam Bannoura took his family to Elkhart, Indiana, where he attended seminary. Last summer, he returned to his home in the West Bank city of Beit Sahur and began planting a church. Aside from the usual difficulties, Bannoura found himself in the middle of a major revolt. His neighbors in the largely Christian city decided they would support the Palestinian intifada (an organized uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank) by refusing to pay taxes.

“The Israelis responded by closing the city to outsiders, placing us on a five o’clock curfew, and seizing our property,” Bannoura said, pointing to a makeshift Israeli military base set up next to the town’s Orthodox church. According to figures released by the Israeli government, more than $1.5 million in property has been collected.

Bannoura teaches Greek and New Testament at nearby Bethlehem Bible College (BBC), which has been closed since the beginning of the intifada. The school was founded ten years ago to train new pastors. Some of Bannoura’s students at BBC are allowed to attend Bible studies on campus, while others are taught by correspondence.

But according to college president Bishara Awad, few new pastors are being turned out by the school. “We asked the Israelis to allow us to stay open because we teach our students there is an alternative to throwing stones,” Awad said. “We have never had demonstrations at our school and our students are not involved in the intifada. But the authorities won’t let us open our school.”

Paying The Price

Beit Sahur lies just to the east of Bethlehem and has been closed to nonresidents since early September. In Bannoura’s home, neighbors dropped by to swap tax-revolt stories. One man, who owned an olive-wood factory, opened his shop to show where $15,000 of woodworking equipment once stood. “They have taken my means to earn a living,” he said. Bannoura explained that after the soldiers visit, other residents collect food and money to help the victims. “If anything, the response of the Israelis has strengthened our commitment to this form of nonviolent protest.”

On October 31, the Israelis announced an end to the confiscation of property. Yet after a one-day reprieve of the blockade, the town remains closed.

Both Awad and Bannoura say the potential for violence in the West Bank is increasing because radicals in both Israeli and Palestinian communities are challenging moderates who favor the delicate negotiation process. Awad has sent his two teenage sons to study abroad because he fears for their safety.

As believers, Awad said, they feel isolated by Muslims, Jews, and American Christians. “We believe Jesus should be the center of our faith and that our Jewish neighbors need the Lord Jesus too, so it troubles us when Western Christians endorse Israel,” Awad said.

Also troubling is the increase in violence of Palestinian against Palestinian. Bannoura acknowledged incidents of retaliation against those who refused to join the tax protest, but said the church is trying to mediate such disputes. “There is so much opportunity for ministry here,” he said. “If Christians in the West would just hold back a little in their enthusiasm for Israel, the gospel would have more credibility among my people.”

By Lyn Cryderman in Beit Sahur.

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