Bethlehem man detained over anti-USAID Christmas tree decorations

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Originally published by Ma’an News Agency on December 4, 2013.

A Bethlehem man was detained on Tuesday by Palestinian police for helping decorate a tree with used American-made tear gas canisters, stun grenades, and ammunition that had been previously fired at Palestinian protesters by Israeli forces.

Mustafa al-Arraj was detained on Tuesday morning by Palestinian police while on his way to work over his suspected involvement in the protest the day before.

According to al-Arraj, police told him he was being detained for vandalism with the “goal of destroying Christmas,” and forcibly brought him for interrogation to a Bethlehem police station.They also destroyed the decorations that had been put up the day before.

“They thought people sent us to destroy the Christmas season,” he said, pointing out that the police who interrogated him thought the tree decoration was an act of overnight vandalism.

During the event Monday, activists decorated a tree in Manger Square with American-made weapons and signs “thanking” the United States for providing Israel with weapons to shoot at Palestinian protesters.

Since the start of the official Christmas season this weekend, the Bethlehem municipality has set up signs in Manger Square advertising USAID, the US government agency that provided thousands of dollars to the municipality to purchase Christmas decorations.

Activists decorated the tree as a protest against USAID, stressing that the aid agency represents the same government that funds the Israeli occupation and attacks on Palestinian protesters.

Bethlehem police spokesman Loay Zreiqat denied that al-Arraj was detained for attempting to “destroy Christmas” and stressed that the protest caught police attention because it involved “putting grenades in trees.

“The police “were afraid (the grenades) would hurt citizens” and “they wanted to make sure there was no threat.”

“This is a tourist city, not one for grenades,” he stressed. “The grenades will scare people and tourists.”

The activists, however, stressed that showing the reality of occupation was the purpose of the event.

The municipality’s decorations “help people in Area A forget the occupation exists,” a foreign activist who took part in the demonstration but did not want to be named told Ma’an, referring to the less than 20 percent of the West Bank which is not under Israeli security control.

“So many foreigners come through here and it looks all great and festive.”

“Meanwhile, people are getting shot 20 minutes away in Aida (refugee camp),” the activist continued, referring to an area of nearly daily confrontations with Israeli forces near Bethlehem.

‘They thought people sent us to destroy the Christmas season’

Al-Arraj said he was surprised when police detained him for his involvement.

“What we did was not secret. A crowd of journalists, police, and activists was there watching us do it,” he told Ma’an.

As word spread that he had been detained, a crowd of 30 supporters gathered in front of the police station, according to al-Arraj, demanding to know the reason for the detention.

Zreiqa, the police spokesman, agreed that police had seen the action take place but said they had not realized right away that the activists were putting grenades in the trees.

When they became aware of this fact the next morning, he said, they acted to “test” the grenades and asked al-Arraj to come talk to the director of the police department.

“Everyone has a right to express his opinion, as long as it does not disturb others,” he stressed, noting that police had taken down the decorations to ensure no visitors were scared by them.

‘We won’t just take US money and say thank you and shut up’

Al-Arraj suspects that someone was unhappy about the protest and wanted to ensure that no public criticism of USAID was tolerated in Manger Square during the Christmas season. They accomplished this by spreading the rumor to police that activists were attempting to disrupt the celebrations, he believes.

“Yes, USAID gives money for good things like hospitals and schools. But this is the most important festival in Bethlehem,” al-Arraj said, pointing out that previously the ceremony had been sponsored by Palestinian companies.Putting up the USAID banners was a real “provocation,” he continued. “They help us with schools and hospitals, but they also help occupy us. The United States is complicit in the Israeli occupation.”

“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,” al-Arraj noted, saying that he wanted to “show the other side of the Americans in this country.”

He added: “We won’t just take US money and say thank you and shut up.”