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Bethlehem man detained over anti-USAID Christmas tree decorations
Published Wednesday 04/12/2013 (updated) 05/12/2013 21:06
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Activists put the decorations up on Monday. (MaanImages)

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- 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."

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1 ) Colin Wright / USA
05/12/2013 10:52
It can't be denied that these are the good things we give to the Palestinian people.

2 ) Oliveland / Palestine
06/12/2013 00:07
Well said Al Araj , but the USAiD is $1m to Israel's $10m ( for oppressive purposes ).

3 ) Rene / US
06/12/2013 02:25
This Christmas tree should have been allowed. If the protesters had thought of it they could have hanged ornaments saying Do not be Afraid. These were only used to hurt Palestinians. People need to be wakened from their slumber. If most of these Christmas tourists are Christians they should act like and be real Christians.

4 ) southparkbear / usa
06/12/2013 07:58
please indicate which best fit:
Law, Order
Law & Order
Law & Disorder

5 ) Palestinian Christian / Bethlehem
06/12/2013 10:00
this act is definitely a DISTORTION for the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, how deformity you did when you put grenades on the Christmas tree, the Christmas tree is a positive element for Christians, and when you put grenades on it some foreigners will think that you want more grenades and want gifts as grenades..... you don't even know how to represent your case, IT IS CHRISTMAS, it is not the time for this, you have 11 months to demonstrate, why you use this month???

6 ) Rene / US
06/12/2013 11:10
@ my Palestinian Christian friend, because this is when all the foreigners are there. And a lot of foreigners are pretty dumb about the situation but most of them probably can read.

7 ) Patrick O'Shaughnessy / Ireland
06/12/2013 21:45
Sometimes the only way to get a point across is shock tactics. Many people today, especially in western countries lead sterile lives & are protected from the reality of life. Both life & death are sanitised, as are aspects of religion. At Christmas children sweetly sing 'Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, while as the activists pointed out, a short distance away people are getting shot. Whilst the police were rightly concerned for public safety, if there is no danger, let the tourists see the protest.

8 ) Moe Moe / Usa
08/12/2013 19:32
TO#7 .MR. PATRICK: My dear Irish friend how accurate ur statement is, coming a real life expeinces in ur country. It realty does make a difference when using this.Thank u. And Merry Chritmas brother from Palestine to Irland

9 ) Patrick O'Shaughnessy / Ireland
12/12/2013 21:55
@) 8: Moe Moe, there will always be an Irish welcome for Palestine, whch is always in our hearts. A very Merry Christmas to you my dear brother, your family & all of Palestine. May God grant you peace, happiness and prosperity in 2014.
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