A youth in an undershirt kneels on a patch of ground along the roadside. He’s blindfolded, his back bent, head lowered, hands tied behind his back. His arms are muscular, exuding strength. The winter sky is a vivid blue dome above. Nearby are Mount Gerizim and the dwellings of the Palestinian village of Burin; farther off, green hills glisten in the sunlight. Soldiers stand around the boy, weapons drawn. Cars pass by. Not one of them stops. We can’t hear sounds from our car and just stare at the odd picture outside: the youth, the soldiers, no one moving, everything seemingly frozen. We get out of the car and the soldiers charge at us, shouting, “Military zone! Get out of here, now!” Over and over we ask why the youth is bound, but the soldiers ignore us.
The photographer skirts around them and takes a picture of the youth. The Israeli soldiers scurry after him, then relent and ask him to back away, their tone of voice shifting abruptly from shouted command to friendly request. Possibly the procedures aren’t clear to them, or maybe there are no procedures. Now I see that there’s another bound youth behind the jeep. He’s completely hunched up. His hair is shaved off at the sides – the way youngsters went around when the soccer World Cup was on in Brazil. The soldiers gradually calm down. One of them, black-haired and bespectacled, is still agitated and tells us, “They came toward us and shouted something in Arabic. Suddenly they pulled out knives and rushed at me.” Another adds, “They shouted ‘Allahu akbar’ and charged at us!”
When was this?
“Fifteen minutes ago.”
They’re young infantry soldiers from the Kfir Brigade. Now I see – laid out in perfect order on the hood of the jeep – two honed and apparently new knives, packs of cigarettes, ID cards, wallets and cellphones.
The soldiers stand the two youths up and lead them to a jeep parked on the edge of the road. “Where are you going?” we ask. One of the soldiers – short, smiling, wearing a large skullcap – replies, “To the nearest pit, to Babi Yar.” “Don’t listen to him,” says another, “he’s only joking.” The two youths are now sitting upright on the small benches in the jeep. A soldier arranges their legs. We ask where they live. No answer. Zakaria, a veteran activist in the area who also works for the release of detained Palestinians, tells us that stabbing soldiers is a serious issue and it’s impossible to do anything for the youths now. Someone told him they’re from Askar refugee camp, one of several such camps in the Nablus area – along with Ein Beit Al Ma, Balata and others.
The black-haired soldier says, “They charged us with knives drawn and a crazed look in their eyes.” The jeep door slams shut and the soldiers leave. We drive in the opposite direction, to Balata camp. The road is largely deserted. We pass mounds of car parts and green hills covered with trees, around which one-story houses are scattered.
Israel Radio reports, “Near the village of Burin, south of Nablus, an IDF unit arrested two Palestinians who approached them and aroused their suspicion. Knives were found in their possession.”
The two Palestinian teens who approached Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint possessing knives. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)
We stop by a ridge that contains the homes of Nablus’ wealthiest families, then pass below the luxurious estate of industrialist and businessman Munib al-Masri at the edge of Mount Gerizim. The 250-dunam (62-acre) property is considered the most magnificent in the West Bank. “It’s like being in the castle of a prince in Italy 200 years ago,” an Israeli who’s spent an evening there tells me.
The alleys of Balata are cramped, the potholed streets littered with garbage and piles of earth. Sewage flows freely. From the wider alleys, long, narrow lanes wide enough for one person to pass branch off. Groups of children stream out from every alley. “How are you?” they ask in English, repeating the question over and over, laughing. The walls of the houses are covered in graffiti. Here’s a painting of a rifle with a telescopic lens; 20 meters away, two peace doves fly off. Balata’s casbah on the main street has clothing stores, vegetable shops, a small meat restaurant and a few groceries. Two girls in white dresses, one of them holding a queen’s scepter, wave to us in greeting.
Things are buzzing in the building of the Department of Refugee Affairs, which manages the camp. Doctors Without Borders is holding a clinic here today, and everyone in the camp can come for treatment. Soon, the physicians will take over the building. Medical treatment can be useful, but it’s the medicines that lure the camp’s residents. The physicians bring containers packed with medicines of all kinds. Balata has a population of more than 40,000, but only one medical center, run by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), which operates five days a week until 3 P.M. After 3 o’clock, treatment can be found elsewhere, possibly in Nablus, but few people here can afford a private doctor.
Balata refugee camp. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)
The doctors speak with the camp’s leaders about a subject they’re all familiar with: Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, invited physicians from the Gaza Strip to take advanced courses, but the doctors decided not to participate, under pressure from the BDS Movement. Attending a course at Sheba means collaborating with the Israeli establishment. Some of the Palestinians here are in favor of the boycott, others against it. A young local woman who works as a nurse tells me, “Part of the effort to normalize the occupation is these tempting offers of medical or economic cooperation. The Israelis know we need this in order to improve our life, and it also helps the Israelis’ image inside Israel and abroad. It happens everywhere, all the time. We always face the same dilemma: to cooperate or not to cooperate.”
Now the conversation turns to the recent incident in which a Palestinian minister, Ziad Abu Ein, was killed following a confrontation with Israeli soldiers. His acquaintances recall that he used to call them when he was incarcerated in Nafha Prison, Mitzpeh Ramon, or in Ketziot, in the Negev, and report on the condition of the prisoners. I meet Ghassan Daghlass, who is in charge of the settlements file in the northern West Bank. He worked with the minister who died. Every day, he says, he visits villages that were attacked by settlers, mostly in the Nablus area: “There are 12 settlements around Nablus, with a population of about 2,500. It’s mainly people from Yitzhar who keep attacking the villages, hitting people, starting fires, harassing, and we protect the villagers as much as we can,” he says.
I tell Ghassan I recently met Palestinians in the West Bank who are complaining about the ineffectuality of the Palestinian Authority in the face of “price tag” actions – racist hate crimes like the torching of mosques, windows being smashed, people assaulted, olive trees uprooted. They feel the PA is not responding firmly enough; that it’s tired, even indifferent, and possibly apprehensive of confrontations with the Israeli army. As a result, I was told, local initiatives – like one in Kafr Qusra, where a village guard was established to defend against the settlers – are more useful.
“What kind of talk is that?” Ghassan replies. “We don’t have real strength or authority on the ground. The army works for the settlers. We are documenting everything and doing what we can. But complaining to the Israeli army is useless, and if we use violence in return, the army will immediately take action against us. That’s just what the settlers are waiting for. I am operating under impossible conditions.”
Standing around us are some 12-year-old boys, sporting orange scarves and gray vests bearing the logo Yala. They are quiet and listen to what the adults are saying. The children and I sit down outside the building. None of them speaks Hebrew – the leader, who’s in his twenties, translates. They’re from a youth movement, part of a worldwide scout’s organization. It’s a youth group with political consciousness, they say. There are about 150 members in Balata.
“We do volunteer work here and also hold demonstrations,” says Salah, one of the youngsters. “Our focus is on volunteer work; our aim is to serve the people in the camp. There is a great deal of hardship in the camp, a lot of unemployment. We help the poor, we clean the streets and the roads. On holidays, we hold activities and put on plays.”
Today they’re here to prepare the building for the doctors, carry the medicines to the top floor – where a makeshift drugstore has been set up – and generally assist the people who will come for treatment.
I ask the boys where they’re from. From Jaffa, says one. From Jaffa, answers another. Someone says he is from Kafr Saba [the Arab village, next to Kfar Sava, that was depopulated in 1948]. Another is from Gaza. Most of them name the town or village from which their grandparents were expelled. Salah tells us that when the Israelis conquered Kafr Saba, their family fled to Qalqilyah, in the West Bank, and afterward to a village near Salfit. They believed they would return within a few weeks. His grandfather was a farmer with land in the Kafr Saba area.
Were you ever there?
“No, we weren’t,” they reply. None of them has been to Tel Aviv, either.
What political solution do you believe in?
“We don’t think bad things about anyone, only good things,” one of them says. They all laugh. “For us, Israel is the occupation. Every one of us has brothers or cousins that your army killed or sent to jail,” a bespectacled boy says as he hugs two others, much to their annoyance. “We believe in a Palestinian state and in life with the Israelis. But you have to understand: there’s a difference between an Israeli and a Zionist. The Jewish Israelis are people who believe in a religion and have a God; Zionism is a terrorist organization.”
Dozens of people are waiting on the second floor of the building that houses the Department of Refugees Affairs. They have not come to see a doctor, but for a brief meeting with the director of the department, which is attached to the Popular Service Committee of Balata camp. The committee, a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s refugee unit, was established in 1995, when the PA consolidated in the West Bank. Similar committees always existed in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, but until the Oslo Accords they were banned in the West Bank.
Cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the office of chairman Ahmad Thouqan. A large group of people sits around the conference table. The subject of the discussion is land they bought, next to the refugee camp, on which they want to build a kindergarten. The issue is money: there isn’t enough. The camp has a small area and is densely packed. The children don’t have anywhere to play, families have nowhere to go for a stroll. The chairman is occupied mainly with distributing the meager resources he has at his disposal.
Thouqan, in his fifties and a heavy smoker, is kept busy answering the phone and offering curt responses. Health issues are a crucial matter for him. It’s crowded here, he says. There isn’t much sun, the air is “no good” and many residents are afflicted with respiratory diseases, high blood pressure and diabetes. Diabetes is a major problem. There are some 1,200 diabetics in the camp, including many children. Sometimes they need to be examined several times a day, but the UNRWA clinic closes early and they have to go to a private doctor. The treatment costs money, and so do the medicines. There are people here who make 50 to 80 shekels ($13 to $20) a day, and even if a visit to a doctor in Nablus is cheap – let’s say 20 shekels – they don’t have the money, Thouqan says.
Ahmad Thouqan in Balata refugee camp. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)
Another issue is unemployment. Thouqan estimates the jobless rate in the camp at around 35 percent. In recent years, many residents who were jailed during the second intifada [2000-2006] have been released and returned to the camp. Mostly uneducated, they have a hard time finding a job. They want to work in the PA’s security apparatus, but are rejected because they are too old or there are no openings, or because they just aren’t wanted. A man emerges from prison at 35 with no family, no job and no education, and he has to be helped – because the camp prides itself on the contribution it makes to the Palestinian struggle. “Relatively speaking,” Thouqan says, “we have many more prisoners and people who were killed than Nablus.”
Approximately 300 Balatans were killed in the second intifada. Lately, however, the disquiet in the camp has stemmed not only from confrontations with Israel and army raids. “There is tension here,” a woman tells me while waiting to see a doctor. “Sometimes there is noise at night, sometimes shooting.” The PA suspects that some of the camp’s armed people, who are ostensibly Fatah men, are actually being funded by and loyal to Mohammed Dahlan. Once a senior figure in Fatah and its head of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip, Dahlan was expelled from PA territory by President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011 for allegedly plotting a coup. These days he is throwing a great deal of money at the West Bank and especially in Gaza, while living in exile in Dubai, as part of his struggle against Abbas. In February 2015 there will be reports of fierce battles in the northern West Bank, particularly in Balata, between PA security forces and Dahlan loyalists. The hostilities broke out when Dahlan’s people opened fire in the wake of arrests made by the PA in the area.
“Where do you get the resources to manage the camp?” I ask Thouqan. “Not from taxes, I guess.” “We have good relations with the PA,” he says, “especially with the prime minister and Abu Mazen [Abbas], who help us. We also get many donations, and there is also UNRWA and the PLO, of course.
“But let me give you an example concerning an issue that has occupied me in the past few days and sometimes drives me to despair,” he continues. “We have more than 500 students in universities such as An-Najah in Nablus and Bir Zeit. Wages here are about 2,500 shekels a month. Families who have two children in university need about 10,000 shekels a year for each of them. How can they manage that? At present, the only way for people to escape the situation they’re in is through studies. These are people who have no land and no property. And there’s no commerce here, either. This is the way it works: You study and then work in Ramallah or Saudi Arabia or Dubai and support your family in the camp until your siblings grow up, go to school and support the family. And then you’re free to provide for your own, new family.”
He hands me a document on which the number 28,000 appears, with columns alongside it. Balata asked for help to enable families to send their children to university. The PLO sent 28,000 shekels. That’s enough to help 15 young people. But Thouqan has about 200 requests. For a few days he agonized over how to divide the money. He knows that a college degree could translate into support for a whole family for a few years. Finally, he decided to distribute the funds only to young people who have more than three siblings, none of whom is in college. But still he can’t help everyone: the average here is around six children per family.
Beyond the ongoing hardships, refugeehood underlies the camp’s political consciousness. One sees old maps of pre-1948 Palestine everywhere – pencil and paint illustrations and photographs of homes and land that evoke the world that existed before the expulsion. Like the children I spoke to earlier, many people here, when asked where they’re from, often cite the pre-1948 family home. The chairman’s story is a good example.
Thouqan relates that his family lived in the district of Jaffa, which had a population of 120,000 before 1948 and was a bustling center of life for the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine. Their village was called Al-Sawalima. The family had about 50 dunams of land and a spacious modern house, which they built in the 1940s. They grew oranges, watermelons and other fruits. They had modern equipment, such as a pump for the water supply. The family was driven out in the 1948 war and lived in several places, before arriving in Balata at the beginning of the 1950s. Thouqan’s father became listless and repeatedly compared life in the refugee camp to the way things were before 1948. He had land, money and possessed social status. His name was known throughout Jaffa, and suddenly he found himself competing with a field hand he himself had brought from Egypt for a job that paid a pittance.
“It was a combination of humiliation, rage and also shame, because he hadn’t been able to defend his land,” Thouqan says. One day someone told his father that he’d found him a job as a guard. Arriving at the new workplace, he saw that it was his land. Everything looked different, but the water engine was still there. “This is my land,” he told them. He showed them the pump and the trees he’d grown. He became so distraught that he had to be hospitalized. After that visit, he had no desire to see the place again. He died in 1990.
Thouqan’s mother grew up in the village of Jayyous, near Qalqilyah. After 1967, the village’s lands were considered part of the West Bank, and his mother received seven dunams from her father. The family’s hopes for the future focused on that land. But then Israel built the West Bank separation barrier in the early 2000s. Jayyous was seriously affected by the fence: 60 percent of its farmlands were relegated to the “seam zone,” where Israel controls access through a regime of permits and decides who is allowed to work his land, and when. In some cases, people discover that they don’t have a permit to farm their own land. Since the fence was built, the village’s agricultural produce has fallen by half – to 4,000 tons a year. The seven dunams aren’t worth much anymore, Thouqan says.
I ask him about the two-state vision propounded by his organization, Fatah, and the negotiations Abbas has conducted in which the right of return is not really on the table.
“There are Palestinians who live inside the Green Line, right?” he replies, referring to the pre-1967 borders of Israel. “So why shouldn’t Palestinians who once lived there and were expelled not return to their homes? I am definitely ready to live in the State of Israel.”
So there will be no agreement without the refugees’ right of return? You realize this will completely transform Israel.
“I cannot forgo our land, our home. I have no right to do that. My home is Al-Sawalima, not here.”
You’ve lived here your whole life.
“That is so, but this is not my home, or the home of anyone who lives here. Many people – who were expelled from their homes and their land, and from the homes and lands of their parents and grandparents – live here. Nothing was ever returned to them, they were never compensated and their tragedy was never recognized. No one has the right to forgo the land. The Nakba [Arab for “catastrophe,” the Palestinians’ term for the formation of Israel] is the story of Palestinians everywhere in the world.”
Not long ago, I heard similar comments in Chile, which has one of the largest Palestinians communities anywhere in the world. At the conclusion of a talk with Diamela Eltit, a Chilean writer of Palestinian origin, I was approached by a young woman whose parents lived in Balata, though she herself was born in Chile. “There’s something you Israelis don’t understand,” she said. “You spoke about time, 1967 or 1948, but not about space. Our spatial conception is different. For the Israelis, Palestinian means Gaza and the West Bank. But our spatial perception encompasses also refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, and also large Palestinian communities around the world. It’s a noncontiguous, separated space – but this is the post-1948 space of Palestinian consciousness.”
Balata refugee camp. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)
Scattered across the globe
It’s midday in Balata, and the casbah is packed. On the street opposite me, a small family – young, good-looking parents with two children dressed in white – walks between small gutters. I’m sitting with Dr. Fathi Darwish, a short, elderly man who had an interesting career in the PLO. He asks if I speak Arabic. I mumble, tell him I took two courses and come out with few sentences – and that’s sad, especially because three of my four grandparents spoke fluent Arabic. He laughs. He probably speaks Hebrew, but like many others he prefers to converse with me in English.
In the 1970s, he was involved in setting medical policy in the refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. In the following decade, he worked in Yasser Arafat’s bureau in Tunisia. In 1994, after 30 years outside Palestine, he returned with Arafat. He remembers that the Palestinians waited outside for days to greet their leader. “We were filled with optimism at that time. For us, it was the end of exile. There was hope that our children would have a better future. It was clear to all of us that the end of the occupation was very near.”
Darwish was born in 1944, in Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood. The family lived on Kings Road (now Ha’atzmaut Street), on the first floor of a building that had a bakery in the basement. One day during the war, he remembers, instead of the aroma of bread he smelled something burning: the bakery was on fire. His father carried him and his sister out of the house, where they stood watching the bakery go up in flames. They moved to the village of Yabed, west of Jenin, and then wandered to other places. He is one of 11 siblings – four were born in Haifa, and the others in the West Bank and Kuwait. “We are a distinct example of the breakup of the Palestinian family after 1948,” he says. “Like a grenade that explodes and its fragments fly every which way, the family scatters across the globe. I have brothers and sisters in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, the United States and Jordan. Some of them I haven’t seen in more than 25 years.”
The veteran PLO figure sounds like a PA official when he talks about the future. “I believe that the government of Israel must go back to upholding the agreements with the Palestinians and the two-state vision. That means a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders whose capital is Jerusalem. In the meantime, the settlements are threatening to put an end to everything.”
Are you a two-state advocate?
“I don’t care whether there will be two states or one state. The important thing for the Palestinians is to end the occupation and to have rights like the Jews.”
In the negotiations, Abbas effectively forsook the right of return. Do you accept that?
“All over the world, refugees have a right to return. The refugee issue is a basic question in any solution.”
And what’s the answer?
“How can I explain to the refugees in Jordan and Lebanon that every Jew from every place in the world can return to Israel because he had roots here 2,000 years ago, but they can’t go back to their homes? Most of the Palestinians who were born here and expelled have territory, a home and land – don’t they have a right to return?”
So you see a future of two states and the refugees’ returning to their homes in Israel? It’s not exactly the familiar two-state solution – more like one state.
“Ask the children in the Balata refugee camp where they’re from and you will see that they answer, ‘I am from Acre’; ‘I am from Jaffa.’ Where am I from? I am from Haifa. All these people have to get an answer. I believe that with goodwill and serious negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a solution can be arrived at on the refugee issue.”
1967 or 1948?
Darwish’s replies raise an interesting point. Two different groups are emerging among Israelis, Palestinians and the international community, who are looking at the past and shaping their conclusions about the future accordingly. The two groups do not share a common goal, but their historical viewpoint is similar. The first can be described as the “1967 group,” which includes the Israeli center-left and part of the right, the international community, and sections of the Fatah movement. They all believe that the formative event was the 1967 war, and are acting in accordance with that belief for a two-state solution. (Of course, there are also Palestinians in this group who don’t consider 1967 the formative event, but recognize it as the international parameter for the conflict’s resolution.)
The second, more complex, group consists of the Israeli right, particularly the settlers, the radical left and a large part of Palestinian society. They all believe that the formative event was 1948 – the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land. Hence, the settlers’ contention that what applies to Ramat Aviv (the affluent Tel Aviv neighborhood that was built on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Munis) applies also to Ofra (and all other settlements). Some of the people in this group think the conflict is unresolvable. Others believe in ideas such as the annexation of parts of the West Bank; one state; the return of the refugees within the framework of a two-state agreement in a completely different formulation; or, as some Palestinians I spoke to said, “Peace, free movement and equal rights – and the type of arrangement doesn’t matter.” In their view, the key to a solution entails coping with the consequences of 1948.
Tellingly, most PA representatives who refer to 1967 and the international parameters will reply to the question about the refugees as Darwish did: “They have the right to return.” In some cases, they will add reservations of one kind or another, including some that are very meaningful (“We will not change Israel’s character”). However, as they do not forgo the principle of return, the discussion with them ranges between 1967 and 1948.
One thing is clear: the majority of Israeli Jews, including the pursuers of peace among them, are unwilling to contemplate the Palestinian perception based on 1948.
According to Darwish, if Israelis would read some of the Palestinian authors and poets who have written about the expulsion – Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habibi, Taha Muhammad Ali – they would get an understanding of the Palestinian mind-set, or at least be aware of the full meaning of the loss: the moment when you lose your home and are left with nothing.
Here is Ali’s description of the expulsion of the residents of Miar, a village 18 kilometers east of Acre, including his family, in the 1948 war: “The people left the village with few belongings: a blanket or two, pillows, a little flour, jugs of olive oil, a pot and some plates. My father lugged a blanket and a mattress on his shoulders and carried my brother Mahmoud in his arms. My mother bore a half-full sack of flour on her head and in her hands held my little sister Alia and a jug of olive oil. I hurried along behind … The men started to load things on donkeys and mules. Fortunate were the families that owned beasts of burden. The Jews entered the village. Sounds of gunfire echoed everywhere. The dome of the mosque was hurtled upward. A powerful blast was heard. Stones flew into the air and thick smoke rose. And the people’s journey began.” (English text from a Hebrew translation by Yehouda Shenhav-Sharabani.)
Balata refugee camp. (Credit: Tomer Appelbaum)
Darwish has fought the Israeli occupation from its beginning, almost 50 years ago, and optimistically believes the end of the occupation is on the horizon. He has worked in cooperation with Israelis for years, but now is bewildered, almost insulted, by the Israeli indifference to the Palestinian issue. “After all the killing, the land expropriations, the arrests, the checkpoints, we are explaining to our people that it is possible to live with the Israelis in peace. But people no longer believe. We see the election campaign in Israel, without a word about the occupation, the Palestinians, our rights. It looks as though your elections are in Europe. The Palestinians are busy with the Israelis all the time – we have no choice, the Israelis intervene in every aspect of our life. But now it looks like we simply bore you, right?”
After a brief pause, he adds, “I was in Tunis on the day that Arafat and Rabin signed the agreement. But the far right assassinated Rabin. And in practice they destroyed everything.” I hear Rabin’s name a lot here. In fact, he seems to be talked about much more in Balata, Ramallah or Beit Jala than in Israel.
I ask Darwish if he believes that the Palestinian state he would like to see will come into being in the wake of negotiations, or only via a strategy involving the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the BDS Movement.
Darwish: “We should remember the lesson from South Africa: the boycott put an end to apartheid. We do not intend to spend another 20 years in negotiations so that, in the meantime, another hundred settlements will be built. In the last decade, the negotiations became an excuse to freeze the existing situation and continue the building of settlements. That exercise by Israel won’t work anymore. It looks as though turning to the United Nations, the international conventions and BDS are the only things that have an effect on the Israelis – who are obsessive about their status in every place in the world, but don’t care what their neighbors think about them. If we don’t make noise internationally, and if there is also no terrorism, we are like air for the Israelis.”
Each side's story
The traffic is lively on Al-Quds Street, between Nablus and Balata. A Palestinian policeman is standing on the side of the street. Two youths are sitting in the back of his car. One of them is grim-faced and looks straight ahead, the other is smiling and lights up a Marlboro. A few hours ago, when they were blindfolded, they couldn’t see us, though they might have heard our voices. They’re wearing jeans and jerseys. A few minutes ago, this Palestinian policeman was called over to the checkpoint, where Israel handed over the two youths who earlier were suspected of charging at soldiers with intent to stab them. It’s not likely that Israel would release two people who were out to stab soldiers, still less on the day the incident occurred – so why are they free? We ask them. On the policeman’s order they say nothing, only wave and smile. We ask the policeman; he doesn’t know.
Zakaria says if they really had charged at soldiers in order to stab them, there’s no way they would be sitting here now. Apparently the soldiers exaggerated or even made up the story. But we saw the knives, I say to Zakaria. He asks the Palestinian policeman about the knives, but doesn’t get a reply. He asks the youths again. Silence. “Sometimes you don’t know everything,” the policeman says.
Many organizations and individuals – the IDF, Jewish and Palestinian human rights organizations, the settlers, the PA, various informed sources – spread rumors here and disseminate their version of every event, certainly of an event like this, which doesn’t get much media attention. Every version has a competing version – in some cases, an opposite one. In the absence of a universally accepted body to verify which account is true, each side clings to its version. Anyway, events like this happen all the time, and within a few days these two youths will be forgotten.
“Are they going back home now, to Askar camp?” I ask. As far as I could make out, the answer was a yes, if somewhat evasive. The Palestinian policeman bids us farewell; the police vehicle recedes into the distance. A light rain has started to fall and the wind turns cold. It will soon be dark. Zakaria is on the phone about olive trees that settlers chopped down and a house at the edge of the village that was stoned.
'We want you to arrest us'
Two months have passed since my visit to Balata. I meet with attorney Zidan in a small café in Hawara, south of Nablus, a village of garages, restaurants, candy stores and a relaxed atmosphere. Zidan is a young man of 25, attired in a black vest and close-fitting jacket. He’s growing a fashionable beard and sideburns. His voice is soft and he has a shy, captivating smile. We speak in English. He studied law in Jordan and for the past two years has had a small law office in Nablus. He has a varied practice. This week, for example, he’s in a Nablus court, defending a Palestinian accused of selling hashish. A minor affair: he sold only to his friends.
Not long ago, Zidan got a phone call from the parents of one of the two youths from Askar – the younger is 17, the older 18 – asking him to represent their son against the PA. It turns out the police car they were in on that Saturday didn’t take them to Askar, but to a PA prison in Nablus. The PA charged them with illegal possession of a weapon. Zidan was denied access to his new clients. When I tell him about the scene I saw outside Burin, a few minutes after they seemingly intended to stab the soldiers, he responds with an indulgent smile.
“Actually,” he tells me, “they came to the checkpoint and said to the soldiers, ‘We have knives, we want you to arrest us.’”
When I tell him the soldiers claimed they shouted “Allahu akbar,” he guffaws. “Maybe they also shouted ‘Allahu akbar, please arrest us.’”
Why would they want to be arrested?
“All kinds of reasons,” he replies. “Sometimes, young Palestinians come to a checkpoint with knives – not in order to stab soldiers, but to be incarcerated so their families will receive money, to obtain a matriculation certificate, or because someone in their family is accused of collaborating with Israel.”
But I’m talking about these two young people, I insist. Surely Zidan knows why his clients acted as they did. “They are poor, they don’t have a job or anything else, they wanted to be arrested in order to get money from the PA. The PA gives money to inmates in Israeli jails. It happens a lot.”
I tell him I heard they were in a Palestinian jail for 36 days – how did they get out? “I submitted a request for the charges to be dropped, because they didn’t have a weapon or anything really dangerous, just knives,” he explains. “The request was denied, and so was a second request. Stubbornly I went on submitting requests for the charges to be dropped. After the fourth request, I was suddenly notified that the investigation had concluded, that there was no evidence against my clients and they would be released immediately. I didn’t understand the procedure – it’s the first time I worked on a case like this. I met them for the first time when they came out of prison.”
They were incarcerated in Nablus for around 22 days, he says, not 36. Later he says they were in jail for a little more than two weeks. I ask him if they were kept in jail in order to intimidate them. He answers evasively. Attorney Zidan is cautious; he doesn’t criticize the PA, the courts or the police. He’s unfailingly polite, but his replies are curt. He tells me one of the two young people has since found a construction job in the Jenin area, which has delighted his parents. The other one is at home and his father is keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t do anything dumb.
Zidan prefers that we don’t photograph him. He’s in a hurry to get back to Nablus, where the competition among lawyers is fierce, he says. Everyone wants cases to handle, whether criminal, civil, commercial, large or small – just as long as they have clients. These days, to his good fortune, he’s very busy.
Nir Baram, is an Israeli author. His novels “The Remaker of Dreams” (2006) and “Good People” (2010) were short-listed for Israel’s Sapir Prize for Literature. “Good People” was translated into 12 languages and in 2010 Baram won the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew literature and was short-listed for the Rome Prize for literature. His new novel, “World Shadow,” was published in Israel in 2013 and will be published around the world in 2015.
Boy scouts from the Yala movement, in Balata refugee camp. / Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
It’s a narrow, winding road from Ma’aleh Shomron – a mixed, religious and secular, upper-class settlement – to the settler outpost of El Matan. We’re climbing a steep, gutted slope; to the right are the houses of another settlement, Ginot Shomron (Shomron is Hebrew for Samaria). As the crow flies, it’s not far from Ma’aleh Shomron to El Matan. But the road, skirting privately owned Palestinian land, follows a long, twisting route.
Silence envelops us. Soon, we no longer see cars, people or houses; there are only hills, valleys and rocky ridges around us. The rocks glisten in the sunlight and then, a few meters on, the sun seems to dive at us and almost blinds us.
As always in the West Bank, the pastoral landscape – which can evoke southern France – is deceptive. Here, in a twinkling, quiet erupts into noise. Usually, this disparity is uppermost in the mind when you are starting out. But these facts slip out of the memory as one advances deeper into the heart of the landscape.
Amid verdant hills, olive trees and terraced slopes, the tendency is to believe what the landscape is telling you. But things happen here suddenly. A few days after our December journey, the car of a father and his daughter traveling on this narrow road was struck by a Molotov cocktail, thrown from a hill. The car burst into flames. Ayala Shapira, 11, was seriously wounded, suffering extensive burns to her body. Later, watching the burning car on video, I will try to pinpoint the site on the road on which we now traveling. And it will all look the same.
The perpetrators came from the village of Azzun, adjacent to Ma’aleh Shomron. On this road, where driving is necessarily slow – sometimes it’s even necessary to come to an almost complete stop to negotiate the twists and turns – it is quite easy to stand on a hill and snag a car.
In the past, the ascent to Ma’aleh Shomron passed through the center of Azzun, generating daily friction between settlers and Palestinians. But as Dani Dayan, former head of the Yesha Council of settlements and a well-known figure in Judea and Samaria – and who’s driving our car – says, “It used to be that to get home I passed through the center of Azzun, and even through Qalqilyah. And then the Qalqilyah bypass road was built, and afterward a road that also bypasses Azzun. The Oslo Accords between Rabin and Arafat did us a great service in regard to the bypass roads: there was no longer a need to go through Palestinian locales. Suddenly, it was more convenient and more pleasant to get to the settlements – and that was a tremendous impetus for the settlement project.”
The fact remains, though, that even if thanks to the bypass one no longer sees the Palestinians of Azzun, they are still here.
El Matan outpost in the West Bank. (Credit: Moti Milrod)
The village’s 10,000 residents, who live in Area B under the Oslo Accords – Palestinian civil control and mostly Israeli security control – have other concerns when it comes to roads. The eastern entrance to the village, which lies next to Ma’aleh Shomron and Karnei Shomron, was blocked in 1990. The army also sometimes blocks the main entrance to Azzun, which leads to Highway 55. And when that happens, the villagers travel on a 2.5-kilometer-long [1.5 miles] side road that connects Azzun to the village of Izvat Tabib. When the army also blocks the side road, as occasionally happens, the residents of Azzun are forced to use a more roundabout route.
On the way to the El Matan outpost, I ask Dayan about its legal status. “What does ‘legal’ mean?” he retorts, puzzled at the question. “It means the government says, ‘Build it and it will be alright.’ The outpost was not built on Palestinian land. There was also a High Court of Justice petition over the outpost’s synagogue, and in the end it was sealed. At one point, five families lived in the outpost, and, as Jews will, they were split into two camps. My wife and I used to mediate between them. Every Sabbath, all the families left the outpost and we did rotating guard duty to make sure it was always inhabited.”
I’ve seen your settlement of Ma’aleh Shomron, I tell him. It’s spacious and the homes are far apart from one another. You have no shortage of space, so what was so urgent about establishing the outpost? “Because if we hadn’t done so, the land would not have come into Jewish hands,” he replies. “In the end, someone would have seized the land; we would see shepherds and then a tent and finally an Arab presence. It’s a zero-sum game: land that isn’t theirs is ours, and land that isn’t ours is theirs.”
Dayan relates that there were fierce debates in Ma’aleh Shomron over the outpost’s creation. The settlement’s founding core consists of pampered, well-to-do people who have little gumption for big adventures. Some were against the establishment of the outpost because it was illegal.
“In the end,” says Dayan, “I blew my stack in a meeting of the secretariat – I almost turned over a table – and shouted at them that this is exactly why we came here.” Though it lies on what Israel sees as state land, El Matan did not receive authorization from the Defense Ministry and the government. That didn’t stop the Housing and Construction Ministry, among others, from underwriting its infrastructures. Dayan says the outpost was probably established in 1993, but elsewhere, and in the press, the date given is 2000.
In 2010, in the wake of a petition to the High Court of Justice by the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, the outpost’s synagogue was sealed, because it was built without a proper construction permit. It sits on land that is part of the Nahal Kana nature reserve, which includes the valley of Wadi Kana and the slopes above it.
In 2012, it was reported that the government was going to legalize the outpost and recognize it as an artists’ village. At that time, the head of Shomron Regional Council, Gershon Mesika (who has since suspended himself indefinitely and will be a state’s witness in the Yisrael Beiteinu graft and corruption case), said it involved “a specific zoning change from tourism structures, to tourism structures with a few residential structures alongside them … The plan was approved back in 1999, under the [Ehud] Barak government, but was never properly signed due to political reasons.”
‘A matter of time’
At present, the Civil Administration (the military governing body in the West Bank) is considering objections to the outpost’s legalization submitted by local Palestinian villages. For example, the Palestinians are against the expropriation of 100 dunams (25 acres) of the nature reserve for use as “agricultural land” by the outpost residents.
The bigger picture is that in recent years the regional council, in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, has been working to make Nahal Kana a tourist attraction, with new roads, bicycle trails, observation points, parking areas, etc. The local Palestinian farmers have been complaining for years that they are being forced off their land (the Israeli authorities have uprooted olive trees near the riverbed, for instance), and that the new plan will only compound an already intolerable situation.
The delays don’t worry Dayan; he’s already seen similar cases in the past. “Legalization for El Matan is a matter of time,” he says confidently.
A soldier in full gear walks lazily next to a water tower at the outpost. No one is at the bus stop. Beyond a curve in the road, a series of old white mobile homes line the road side. Cars are parked next to them. Two children are frolicking outside, perilously close to the brink of the canyon. They are the only signs of human presence that we can see and hear. I ask Dayan how people can walk around here at night, with the deep canyon so close. “There are harder things,” he replies.
The first home in El Matan is a more impressive structure, with brown roof tiles and flowerboxes in front. The landscape around us is wild and rocky; hardly any buildings can be seen, even in the far distance. Next to the water tower, we encounter a young couple who have come to check out the possibility of moving here. The young man is secular; his surname is Sharabi. His wife is religiously observant, from the settlement of Yitzhar, and her surname is Manchovsky. Dayan immediately asks whether she’s related to someone with the same surname whom he knows.
The couple were married not long ago. She is attending Tel-Hai Academic College, Upper Galilee, and they’re living in Kiryat Shmona. But their business in the north will soon be done, and they’re looking for a place in Samaria. They thought of Har Hemed, the neighborhood for young people in the veteran settlement of Kedumim, or an apartment in the settlement of Tzofim. I ask whether they can picture themselves living here. It’s quiet and the views are impressive, yes, but it’s also easy to imagine the quiet becoming an oppressive silence. And besides, there’s that narrow, winding road.
They have other concerns. “The mobile homes are too crowded, they’re made of plaster and every time someone coughs in one trailer, you can hear it in the next – privacy is impossible.” Well, I tell them, it’s an outpost, right? Neither of them is particularly impressed by the way of life in El Matan, still less by the dwellings that are available.
Their assessment? “It’s a place for pioneers. We are not pioneers. We are not looking for a place like this, but for a mixed religious-secular settlement that isn’t expensive. We want to pay rent of around 1,500 shekels [about $385 per month] and live in a place of our own where the walls are thick enough.”
Is the outpost’s illegality a consideration? “We are not concerned about the outpost’s legal status,” they reply, smiling. “That’s not part of our considerations. Those things always work out.”
They were born around the same time the outpost was established, in the early 1990s (according to Dayan), and the settlements and outposts are for them incontestable facts. It’s not ideological reasons that motivate them – we’re not in the 1980s anymore. For them, the struggle has already been decided. They have little to say about political issues. Their only comment is that it’s easier to establish outposts here than on the Judea ridgeline. “You create an outpost on the ridgeline and it’s immediately shut down.” I tell them the new plan calls for the mobile homes to be replaced by an artists’ village with 40 residential units. They’re not going to wait for that to happen.
“Look,” says Dayan, “people have been living here for 20 years, in the winter, in the snow and cold, when there’s no power. That’s why we’re winning.” But the young couple is perturbed by more material things, I point out. “We’ve always had enough people to implement the missions, have no worries on that score,” he replies, adding, “Determination always wins over irony.”
El Matan’s founder
Home to some 1,000 people, Ma’aleh Shomron is a handsome settlement, somewhat different in appearance from other settlements I saw: narrower, tree-lined streets; fine villas, meticulously and individually designed; large spaces between the dwellings. In the well-tended garden of Dayan’s home, I meet a tall, broad-shouldered, muscular fellow called Yoel Bloch. He’s currently Dayan’s gardener, but I’m immediately given the lowdown on his glory days: he founded the El Matan outpost.
Bloch steers clear of the media, especially Haaretz, but when he’s pushed to tell the story of the outpost’s creation, he can’t resist. Although most sources (newspapers, Peace Now, Talia Sasson’s 2005 government report about the outposts) state that El Matan was founded in 2000, Mesika says Barak promised in 1999 to legalize the outpost, and Dayan talks about 1993. I ask Bloch for the real story.
It all started one summer day in the mid-1990s, Bloch tells me. He and his wife were visiting her parents in the neighboring settlement of Karnei Shomron. He told her he had an urge to do something. She pointed at the land outside the window and replied that if he really meant it, then she wanted a settlement right there. He decided to make her wish come true. There was nothing there: the site was bare, there wasn’t even a road. They pitched a tent and lived there almost alone. Afterward, he examined maps to find out what part of the land was Arab-owned, the boundaries of the Nahal Kana nature reserve and where there was ostensibly available land. Bloch says he called Ze’ev (“Zambish”) Hever, a veteran leader of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. Hever told him that if he was really intent on establishing a settlement, he should meet with him.
Bloch relates that he arrived with a map and indicated several possible places, from which they chose one. Hever wanted to know how many families he had lined up for the project. Around 60, Bloch replied. In fact, he didn’t have even five. Bloch was invited to a bigger meeting in Ma’aleh Efraim and told to bring representatives of the families. He contacted a few friends and persuaded them to take a day off work. On the way to the meeting, he told one of them to say he was in charge of security, another that he would take care of the water supply, and so on. They created a terrific impression and the next day were invited to a meeting in Jerusalem.
Five of those who had come to the Ma’aleh Efraim meeting refused to skip another day of work, so Bloch rounded up other friends. At the end of the Jerusalem meeting, the high-ranking settlers said to Bloch, “Do you take us for imbeciles? You bring different people to every meeting.” Bloch replied that there were 60 families and everyone wanted to come, so he invited others each time.
Shortly afterward, the settlement cooperative society Amana, which Hever heads, built a narrow road to the nascent outpost, at a cost of 2 million shekels ($517,000), provided a few mobile homes and arranged for guards. “We obtained around 200 dunams [of the state land] there,” Bloch says proudly. “If we hadn’t done it, the Arabs would have taken over the land. I even raised 150 head of sheep, so we could control as much land as possible.”
Definitely an interesting story, even somewhat romantic, I tell him, and recall that a Samaria settler told me not long ago, “Many people in Samaria boast of having created outposts and done heroic deeds, and in some cases it’s even true.” In any event, according to the story, when Bloch established the outpost, he was about the same age as the couple we met in El Matan who said the walls were too thin.
Stain on the country
The large living room in Dayan’s house is connected to the kitchen. There’s a big library on the upper floor, with a reading space that overlooks the surrounding hills. The walls are ornamented with paintings, sculptures and masks from all parts of the globe. There’s quite a lot of postcolonial art from Africa and elsewhere. And a meditation bowl. Dayan refused to visit South Africa under the apartheid regime; he made his first visit after Nelson Mandela became president. Israel’s ties with the apartheid regime are a stain on the country, he says.
Dayan and his wife, who are both nonreligious, moved to Ma’aleh Shomron after the 1988 Knesset election, during the period of the first intifada. About 40 families lived in the settlement at the time, both secular and religious. Previously, the Dayans lived in Tel Aviv. In fact, even Tel Aviv was a backwater for him. He arrived in Israel in 1971 at age 16 from Buenos Aires, a city that only starts to come alive at midnight. Suddenly, he found himself living in a city where the lights went out at 10 P.M. But he felt there was a sense of mission in Israel, something David Ben-Gurion had instilled in the people. Dayan believes that when Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo (“Chich”) Lahat “fomented the positive revolution in which a small, drowsy town was transformed into a tremendous metropolis, he also removed the Jewish roots, the sense of a mission, from the city and from part of secular Israeliness, and left a kind of hedonism.”
Dani Dayan, the de facto foreign minister of the settlement enterprise (Credit: Moti Milrod)
In contrast to most settlers, Dayan views the settlement enterprise as a political tool and not as an end in itself. “I am not part of the religious-Zionist movement, I am a national Zionist,” he explains. “The Herut movement [precursor of Likud] never sanctified the settlements or looked for a messiah here; it viewed settlement as a political act. I believe an Israel that will forgo Hebron and Beit El voluntarily will become a hollow society.”
I put it to him that some people view Israeli society as hollow even with the settlements – and for that matter, what constitutes a non-hollow society? “I am a maximalist Zionist,” he says, skirting the question. “The goal of Zionism is to have the whole Jewish people in the whole Land of Israel. The Jewish chain of existence here is my life’s mission. I am completely secular, but Zionism is actually my religion. There is no religion and no Zionism in Tel Aviv, only a certain type of hedonism.”
We’ve heard all about hedonistic secularity, I say, that’s not why we are here talking now. I’ve noticed a development among the settlers that’s worth talking about, I tell him. Among a particular elite of settlers, and perhaps also among young people, there is a feeling of moral erosion. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify your superiority over the Palestinians in every area of life, as well as their status as stateless people without rights.
There are two facets to this. First of all, perhaps you are concerned that the status quo is unacceptable, both from the pragmatic side of leaving the Palestinians without rights and also for what that will mean for Israel’s future and its status – after all, you hear the voices in the international community. And there is also a moral aspect. The settlers like to speak in the name of morality, but it is impossible to justify the status of the Palestinians in the West Bank.
One solution, and perhaps also the fairer one, was advocated by the late journalist and publicist Uri Elitzur, who came very close to saying that in order to retain the Land of Israel, all the Palestinians have to be offered citizenship in one state. Others, like you, are oscillating between all kinds of ideas and plans that are intended to bring about certain changes in the situation. But some among you understand that it is essential – perhaps only for appearance’s sake – to address the Palestinians’ lack of rights and lack of status.
Dayan accepts this proposition. “There are two true narratives here,” he says, “and not even King Solomon could judge between them. We say this is our land, we were expelled from here and always longed to return. And one day, a giant of a statesman, Theodor Herzl, transformed that longing into a national liberation movement. The Palestinians say that maybe King David was here and maybe he wasn’t, it’s folklore or an invention, and in any case it’s not relevant. You, they tell us, are a classic late-19th century European colonialist movement.
“There can be no compromise between those two narratives,” he continues. “The conflict will end only when one side forgoes its aspirations. But there are wrongs that can be stopped even without a solution of the big issue. I am talking about human rights, free movement for the Palestinians, unnecessary checkpoints, rehabilitation of the refugee camps, obstacles that we create for them on the way to prosperity.”
Why does that even bother you? “I was on a tour with Machsom Watch [an activist group that monitors checkpoints], and it looks bad. This is both a moral problem and an Israeli political need. Unlike the land issue, this is not a zero-sum game. I gain nothing from Palestinian suffering. If we want to remain in Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians must live normal lives. In the 21st century, it’s out of the question for people to lead abnormal lives – that just cannot continue any longer. When a Palestinian waits at a checkpoint while a soldier is text-messaging his girlfriend, that is completely unjustified.”
Dayan is at home both in Washington and the European Union, and he likes to drop names of well-known people with whom he’s spoken – such as the late Milton Friedman and Condoleezza Rice – seemingly offhandedly, but with stubborn persistence. He also meets with ambassadors to Israel and foreign correspondents. His “salon” was described in a New York Times article, he says. In a certain sense, he is the settlers’ foreign minister.
His status, he tells me, derives from a change that has occurred in the relations between the settlers and the international community (relations that were nonexistent in the past). The settlers have an interest in the international community’s approach – they would like to change it or at least mitigate it – and the international community, for its part, has an interest in the settlers, or at least grasps that they represent a force that cannot be ignored.
“A few years ago,” says Dayan, “I spoke at a meeting of the Israeli Presidential Conference, and afterward an ambassador sat down next to me. I requested a meeting with him. He didn’t get back to me then, but now he calls every three months to arrange a meeting. Throughout the world there is tremendous curiosity about our viewpoint.” Dayan has a very self-satisfied air. I try to prick his balloon by observing that it would be hard to say he’s changed the stance of the international community toward the illegality of the settlements, or weaned it from the two-state idea.
“That’s true,” he says, “but gradually we have at least obtained a place at the discussion table. When I came to Washington, I was the first settler to pass through the gates of the White House and the U.S. State Department. There’s also a more cynical explanation for their attitude toward me. Someone in the State Department told me, ‘For years we perceived you as agents of Israeli government policy, but suddenly we realized that you are autonomous one and the Israeli government is the agent of your policy.’ As for disillusionment with the two-state idea, I believe that [U.S. President Barack] Obama and [former Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton understood that in the short and intermediate term, that idea is dead. More and more European ambassadors and global politicians will tell you confidentially that they realize the two-state solution is a dead issue; they just don’t dare say so publicly.
“But in one issue I have failed completely: in my efforts to change world opinion about building in Judea and Samaria. I get an attentive ear in regard to policy, but not when it comes to building.” Maybe you are off the mark in regard to the idea of making things easier for the Palestinians, I suggest. Maybe their lives will never be normal as long as the settlers are around? Because, if they don’t have a state and a right to vote enabling them to influence the government that determines their fate – and in the absence of a state it’s the Israeli government – won’t they remain in an abnormal situation?
‘The road doesn’t lead to two states’
“I am not squeamish: I am ready to do wrongs for the sake of the Jewish people’s existence. But look at the reality. For the past 20 years, everything has been geared to the feeling that the two-state solution is at hand, and all the issues of everyday life were sidelined. After the failure of [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry, people understand that the road does not lead to two states. “We need an initiative. There will not be two states. One state is a disaster, and unilateral withdrawals haven’t led anywhere. The only [viable] plan is to ease things significantly for the Palestinians now. I am not asking anyone to forgo his aspirations, I will rehabilitate the refugee camps without demanding anything from them. I don’t expect them to forsake the right of return, but I do want their lives to improve.”
So the supporters of the two-state idea are lying to themselves about the feasibility of that solution? “Yes. We are now in the post-two-state era. John Kerry infused new hopes in the two-state idea, but in the end his failure showed the new situation for what it is. I think that we have been in a post-two-state mode since 2010. Examine Obama’s first two years compared to the following two, and it is clear he realized the two-state solution is impossible and dropped the subject. Accordingly, we have to abandon the purely political track and advance on the humane track.”
So you are ready to give the Palestinians everything other than their own state or the right to vote in one state?
“That is quite accurate.”
Let’s say we adopt your suggestion now and that the Palestinians’ situation improves. Your proposal contains no plan for the Israelis and the Palestinians 40 years down the road. You have no scenario for the future.
“I have ideas about the future. I am not going to tell you what they are now, because they will sound like political science fiction. Especially when we are under the tyranny of the two-state solution.”
You just said we are past the era of the two-state solution. Forget two states: what will Israel look like in another generation?
“I will give you the criteria. (A) Everyone has to be a full citizen of the state that controls his fate. (B) No one is expelled from his home. (C) Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. (D) No foreign sovereignty west of the Jordan River.”
A, C and D contradict each other in several ways.
“Not in the world I am talking about a few decades from now.”
‘Two sovereign states’
Your criteria are impossible, I say to Dayan. If it’s one state, it can’t be Jewish and democratic for all time. You don’t want two states, so where exactly will the Palestinians be full citizens – Brazil? Maybe you’re just dancing skillfully around Elitzur’s proposal of one state for all. Are you not adopting it, I ask, because you know it doesn’t stand a chance in Jewish society, or are you genuinely against a one-state solution?
“Some settlers have adopted Elitzur’s idea,” he replies. “They are excited by the idea of Israeli sovereignty being applied to the whole Land of Israel. They don’t grasp the price. I am not there, and most of the settlers are not there, either. I want a Jewish and democratic state.”
Then we have to return to science fiction. What is your long-term plan?
“If you insist, even though I know it won’t be accepted now. I am striving for two sovereign states with the Jordan River as their border: the State of Israel to the west of the river, and the state of Jordan – or an Arab-Palestinian state – to the east. But even though the river is the border, the Arab-Palestinian state will have full governmental powers over the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. In other words, functional sovereignty rather than territorial sovereignty. Does such a thing exist anywhere today? No.”
Isn’t that just a return to the “Jordan is Palestine” option with minor modifications? I must tell you, your idea is the proof that there are no more original ideas in the world, only new combinations of old quotations. Possibly you are aware that the idea stands no chance. Possibly your true position is: a continuation of the status quo with some improvements in the Palestinians’ life. Or a return of some kind to the era before the first intifada and the Oslo Accords: less separation between Palestinians and Jews, and more freedom of movement.
“Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times last year that the status quo is sustainable. In other words, it can be maintained for the foreseeable future. I, too, think the existing situation is tolerable but needs to be improved. And yes, I would definitely like to have the situation that existed before the first intifada. My Arab neighbor could say to his children, ‘It’s a beautiful day, let’s go to Tel Aviv.’ And my father went to a dentist in Qalqilyah. I would like to see engineers from Ramallah working in high-tech in Tel Aviv.
“We need to recognize the abnormality of the situation and create as much normality as possible within it. I am critical of Israeli society for not taking an interest in the Palestinians’ aspirations, for not saying to them, ‘I can’t fulfill your aspirations, but that doesn’t mean I deny them.’ In the 2012 election, when a candidate for the U.S. presidency [Newt Gingrich] said there is no Palestinian people, there was joy in the settlements. But it isn’t a historical issue, it’s a matter of political aspirations. Those who say today there is no Palestinian people are lying to themselves.”
The problem with Naftali Bennett
Dayan has recently been involved in some practical politics. The second time we met last winter, he was running in the Habayit Hayehudi primaries (with the support of the party’s leader, Naftali Bennett). At the time, the party was soaring in the polls and Dayan was exactly the type of new politician Bennett said he wanted: secular, widely perceived as moderate, a man of the world. But Dayan didn’t get enough votes to obtain a realistic slot, left the party and attacked Bennett.
You probably voted Likud, but what future do you see for Habayit Hayehudi after its poor showing in the election? Is the project of a large trans-Israeli party over?
“I ran in the primaries because I hoped that an Israeli national party would be formed in which people from a range of communities would unite for a common goal. But I discovered that Habayit Hayehudi was, and remains, the party of the religious-Zionist community. No one is hiding that any longer, by the way, not even Bennett. I am not part of the religious-Zionist movement, so my place is not there.
“Habayit Hayehudi is actually a hostage of the religious-Zionist movement in terms of the movement’s needs, building and education priorities, budgets, etc. Bennett had good intentions, but instead of crossing the abyss in one leap, he wanted to do it in two – and like in a cartoon he crashed to the ground. In the end, Bennett decided to remain on the wrong bank – the bank of narrow sectarianism. He didn’t really have the courage to take the big step.”
Something occurred to me in regard to the right-wing victories in Israel in recent years, I tell him. Maybe the whole story of “what the world will do to us” is a left-wing concoction. The truth is that the world is arming us and maintaining close economic ties with us. In the last decades, Israel has been able to maintain an occupation regime and also to grow economically and maintain trade ties with most of the world. Maybe the right has a point here: so far, you have proved that occupation is possible without having to pay a steep price in the international arena. And that’s another reason the right keeps winning elections.
“Apparently in contrast to you,” Dayan laughs, “I am somewhat more concerned about the impact of the boycott movement. Already today, I see the psychological effect it’s having on the prime minister. It won’t worry me if we have to drink black coffee instead of espresso, but I see that many others are worried. A boycott is still very far off. Maybe sanctions will be imposed on the settlements, but that won’t make much difference – because the settlement enterprise is not based on industrial zones, but on the number of inhabitants. And that number is rising all the time. Bear in mind: when all is said and done, that is the only consistent trend.”
Nir Baram, is an Israeli author. His novels “The Remaker of Dreams” (2006) and “Good People” (2010) were short-listed for Israel’s Sapir Prize for Literature. “Good People” was translated into 12 languages and in 2010 Baram won the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew literature and was short-listed for the Rome Prize for literature. His new novel, “World Shadow,” was published in Israel in 2013 and will be published around the world in 2015.
One of the mobile homes that makes up the El Matan outpost, between Qalqilyah and Nablus. Photo: Moti Milrod
Ramallah, summer 2014. We’re driving through a tunnel, at the end of which the southern edges of the West Bank city are visible. Driving on the road, you see a different sovereignty every time you look to the right or left. “How is separation possible?” asks my escort, who has long since lost his faith in the two-state solution. “Every separation is an artificial act, which torments the people who live here. Suddenly, in the space where they moved about freely, you’ve erected a wall, borders. Questions of sovereignty – that doesn’t interest them. They want to be able to move.”
In front of us, a convoy of vehicles inches forward, horns blaring. This is the Qalandiyah checkpoint. More than 10,000 people a day cross here. I remember that a friend who works at Ben-Gurion Airport estimated that some 30,000 people a day go through there. Vehicles arrive from every direction. People crowd between them as the smell of fire and coal hangs in the air. A thin boy sleeps on a tattered crimson sofa, its back scorched.
No one looks at us when we pass through the checkpoint; we’ll be stopped only when we leave the West Bank. We go through the village of Akeb, which Israel annexed after the Six-Day War in 1967. Most of the inhabitants have Israeli residency status and blue ID cards. In principle, they pay Jerusalem municipal taxes, except now the village lies on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier. We pass scaffolding on tall buildings of all shapes and sizes, a mélange of styles, stones of varying colors. In some cases, the buildings are packed so closely together that all the colored cement above seems joined in one continuous strip. Trucks, pickups and cement mixers ply their way between the buildings. A melee of construction.
The separation barrier looms in front of us. On it are large, colorful paintings of Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti – the popular Palestinian figure who is serving life sentences in an Israeli prison – and graffiti in Arabic and English. The road is in terrible condition. I ask whose sovereignty we are in now. “Still under Israeli sovereignty,” I’m told. “Technically, we are still in Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem? I’m amazed. This multi-tentacle Jerusalem, with arms and extensions thrusting every which way, covers a lot more ground than the map of the city that resides in my mind.
Palestinian policemen direct traffic on one of Ramallah’s main streets. When we were here three months ago, in a rainstorm, the street became a raging canal of turgid water that seemed about to engulf the cars. A long, narrow street takes us to a small, barely noticeable office building. From here, Munir Abushi manages various political initiatives. With Abushi in the small office are Awni al-Mashni, Mohammed al-Beiruti and Radi Jerai. Aged in their sixties, they all spent time in Israeli prisons in the 1970s and ’80s – between eight and 12 years, respectively.
I ask why they were arrested. They laugh and offer vague responses. Abushi relates that he and Beiruti were both arrested in the same week in 1974 while they were Palestine Liberation Organization activists. “I told him to go into hiding, because he was going to be arrested that week,” he teases Beiruti.
At the time Abushi was a student at Damascus University, and occasionally slipped across the border into the West Bank. He takes pride in having been “number one on the most-wanted list.” Jerai says he’s exaggerating.
Jalal Rummanah, director of the Prospect language school in Ramallah. Sustained the injuries in a “work accident” in 1998, trying to blow up a booby-trapped car in Jerusalem. Photo by Muammar Awad
Remembrance of times past
I ask about the time they served together in Be’er Sheva Prison. At first it was rough, they say, but afterward it was good – a smile suddenly flits across the faces around me. Only Awni remains expressionless.
This nostalgia catches me off guard. “Did you all have it good?” I ask. They nod. At first the warders intervened incessantly in their lives, and in response they rioted and staged strikes. There was also a prisoners’ revolt and friends of theirs were killed. But in the end they “defeated the prison” and the guards let them manage their affairs as they wished.
They were a “whole society” in prison, inmates ranging in age from 15 to 70 and from every social class, “like in a 19th-century novel.” They slept in large cells, many people together. They ate together, exercised occasionally, conducted classes for those who were illiterate, and read books for eight or 10 hours a day. They read everything: world classics, fiction, politics, sociology, philosophy – from Frantz Fanon to Theodor Herzl. Yes, there was a guy named Khaled who immersed himself in Herzl’s “Altneuland” – he’ll be here soon.
“It was a good period,” Beiruti recalls. “I don’t remember a time when we had as much autonomy to manage our lives as in prison. We slept, we rested, we read, we talked about the future. Apart from women, we had everything.” In prison, they learned about Jewish society and its history, and formulated their political principles. They started to get to know the Israeli side and studied the stories the Jewish people believed. The point they still refuse to understand? The desire of most Jews to separate between Jews and Arabs.
They were released in the late 1980s and had to rebuild their lives. Abushi, for example, served as governor of Salfit, a Palestinian town near the urban settlement of Ariel. Most of them held senior posts in the Palestinian security forces and became well acquainted with the subtleties of Palestinian politics.
Beiruti wrote a book about Palestinian prisoners. “Do you know how many Palestinians have been in Israel’s prisons since 1967?” he asks me. “People who were imprisoned for between one day and 20 years, say?” I don’t know, I reply, and ponder for a moment. Okay, I like a gamble: 150,000? “Around 800,000,” he says, looks at me and laughs. “You should have seen your face,” Abushi later whispers to me.
Much time has passed since their release. After their activity in the PLO, the years in prison, the families they established, their work in the Palestinian Authority, the political and business careers some of them had, they are now involved in an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative: Two States, One Homeland. In a way, it’s a project that sums up their political lives and their hopes for the future. I was involved in the initiative from the outset, and this is our fifth or sixth meeting. But every time we meet, I look at them and wonder how they can still believe, after all these years.
It is our fourth meeting but, unlike the previous times, a tense atmosphere prevails today. The Palestinians are not sitting comfortably on the creaking wooden chairs and cracking jokes with us. They shift uneasily, constantly exchanging comments, examining and reexamining the Israeli-Palestinian document of principles that was worked out.
There’s a reason for their nervousness. Two hours from now, we will go to Fatah headquarters in Ramallah, in order to meet with Mohammed al-Madani, head of the PA committee for dialogue with Israeli society and a senior member of Fatah’s Central Committee.
It will be the first time the Tel Aviv-Ramallah initiative is presented to a senior PA figure. “It wasn’t easy to arrange the meeting,” Beiruti whispers to me. “We have to be ready.”
“Here’s the Herzl expert,” someone says snidely as Khaled enters, late. A large man with a loud, hoarse voice, Khaled, who lives in Hebron, arrives with a youngster who wears a brown leather coat and a bored expression. The boy shakes my hand formally, takes a seat on the side of the room and regards us. I notice something odd: he’s not playing with a cellphone. Khaled and his family live next to the Chabad section in Hebron’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood. “Not many Palestinians still live in H2,” someone says.
Most people aren’t familiar with the term H2, only – if at all – with the ABC division of the West Bank under the Oslo Accords (Area A: full Palestinian control; Area B: Palestinian civilian and Israeli security control; Area C: full Israeli control). In January 1997, Israel – under the first Netanyahu government – and the Palestinians signed the Hebron Agreement. At the time, Hebron was the last Palestinian city in which Israeli forces remained.
The agreement divided the city into two zones: H1, under full Palestinian control; and H2, under Israeli control, with a population of between 800-1,200 Jewish settlers and 40,000 Palestinians. Since then, many Palestinians have left H2 – for reasons encapsulated in Khaled’s account of recent events.
Two weeks ago, he says, settlers smashed the windows of his living room, his 15-year-old son was arrested by soldiers at a checkpoint in the city and soldiers broke the boy’s leg. The previous week, all the occupants of his building, including the children, were forced to go into the street at 10 P.M. by order of the Israel Defense Forces. They were made to stand there until 2 A.M. “My son sees only settlers and soldiers,” Khaled says. “I dragged him here so he would see that there are also other Jews.” He speaks Hebrew – from his time in Be’er Sheva Prison – though his son speaks only Arabic.
Beiruti, a former member of the Palestinian security forces, now retired, has curly white hair and the appearance of an absentminded professor. He tells us he has started to grow figs in Jericho. “It’s a new strain,” he mumbles. I don’t know whether to believe him – he tends to sport a bemused expression, so it’s hard to know when he’s joking and when he isn’t, and everything he says is covered in a thin layer of irony, anyway. “Can I visit?” I ask. “Give us a year,” he says. “I’m planning to conquer France with these figs.”
Talk turns to the meeting held a month earlier, in Jerusalem, in which the initiative was presented to various groups. The Palestinians and Israelis who were there chuckle as they recall the European response. The European representatives chastised them and said they “don’t understand who needs this. After all, the conventional two-state plan is accepted by the international community.”
The Europeans, along with Palestinian and Israeli politicians and most of the NGOs that operate in an ostensibly nonpolitical space, continue to cling to the two-state formula according to the international parameters. They find any other idea heretical. It’s interesting that these individuals and groups profess, at least outwardly, to be quite certain that the implementation of the two-state solution is only a matter of time, that the force of reason will lead there, and ultimately everyone will come to their senses.
For decades, they’ve watched as the two-state vision became increasingly disconnected from the reality of the changing map as demarcated by the establishment of the settlements. It is already difficult to separate between Jews and Palestinians. Yet they continue to believe that the movement of history is leading to two states under the international formula.
An infusion of hope
In this regard, Beiruti tells a story about Ariel Sharon. In 1996, immediately after Netanyahu’s election victory, the governor of Jenin suddenly got a phone call. “Sharon wants to meet you,” he was told. “You don’t have to come, only if you want.” In their meeting, Sharon asks the governor: “If a plan is put forward, do you think the Palestinians in the West Bank will want to become Israeli citizens?” The governor asks whether Gaza is included in the plan. Sharon becomes irritated when the subject of Gaza is raised; he wants to know about the West Bank. It’s a well-known story. Beiruti claims this was the idea behind the Gaza disengagement: to be rid of Gaza, annex the West Bank to Israel and offer the Palestinians there “a type of citizenship.”
Abushi notes that one of the reasons for our initiative is to infuse hope in the Palestinians, who no longer believe in anything involving Israel, and because it’s obvious that violence will break out again soon.
Beiruti: “It is not my role to avert violence. So there will be a third intifada, and then a fourth, and maybe a fifth, and perhaps in another 40 years we will live together.” Khaled: “After 150 years of Zionism, we can say that the Zionists failed. After all their maneuvers, the Jews are still a minority in the territory of the Land of Israel and they are constantly living with violence and wars and death. The Palestinian national movement also failed, by not succeeding in removing the occupation. If everyone will understand that they have failed, maybe something positive will happen.”
Jerai, a lecturer at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, hears everyone out. He doesn’t support his friends’ initiative. He is a one-state advocate and no longer believes in any two-state model. He talks about the refugees’ right to return to their homes. Some of the people who are sitting with us are from families that were expelled in 1948. Awni’s family, for example, was expelled from the village of Al-Qabu, adjacent to today’s community of Mevo Beitar, southwest of Jerusalem. The village’s spring is part of Menachem Begin Park and now called Ein Kobi.
Awni was born in 1953. His hardest years were childhood, when everything was temporary and in flux, and no place was home because the family believed they would soon be back in their real home. Palestinian writer Salman Natur observed of the second generation of the Nakba [the Palestinian term for the establishment of the State of Israel], “We were born after the Nakba and therefore perforce became witnesses. Our body became a historical draft document written in black ink. We were born after that war and, therefore, a burnt offering falls on our shoulders … We learned to love the story according to which we lost our childhood, which we sacrificed for the sake of all.” (From the Hebrew translation by Yehouda Shenhav-Shaharabani.)
As always, even when we vow to talk only about the initiative, the discussion soon expands to general issues. One of the Israelis says that most of the Palestinians’ homes no longer exist and people are living in the ones that are still standing. If you try to remove them in favor of the refugees, they will fight.
Jerai suggests a different idea: the Palestinian landowners who were expelled will rent their former homes to the Israelis who now occupy them and will return only to uninhabited places. “There are many places from which Palestinians were expelled that are now empty,” he says. “Why shouldn’t the refugees go back to them? That won’t bother anyone.” His tone is not defiant; he truly wants to understand why Israelis find the idea so impossible.
One of the Israelis says that even if we set aside the moral issue for the moment, the idea is not feasible. Things have changed in the intervening decades; villages have disappeared and cities have been built. You can’t fix one wrong by doing another, he says, and also change Israel’s character in one fell swoop.
I ask Jerai why the right of return, a Palestinian state (assuming it was created) and compensation wouldn’t be enough for him. “Because this is not Israel’s land,” he replies. “And speaking of compensation: Have you ever asked yourself how much money Israel must pay the Palestinians for stolen property from 1948? Homes, fields, farm equipment, everything. How come you never talk about this in Israel?”
Jerai and I light up cigarettes by the window and gaze at the tiled roofs of the homes in the settlement of Psagot, which lies about a kilometer from us. In the finest settlement tradition, it’s perched high above the local Arab communities. Some 300 families live in Psagot.
Not one of those in the room here has ever been there. “How much longer do you think this Psagot will remain here and watch me?” Jerai asks.
“The truth is,” I reply, “I would be happy to see the familiar two-state solution implemented. But I also believe that people need to ready themselves for the day when that will no longer be possible. After all, it’s inconceivable that no new ideas will be put forward after that.”
TAKING THE INITIATIVE (from left): Mohammed al-Beiruti, Awni al-Mashni, Munir Abushi and Khaled. Photo by Nir Baram
In the handsome building of Fatah headquarters, we are greeted by Madani’s young, well-presented aides. They know us, at least from a Google search. One of them says to me, “In my opinion, the world doesn’t have a shadow,” a reference to the title of my latest novel. He congratulates another of the Israelis on his birthday, which falls the following week.
We sit in a circle. From time to time, Madani – white-haired, gray-mustached and soft-spoken – is called to the phone or peruses a document of some sort. The Palestinians and Jews present the initiative to him. “We see the area between the Jordan River and the sea as a shared homeland for the two peoples, who are attached to every part of it by their historical and religious memory. Within this shared homeland, two peoples realize their national aspirations by means of two independent, sovereign states with recognized borders on the basis of the lines of June 4, 1967. The borders between the two countries are open, and the citizens of the two states are free to move and live throughout the area.”
Advantages of the initiative: no separation between Jews and Palestinians, no one is evacuated from his home, freedom to move throughout the space is reserved for all, and each nation realizes its national aspiration in its state.
One of the Israelis says the idea of two states and separation is dead; the Jewish and Palestinian populations are too intermixed, it’s finished. Madani doesn’t like that comment. At that moment, he’s more upset that Israel isn’t releasing prisoners according to the understandings reached with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. He asks again and again why the Israeli public isn’t taking an interest in the negotiations and the Netanyahu government’s violations of the agreement. These are the last gasps of the Kerry initiative; everyone – including Madani – knows his initiative is dead.
Madani says our initiative will be acceptable to the Palestinians – who do not want to be separated from the Israelis by barriers or high walls – but then quotes a popular saying: Ask for the possible, not the impossible. “This proposal can be relevant at a later stage,” he says, “but at the moment there are agreed parameters of the international community about a two-state agreement, and I suggest that first we uphold them.”
No one is surprised by this reply. Official representatives of the PA, including journalists who are close to the government, talk to you but also address other ears, and they present the official position. They will always cite “the parameters of the international community.” However, when you talk to people from different classes in different cities, you hear less about a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders (maybe because people can’t believe it will happen after all this time), or about the international community, and more about “freedom of movement,” checkpoints, prisoners, the inability to move freely and visit relatives in East Jerusalem, Gaza or Nazareth. And you hear about the refugees.
In his capacity as a minister, Madani holds many meetings with Israelis. He talks about how close Jews and Arabs are, about the fact we are all children of Abraham. We come also to the Nazis and the Holocaust. Finally, he tells a story from other times. Once, in a conversation between Rabin and Arafat, the atmosphere was excellent and they went into great detail. Arafat insisted on some small point; Rabin laughed and said, “If I didn’t know you were Yasser Arafat, I would say you were a Jew.”
Through the window we see buildings and cranes, blue skies and mounds of garbage. One of the Israelis says it’s impossible to move ahead, because the Israelis are not despairing but indifferent, and the Palestinians are not indifferent but despairing. Madani, who is vexed at the Israeli indifference, asks why the Israeli left does not make its voice heard in regard to the prisoners. What more is there to be said about the Israeli left? The Israelis in the meeting say that neither the prisoners nor the negotiations are of any interest to the Israeli public. Madani has obviously heard this before, but still can’t fathom how it’s possible.
We adjourn to the conference room for lunch with the minister and his aides. Sitting next to me is a young Palestinian in a suit. He holds a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University and is thinking of adding a PhD. We talk about Palestinians who see Ramallah as a cold, alienated city; the young man says his parents won’t go near Ramallah, not even to visit him.
Another of the people at the table was once a journalist with the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. An Israeli citizen who lived in the north of the country, he left Israel and now lives in Ramallah. He doesn’t really know the neighbors in his building, he says, and that’s fine with him. He moved to Ramallah after the second intifada because he couldn’t bear the propaganda in the Israeli media any longer. He would report on Palestinians being killed in the intifada, sometimes dozens, and nothing would be published. Finally, he came to the realization that no one was interested.
On my other side is one of Madani’s aides, a shy young man. At first I didn’t notice him but suddenly, and by chance, I eavesdrop on a story he’s telling. Not long ago, he was released from an Israeli prison after serving eight years. Many of his friends were killed during the second intifada: Dozens of Palestinians were killed not far from here, near the headquarters of the Judea and Samaria Division. The day came when he couldn’t take it any longer. He took a rifle and went out to shoot Jews. He shot an Israeli Arab – not killing him, fortunately – and spent a few years in jail. After he got out he decided he was done with violence, or at least had paid his debt to the violent struggle. He’s now working in Madani’s office. When told that he looks like an 18-year old, he blushes. It’s hard to connect him to his story: his whole exterior says “best student in class.”
Sharing kebab with Arafat
Outside, I remember my first visit to Ramallah. Summer 2000, a very hot day, about a month before the Camp David Summit and the second intifada. I’m 23 and accompanying a few journalists, my father [Uzi Baram, a former Labor Party cabinet minister] and MK Ahmad Tibi [a longtime MK, now a member of the Joint Arab List] on a visit to the Muqata, PA headquarters.
Ramallah looks quiet and inviting through the car windows. I devour the sights avidly, gawking at the license plates on the cars, the uniforms of the Palestinian policemen, the construction-site cranes towering above us, and hope we will also visit the city center.
At the Muqata we are welcomed by Arafat in a green uniform. In the meeting, Arafat speaks in a stern tone of voice. He says he doesn’t understand the urgency of the Camp David Summit, that the Americans are pressing him hard to come because Ehud Barak is pressing the Americans, but he doesn’t understand the haste, doesn’t see agreements between the sides. Asked what he wants, he replies: A Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem, and a solution to the refugee problem. Everyone talks to everyone else, and then we move to a room where a table has been set for lunch.
I sit next to Arafat. Instantly he softens up. Now he’s in a good mood, smiles a lot, toys with the food but doesn’t really eat. Instead of eating, he picks up kubbeh and kebabs from his plate with his hands and gives them to me.
Jalal Rummanah holding the degree certificates he earned while in prison. ‘I know there are many wise Jews with a good heart, but they need to understand that the Palestinians paid the full price for your past.’ Photo by Muammar Awad
A few weeks have passed since the meeting with Madani. I am back in Ramallah. The city is not so bustling now, and in the meantime everything has changed. Three Jewish teenage boys have been abducted and the army is searching for them and arresting Hamas members in the West Bank, in Operation Brother’s Keeper.
Signs of Progress
We reach a building whose ground-floor windows have been smashed. Large pieces of glass litter the ground across a wide area. The distinctive noise of glass being crunched underfoot resonates far and wide as people pass by. People who are milling about don’t believe the three boys were abducted by Palestinians. They’re in Eilat, they say, the IDF is hiding them; the whole story is an Israeli fabrication to rearrest the prisoners who were released in the 2011 Gilad Shalit swap deal. We take an elevator to the third floor. Many offices are empty and there’s hardly anyone to be seen in the dimly lit corridor.
In a spacious office that is divided into a few rooms – classrooms actually – hanging signs bear the name of a private school, Progress, and list the courses it offers. There’s a large stack of newspapers on the table in the lobby, with the weekend supplements of Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz on top. Loud electronic music is heard from outside.
Progress is a new language school, teaching primarily Hebrew and English. Its three founding partners are ensconced in the director’s office. All three are Hamas men who served long prison terms in Israel and were released not long ago. I ask why they were arrested. Like the Fatah people we met a few weeks ago, they evade the question, smile, clam up, signal you to change the subject.
They are no longer in Hamas, they say, no longer involved in any organization, only running their school. But in the past few days, the IDF was here and questioned them, and testimony to the visit can be seen in the school’s mangled door and the broken windows. Like some of the Fatah people we met a few weeks ago, these people, too, set about rebuilding their lives, establishing a family and improving their financial situation after their lengthy imprisonment. Only the school’s elderly director, Jalal Rummanah, is willing to have his picture taken. Their biggest fear is that the IDF will arrest them in the days ahead. If so, there’s no knowing when they will be released – maybe in two months, maybe in a year – and the life they’ve built since being freed, including this business that is dear to their hearts, will collapse.
Rummanah sits at his office desk, smoking. I stare at him: he has no fingers on one hand and his skin is partially burned. It was a “work accident,” he says, guffawing. In 1998, Rummanah planned to blow up a booby-trapped car on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare, but before he could detonate it, the car went up in flames with him inside. He suffered severe burns, spent months in hospitals – and another 15 years in prison.
Getting up ceremoniously, he goes to a bureau and shows me a beautifully framed certificate: a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the Open University. “I am familiar with all the books of [historian] Benny Morris and [political scientist] Shlomo Avineri, and I know the people in the Israel Democracy Institute,” he brags. Indeed, Rummanah is highly knowledgeable about the ideas of Zionism and current Israeli politics. He talks keenly about a book he wrote in prison, in Arabic, titled “Whither Zionism?”
Would you be willing to have it translated into Hebrew?
“I would like that very much. And even though I am no longer in Hamas, I will call it ‘The Conflict in the Eyes of Hamas.’ Nir, is there anything you can do? Maybe it’ll be a mubadara [entrepreneurial venture] for the two of us,” he laughs. I don’t know, I tell him; it’s hard to succeed with new books here lately because of the Books Law. “Then we’ll sell online,” he jokes.
What is your attitude toward Zionism?
“I recognize the Jewish problem in the 20th century. I recognize the persecutions and the Holocaust that Hitler, the great criminal, perpetrated. I have sympathy for the Jews, but, after all, Jews like Moses Mendelssohn were French or German individuals of the Mosaic faith. They lived in the West, and Zionism worked on them, and because of it the Jews devoted themselves to a secular ideology that did not suit their religious tradition. The problems of the Jews were in the West, not the East, and they have to solve them in the West as well.”
I assume that two states or one state is not the solution you envisage
“Even if there will be two states in the 1967 borders, no Palestinian will truly accept that. Because, where is the right of return? Where is my house? And if the right of return is accepted, Zionism will no longer exist.”
What rights do the Jews have in this region?
“The Jewish state was founded on the home of my mother, who migrated from Lod in 1948. You [Jews] were discriminated against, and the evil and the discrimination that were done to you, you inflicted on my family and my people. The political solution of the Jews is not to be found here. Together we have to come to the realization that the Jews must integrate back into the societies from which they came: France, Germany, Britain, and, of course, Russia.”
The market place in Ramallah. Unlike the older generation that used to work and travel in Israel, the post-Oslo generation has little interest in life on the other side of the separation barrier. Photo by Reuters
My grandfather came here from Aden, in Yemen. Let’s say he was still alive – where would he and millions of Mizrahi Jews from Middle Eastern countries go?
“The Jews cannot return to the Arab countries, I don’t want them to suffer. So they will return to a third country. That is not a punishment. As soon as Poland was accepted into the European Union, every Israeli with a quarter of a Polish document rushed to get a [Polish] passport, and now it’s the same with Spain. Maybe the Jews know that it will not last.”
Why deprive the Jews of the right to be citizens – that’s what was done to the Palestinians, isn’t it?
“In my opinion, hats off to Herzl, who said, ‘We will come to that place and, if the Arabs agree, we will have a homeland.’ But that is not what you did. I did not change my views during my years in prison, but I did change my mind about the means that need to be adopted to realize them. So I say, despite Sabra and Chatila, despite Deir Yassin and a few more massacres, and the thousands of dead, and the children who were murdered and the checkpoints, I do not want a drop of blood to be shed – either of my people or of the Jews. Therefore, there is no point for the Jews to remain as a minority in a Palestinian state – the hostility is too great.”
So you want to persuade more than six million Jews, a large portion of whom are not from Europe, that the solution is for them to immigrate to Europe?
“If Jews had arrived here as refugees in the 1940s, I would have hosted them with love in my home. But you didn’t do that, right? You arrived with force, including international. I know there are many wise Jews with a good heart, but they need to understand that the Palestinians paid the full price for your past, and the only solution for this is for the Jews to return to the countries they came from and for each of them to realize his rights in his state.”
Rummanah talks passionately, as though he’s really seeking to persuade me. He suggests that after his book appears in Hebrew, we will go together to Jerusalem and he will give a talk at the Hebrew University. “I am ready for criticism,” he says.
Do you understand that you’re really not leaving the Jews any option?
“People who believe in humanity need to shelve ideas that cause injustice, such as the occupation and Zionism. I want you all to know: You inflicted a second Holocaust on the Palestinian people. And hear me: If you stay here with your Zionism and your force, there will never be quiet, Nir, and the future victim will be your brother or my mother, and I don’t want more dead.”
Where are you willing to compromise?
“Listen, I respect the Jewish religion, which says you will return to the Land of Israel when the messiah comes, right? I am a Muslim and I too believe in the messiah, and I say to you: Go back to Europe, and in the future the messiah will decide between us.” His school has about 100 students, most of them women. Slowly they gather: young women wearing hijabs, children with schoolbags, older mothers and a man of 50. Speaking English, I ask a young woman from Bir Naballah, a town northeast of Jerusalem, why she’s learning Hebrew. “I work with Hebrew documents in a law office in Ramallah,” she replies.
The classrooms fill up, and two of the partners start the lessons. One class is learning the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and about their resemblance to Arabic letters. There is silence in the other classroom, where the students are taking their final exam. Only the youngest of the three partners isn’t teaching. He leans on the wall, wearing a smart suit, his hair combed neatly, sporting a small, neatly trimmed beard. He spent eight years in prison, where, like Rummanah, he learned Hebrew and obtained undergraduate and master’s degrees. He is now preparing to write a PhD thesis on the political rights of women in Islam.
We stand in the corridor and converse quietly. He asks me not to use his name. I’m smoking; he’s quit, also shuns alcohol and coffee, and runs every morning. Immediately I feel awkward and sickly. He’s 29 and the father of two children, a boy of eight and a girl of four. “The first thing I did after being released from prison was to marry a friend of the family,” he relates. “Now I am one of the directors here and also teach in the school. You could say that, of the three of us, I am in charge of the business side. In prison, you have to decide whether you just let the time pass and do nothing, or make use of it. I learned Hebrew and got a BA and MA. I prepared myself for the moment I would leave prison.”
I ask about the school’s economic model. “The rent is 3,000 shekels [about $780] a month,” he says. “We teach everything ourselves, so we have no salaries to pay, and each student pays a fee of 400 shekels. At first, we only taught languages, but lately we have expanded. We now teach Arabic and mathematics for matriculation, and we give computer courses. It’s mubadara,” he smiles. He goes on to talk about the doctoral thesis he’s considering – he’s toying with the idea of studying in England. Again we hear drums, some kind of club music, from outside. The office next to theirs is very different, he says. I ask whether he accepts Rummanah’s solution. “Maybe theoretically, at the level of analysis,” he replies, without much enthusiasm. “Practically speaking, it has no chance. Politically, looking at it realistically, there is no solution to the conflict in the future, and I don’t like to talk just to hear myself talk.”
In the meantime, I hear words in Hebrew from the classroom: beit sefer – school; ir – city; medina – state. Rummanah asks in Hebrew, “Where do you live?” And the students reply, “Ramallah.” “Just 25 hours and they’re already writing in Hebrew,” their teacher says proudly.
The students are dressed diversely. A girl in the front row wears a colorful floral galabia, yellow blouse and jeans, her fingernails and toenails polished in red and blue. Next to her is a lean, curly-haired adolescent boy in a blue sweat suit, the class’ top scholar. “We live in Palestine,” he replies in Hebrew to my question. I ask how many of his friends know Hebrew. “None of them,” he says. That’s not surprising, since the PA has prohibited the teaching of Hebrew in the schools under its authority for the past decade and more. Why is he learning Hebrew, I ask. “No special reason,” he shrugs, “I like languages.”
Now we’re on equal terms, I reflect. If in the past many West Bank Palestinians worked in Israel and knew Hebrew and Arabic, while the Jews knew only Hebrew, the young Jewish generation doesn’t know Arabic and their Palestinian peers don’t know Hebrew.
The young partner explains that some of those studying Hebrew work in companies or organizations where they need to know the language. He introduces me to a Hebrew-language student, an Israeli resident from Akeb – the village we drove through that was annexed to Jerusalem but is now on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier. He’s 27, has been employed at the Standards Institute of Israel for a few years and wants to advance to a more senior position. “I don’t talk about politics anymore – enough is enough,” the young teacher says, alluding to Rummanah’s carefree talk, which he obviously doesn’t like. Or maybe he’s intimating something else: I am not going to talk politics with you, certainly not now. The IDF operation in the West Bank continues apace; soldiers burst into the building a few days ago, and clearly he’s concerned he might be arrested.
A new beat
In the corridor, the electronic music grows louder. At the entrance to the office next to the language school, a young woman with long hair and a black dress plays with a small yellow toy truck with her bare feet, while two trendily dressed young men look on. This office has been converted into a music studio. We speak in English (they all speak good English) and we’re invited into a small room where they record the music – mostly of young artists, Arabic pop, and sometimes more traditional music. They play us songs by musicians from Gaza, Alexandria and other places. They do all kinds of things. This studio, like the language school, is mubadara.
They’re not complaining. “There is plenty of work,” they say, “even in the past two weeks. Sometimes more than we can handle.” They noticed the IDF entering the building, but they don’t talk much about politics. In contrast to the language school directors, who, whether they wanted to or not, spent most of their lives feuding with the occupation authorities, the young generation’s contact with Israelis (including the IDF) has been minimal, mainly at checkpoints.
The young people in the studio, unlike the older generation of Palestinians, are not interested in Israelis and don’t spend time analyzing Israeli society and its attitude toward the conflict. Their experiences were shaped in post-Oslo Ramallah. They have never worked in Israel and say they have never been to Tel Aviv or West Jerusalem, and have no great desire to go there. Their cultural space, they tell me, is the Arab world and also music from Europe – from France, for example. They talk to me as though I were a visitor from another country who is asking about the music they produce. Not once do they use the word “you” (plural), which is usually hurled at Israelis as representatives of the occupier society. I try to figure out whether they are ignoring our Israeliness as a demonstrative act, or whether it’s me, feeling awkward and embarrassed, who is trying to ferret out a similar feeling in them.
Perhaps the only facet of their behavior that betrays the fact there are Israeli forces out there who are liable to impact on their lives is their refusal to talk about the ongoing IDF operation in the West Bank. I can’t figure out whether their cautiousness about all things political is due to a wary approach or just boredom with the ritualistic discussion. Maybe a little of both. We gradually loosen up. I confess about my bad taste in music, and in response they play me a recording by a singer from Gaza. In the studio, the sounds assault the senses from every direction. Writers are always envious of the ease with which musicians dazzle the listener, of the nonspoken underpinnings of music. After all, no one knows why a particular combination of sounds thrill one person so powerfully and leave another indifferent. We all shut our eyes for a moment.
On the street outside, the group that met us when we arrived at the school is gathering again. Most of them identify themselves as Hamas supporters. They talk about recent events, but in no time we move to the fundamental issue: the Jews’ place in the region. They have only contempt for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the peace proposals he bandies about with the Israelis and Americans. Their reply to the question of how to achieve peace? One state. But a different state from the one imagined by the one-state-solution advocates in Fatah or among the Jewish left.
“The Jews were always guests in the Islamic states and were treated with respect,” one of the group says. “We respect the Jews and the Jewish religion, but the Jews who came here from Europe with their Zionism plundered our lands and turned us into prisoners. The only peace that is possible here is in a state run in the spirit of the laws of Islam, in which the Jews will enjoy all the rights. We will never expel anyone. But without Zionism.”
A little boy, no more than 8, passes by, wearing the red shirt of Liverpool’s soccer team. He overhears us and stops. “Anat yahudi?” – “Are you a Jew?” – he asks, a strange gleam in his black eyes. “Anat yahudi?” he asks again, this time with an inquisitive expression. I nod. Whenever I see children in soccer kits, I feel I have already died once. His inquisitive look morphs into a broad smile. He shakes his head in disbelief. “Is he Jewish?” he asks the crowd around us in Arabic. One of the older Palestinians explains. “The boy has never seen Jews. He keeps hearing about Jews, but you are the first Jew he has met in his life.”
Nir Baram, is an Israeli author. His novels “The Remaker of Dreams” (2006) and “Good People” (2010) were short-listed for Israel’s Sapir Prize for Literature. “Good People” was translated into 12 languages and in 2010 Baram won the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew literature and was short-listed for the Rome Prize for literature. His new novel, “World Shadow,” was published in Israel in 2013 and will be published around the world in 2015.
Jalal Rummanah, director of the Prospect language school in Ramallah. Photo by Muammar Awad
The living room sofas are green with subtle patterns. Well-dressed children run back and forth, greeting me with a handshake or nod of the head. A beautiful 6-year-old girl with a pink hat looks out the window – her body language makes it perfectly clear she’s nonchalant about the attention being heaped on her and the others. Leila, 45, sits in the center of the sofa, flanked by her daughters: 24-year-old Wala, who’s holding her baby girl and casting a sideways glance at Aya, her 20-year-old sister, who has clandestinely shifted to the far end of the sofa. Opposite, sitting upright, is Leila’s husband, Ismail, as his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old granddaughter perch on the arms of his armchair. “When I’m home – and I hardly ever leave the house – I sometimes don’t remember,” says Wala, caressing her baby daughter, “because the house is beautiful and well-kept, and we invested a lot in it.”
“Don’t remember that this place is an invention of the devil, the closest thing to hell.”
In the distance, along the horizon, a sort of small-scale Manhattan is visible: large numbers of densely crowded buildings, red-tiled roofs in different shapes, sloping downward at varied angles. It’s only when you get close that you notice the gray wall. How much does an apartment cost here, I ask Jamil Sanduka, a professional snake wrangler and head of the Ras Khamis neighborhood committee. “For 160,000 shekels [$41,700] you can get a 120-square-meter [1,290-square-feet] apartment, including a new kitchen, whatever you want,” he replies.
Ras Khamis and Ras Shehadeh are abutting neighborhoods in northeast Jerusalem, not far from the Jewish French Hill neighborhood. Both neighborhoods, like the adjacent Shoafat refugee camp, have been incorporated into the city’s municipal boundaries since 1967. Most of their inhabitants carry blue ID cards, attesting to permanent-residency status in Israel. But their lives changed radically in the middle of the last decade, after the separation barrier cut them off from the rest of the city.
Jerusalem had always been the center of their lives, but since then, when they want to pray on Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount), visit relatives in the Old City, work in the city center or get medical treatment, they have to go through a checkpoint located just outside the neighborhoods.
The wall forms a tight ring around the neighborhoods and imprisons the residents in a kind of indeterminate region with no clear governing authority: Israel has created a new Palestinian area of a previously unknown type. The Palestinian Authority has to keep its distance, because the neighborhoods are under full Israeli control. But almost all the representatives of the Israeli agencies also keep their distance, because the neighborhoods are on the Palestinian side of the barrier. The people who live here are residents of Jerusalem, but they receive virtually none of the municipal services the city normally provides: garbage isn’t collected, roads are rarely repaired or built, and sewage disposal problems are neglected. And if you have a heart attack, don’t wait for an Israeli emergency ambulance.
To deal with these and other urgent issues, the residents of each neighborhood established a committee. The committees’ agendas extend to every area of life. For example, in the absence of municipal services and law enforcement, construction is rampant everywhere. According to Sanduka, every person who has a little money fences off a plot of land and puts up a building. No fewer than 7,000 apartments have been built here in the past two years without permits.
But who wants to live here, with the neighborhoods cut off from Jerusalem? A lot of people, apparently. The Israeli authorities, including the Jerusalem Municipality, don’t have numbers, but it’s more than obvious there has been a population boom in recent years. Estimates say 80,000 people now live in the neighborhoods.
Why do people move here? One reason is that property prices in the rest of East Jerusalem are soaring, whereas a Palestinian Jerusalemite can buy a home in the walled-out neighborhoods for a price that would sound like science fiction to a resident of, say, Isawiyah, below Mount Scopus. There’s a price of a different kind to be paid, though: Getting to the center of Jerusalem from Ras Khamis entails going through that checkpoint. It’s not clear whether this is part of a brilliant plot to get as many Palestinians as possible off the streets of Jerusalem.
An acrid stench of burnt garbage hampers breathing on Ras Khamis’ main street. Large piles of refuse, mostly charred, line both sides of the street. This is a common sight – about 80 percent of the garbage that’s produced here is torched. The Jerusalem Municipality privatized garbage-collection services in the neighborhoods long ago, paying a private contractor to remove the waste. But he prefers to burn it, and the local residents do likewise. We’re driving on a winding, broken road, studded with potholes and mounds of dirt. There are no sidewalks, no trees or other vegetation in the neighborhood and there’s no street lighting. Cars stream out of the side alleys, and pedestrians make their way between them, resulting in a small traffic jam from both directions. “If there’s an accident, the police don’t come,” Sanduka says.
And there are worse cases. A week before our visit, two men on a motorcycle pumped 14 bullets into a person in a car. The neighborhood committee called the police, who told them to bring the car in which the man was shot to the checkpoint. In this, or in more prosaic, circumstances, the only way to get urgent medical aid is to call the [Palestinian] Red Crescent, which will send an ambulance to take you to the checkpoint, where you will be transferred to an Israeli emergency ambulance. In 2005, the neighborhoods petitioned the High Court of Justice, requesting to remain on the Israeli side of the separation barrier. I asked someone who was at the court hearing how this bizarre creation – an Israeli neighborhood on the Palestinian side of the wall – came about.
“It was an interesting show,” he related. “The state’s representative started to explain that it was all due to security considerations. But the petitioners’ lawyer countered by saying, ‘What security considerations? It’s all arbitrary. Are there terrorists in Neighborhood A but not in Neighborhood B?’ The court then advised the state’s lawyer about what line he should take: ‘The state applied Israeli sovereignty to these neighborhoods, right? If so, the state can build a wall wherever it wants.’”
The High Court decision not to issue an interim injunction to stop the wall’s construction stated: “We have arrived at the conclusion that the request for an interim injunction must be rejected. We are handing down this decision, taking into account, among other considerations, that the route of the barrier will not infringe on the land of any of the petitioners.” “Technically, it’s all correct,” says Jerusalem lawyer Mohammed Dahla, who has represented other Palestinian neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem – such as Kafr Akeb – in petitions dealing with the same issue. “For example, if a wall is built around the Rehavia neighborhood in [the western part of] Jerusalem, and a checkpoint is installed with guards at the gate, not so much as a meter of the residents’ land will be taken from them.
“What was interesting in this case,” he continues, “was to see how delighted the justices were at the fact the Palestinians wanted to stay on the Israeli side of the wall. They just wanted to be told over and over that the Palestinians don’t want a state but want to be in Israel. What they didn’t understand was that the residents wanted to be part of the East Jerusalem society, as they always were, because they have businesses and family there, and because they want to be close to the holy places.
“We presented a plan drawn up by the Peace and Security Association [an Israeli group consisting of former senior defense establishment personnel], which meets Israel’s security needs,” Dahla adds. “We argued that if Israel wants to separate Jews and Arabs, fine, but don’t cut off these neighborhoods from East Jerusalem – let the barrier run between the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Of course, they rejected us.”
The High Court gave final approval to the route of the wall around the Shoafat ridge neighborhoods in 2008. On the bench were Justices Dorit Beinisch, the court’s president, Asher Grunis, who would succeed her, and Edmond Levy. Some of the inhabitants of these neighborhoods do not have legal status in Israel, and it’s easy for the court to deal with them. The real problem concerns people with a blue ID card who are permanent residents of Israel.
The court wrote, “The residents of the Shoafat neighborhood who possess legal status in Israel will indeed be harmed … but when that harm is considered in terms of the security need, it is proportionate. Access of these residents to the rest of the areas of Jerusalem is not prevented, though restrictions are placed on it; the chief restriction, which is not negligible, entails the need to pass through the checkpoint in the separation barrier…
“The construction of the barrier impedes the movement of the Shoafat ridge residents, including those who are permanent residents of Israel, to their places of employment … to the municipal services, most of which are in the other parts of Jerusalem … The branches and representations of the Interior Ministry, the National Insurance Institute and the Employment Service, which are planned to be established adjacent to the checkpoint, will also aid in preserving the access of the Shoafat ridge residents to municipal and government services … Against this adverse effect, which can be reduced, it is necessary to weight the fact that the barrier realizes the important security purpose of preventing free passage of terrorists and terror activists into Israeli territory.”
No branches of the Interior Ministry, the National Insurance Institute or the Employment Service exist adjacent to the barrier (although according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the state’s commitment to establish them prompted the court’s decision). A few empty buses stand next to the checkpoint. Thousands of children go through here every morning on the way to schools in East Jerusalem. Sanduka wakes up early to ensure the children leave on time. “I get up every morning to open gates and move the kids through,” he says, smiling. “On the days when I’m not here, there are quarrels between the police officers and the schoolchildren. There is constant tension.”
A hefty, bearded man, Sanduka gets a salary from “the bus company” and occasionally gets paid for catching snakes, grabbing them by the tail with his hand. Turning left, we quickly arrive at the Shoafat refugee camp. Girls in green uniforms toting schoolbags are walking next to the separation wall on their way to school. The Shoafat camp is under Israeli sovereignty but is also assisted by United Nations agencies, notably UNRWA, which works with refugees.
The girls are headed for a new school, which, with its blue windows, looks quite smart. A few children are playing in the small schoolyard, between sacks of sand. Most of the pupils are from the refugee camp. Sanduka notes that, while the United Nations looks after the children from the camp, the school for the children of the other neighborhoods is a shabby structure that was built on the site of a former goat pen and close to a drug-dealing site. Most of the children attend schools on the Israeli side of the wall.
Nearing the end of the street, we are in Ras Khamis again. We pass a grocery store, a falafel stall, clothes stores and a jewelry store. Our car maneuvers between the potholes, while above us a crane swings toward the skeleton of another new building. Abu Adham is Sanduka’s counterpart in Ras Shehadeh. “They told us in city hall that a contractor would come in the fifth month to fix the road,” he says. “But then we realized we didn’t ask them in what year.” Neither Sanduka nor Adham talk much about politics or a Palestinian state. They are more concerned about the condition of their neighborhoods. They are in constant touch with the Jerusalem municipal authorities, fighting for the right to receive equal treatment in the city. Even if they know this is a pipe dream, they continue to speak in the name of that demand, being part of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
According to the maps and the law, Ras Khamis is just as much a Jerusalem neighborhood as Isawiyah or Beit Hakerem (where the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, lives). The city doesn’t forget to collect municipal taxes, either. Municipal agents go through the neighborhoods knocking on doors to deliver tax assessments and other demands for payment. Those who don’t pay up – and most don’t – are liable to be detained at the checkpoint. The checkpoint is a multi-threat trap: it always places your movements in doubt, makes you reflect on your deeds, your papers, your answers to questions, the time you waste there.
Wala (left) and her three small children, with Ismail and his 10-year-old daughter. ‘Sometimes I don’t remember that this place is an invention of the devil, the closest thing to hell,’ says Wala. Photo: Nir Baram
Higher crime rate
One consequence of the absence of enforcement mechanisms is a higher crime rate. A woman from the neighborhood tells me there are firearms in every home. An M16 rifle costs 55,000 shekels, but the ammunition is cheap; there’s also the Carl Gustav recoilless rifle, known locally as the “Carlo,” which comes from Nablus – “but that’s a junk weapon,” explains the woman. Lately, criminals in Ras Khamis have adopted a new tactic: Wearing Border Police counterterror-unit uniforms and brandishing the right equipment, they show up at people’s homes to carry out a search. The last man whose home was visited by a fake Border Police squad lost 200,000 shekels. Sanduka shows us a YouTube clip about the handsome jewelry store we’re visiting. In it, a group of thieves in Border Police uniforms stroll through the store, stuffing jewelry into sacks as they go.
According to one local resident, “It’s all the fault of people from Jenin and the north who came to the Shoafat refugee camp. They are arms- and drug dealers. All the criminals from Jerusalem and the West Bank came here, because in this chaos they can do whatever they want.”
Indeed, it’s not clear who’s in charge in these neighborhoods. In the absence of clear laws, life proceeds by means of temporary arrangements, unwritten understandings and the resolution of urgent problems. Routine violations of such arrangements demonstrate repeatedly that the neighborhood committees have no real power to impose sanctions. They mediate between rival groups or individuals, but facts are often created by determined behavior. There’s no genuine state or municipal power here to make incontrovertible decisions.
We pass a fenced-off area in which tractors and containers are scattered about, along with a large number of workers moving between the skeletons of buildings. A former local resident owned four dunams (one acre) of land here, and gave them to the municipality to build a primary school. One day, people showed up – the neighborhood committee heads are concerned I will reveal their identity in the article – seized the land and are now constructing buildings on it. The committee heads asked Jerusalem Municipality officials to order the buildings demolished, but were told there’s no budget for this at present. The committee is afraid that, one day, a tall building housing 500 people will collapse.
Still, over the years – and notwithstanding the complaints and anger at municipal and state authorities – the committee members and residents have developed a type of local pride: in their achievements, in the arrangements they have worked out among themselves, in the things that do work here.
Sometimes, a sentence that starts by sounding like a complaint – about an obstacle that was encountered – ends on a note of pride in the solution that was found. Since the erection of the separation barrier, these neighborhoods, abandoned to their fate, could have become – like any neighborhood without a police presence or municipal authorities, without law enforcement and courts – arenas of utter chaos and a wild, violent competition for resources. Indeed, signs of lawlessness exist, but with joint forces, the residents have been able to stabilize the neighborhoods and establish mechanisms of their own.
A case in point, they say, was the January 2014 snowstorm when they declared a state of emergency. They were able to increase production in the bakeries, obtain generators from local people, and clear the snow quickly to open the roads. In fact, their work was so efficient, they also helped the Jewish neighborhoods on the other side of the wall clear the main road.
We’re approaching one of the best-known attractions of Ras Khamis: a drug-dealing site located in an abandoned building adjacent to the neighborhood’s only school, among heaps of garbage. Everything looks dark from here. You can’t see a thing, except maybe the motion of a shadow. People come here from East Jerusalem to buy drugs; soldiers come too, we’re told.
There’s been talk of shutting it down for the past decade, but it’s still operating. A journalist who met with Sanduka on a different occasion says that when he was there, security forces in civilian garb came to the site, ahead of possible action. Sanduka knew most of them by name, and told them once more about the damage the site does to the neighborhood. I ask him whether any progress is being made on this issue. “Maybe,” he replies.
After spending some time here, it suddenly strikes me that two things are visible from almost every point in the neighborhood: the black water tanks on the roofs of the buildings, and the separation barrier. The wall, gray or covered in colorful graffiti, its bottom section charred from fires, with the addition of barbed-wire fences or without, can be seen from every direction. No matter where you are, it will always flare into view from behind a row of buildings. At first, the sheer implacability of the wall grabs your attention – the way it blocks free movement at every intersection, at the end of every street (there’s a certain point when you always think you’re driving into it). But within a few hours, or on a second visit, you’re already used to it. As someone said, when you live next to the sea, you stop hearing the sound of the waves.
At the neighborhood’s unofficial garbage dump, the smell of burnt refuse sears the nostrils; even if you hold your breath, ultimately you’ll breathe it in. We are on a small mound, looking at Jerusalem neighborhoods on the Israeli side of the wall. Vast piles of garbage line the slopes of the mound and press up against the separation wall, which here is black as tar. Within the garbage is a small wooden bridge and next to it a ladder that abuts the wall. This is the “night passage”: people pass through the garbage here at night, get onto the bridge, climb up the wall, down a ladder – and they’re in Jerusalem.
We walk through the smoke and, by the time it lifts, are already close to the checkpoint. We look, now from the other side, at the line of the mini-Manhattan horizon we saw before. Sanduka complains about the anarchic construction, but viewing his neighborhood’s skyline, he’s also pleased with the momentum, the population growth. He also enthuses over the beauty of this or that building.
In the yard next to us, people are busy with a large barrel of water they have just drawn; children are scurrying about, looking and not looking at us, until their mother shoos them away. Like every other matter here, the water supply, too, features a system of arrangements that were worked out over time. Each building has a container of water, which is filled at night and used by the morning. People who live close to the ground will have water, but it’s a different story if you live high up: a tractor fills the containers with water, and then you have to draw it up. That requires a pump costing about 700 shekels and serves three or four stories. Sanduka estimates that the various costs for 1,500 liters of water add up to about 250 shekels.
Kafr Akeb community leader Abu Ashraf. ‘You go through the checkpoint, you’re checked, humiliated. A hundred meters from the checkpoint you can buy a knife for 20 shekels.’ Photo: Moti Milrod
I’d wanted to meet him for a long time, having heard so much about him. But it wasn’t until my last morning in Ras Khamis, a year after I was first here, that he suddenly appears, from behind a green garbage container. Riad Juliani, who’s in charge of sanitation on behalf of the Jerusalem Municipality, is standing opposite me as a heap of garbage burns two meters away. “Are you the person responsible for collecting the garbage?” I ask him. Local residents are looking on and smiling, aware of the comedic aspect of the encounter. Almost immediately, Juliani launches into a diatribe against the neighborhood committee. “They are liars, the whole committee!” he says. “I just now placed a large garbage bin here and people came down with sticks and chased me away. Someone took another garbage bin and turned it into a pool for his kids. I installed 39 bins here, and there are only 19 left.”
Why do you burn the garbage instead of removing it? “Do I burn the garbage? Does the contractor I hired to remove the garbage burn it? It’s the residents who burn it. There are 8,500 registered municipal tax payers here, and that’s the figure we used to issue a garbage collection tender. But how many people actually live here? Seventy thousand. Just a month ago, my hamula [clan] had a run-in with two hamulot who were burning garbage. There were shots, knives.”
Maybe the municipality has to increase the budget?
“I requested that, but it wasn’t approved.”
He mentions a section of road in the center of the neighborhood, about 200 meters long, that the municipality recently repaired. He looks at the residents who are gathering around. He’s certainly aware that most of them consider him a collaborator with the discriminatory establishment. “Look,” he says, “I live here, and it’s hard for me to breathe, too. This is the worst place in the whole Middle East. Things are much better in Syria.” Four girls in green school uniforms, schoolbags on their back, are listening and want to talk to me. The girls, aged about 11, decline to give their names. They live in Shoafat refugee camp.
“We don’t recognize Israel,” one of them says. “We wanted you to know that.”
I ask where they go when they want to have fun. “When we want to do something nice?” a girl asks, surprised at the question. “We go to the water park in Jericho.”
Three of them want to be doctors when they grow up, the other a history-geography teacher.
“We hate living here,” one of them says, “but we will not move away from Jerusalem.”
In the home of Leila and Ismail, Leila says she is afraid when Ismail goes to demonstrations – he’s been indicted for assaulting a police officer during a local residents’ protest he was leading. She says she shouts at him, he doesn’t listen, he gets arrested and then she has to come up with bail money of 5,000 shekels.
Leila and her eldest daughters remember the time before the wall was built, when their lives centered around East Jerusalem and everything was close. Whereas now, “Our life is an ID card. We need it at the checkpoint, we need it everywhere – we sleep with the ID card.” They visit Jerusalem only rarely – to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque, for example.
Wala hardly ever ventures out, and when her children return from school, they too stay home or in her parents’ home. She doesn’t let them go out alone. She’s afraid of criminals, afraid the Israeli army will arrest them, afraid of the narrow streets, afraid of the tear gas and black smoke. I ask Wala where she’d like to live. “Maybe in Ramallah,” she replies. “Everything is green there.”
Aya, her younger sister, recently had a miscarriage, and her mother says it was because she inhaled tear gas fired by soldiers. Aya huddles in her chair and says nothing. The two sisters married at 15; neither works, though occasionally they make dresses and accessories and sell them to friends. Wala’s daughter wants to be a dentist. I ask them about the future. “The Jews are guests here, but if they give us our rights we will live with them in peace,” Wala says. She looks at her father as she speaks. I ask why she’s looking at him. She laughs. “Let them leave the whole of Palestine, and that’s that,” adds Aya.
I tell the three women and Ismail that I want to ask them something. It seems to me, I say, that in the 1990s, Palestinian goodwill existed, because Yasser Arafat returned [from exile], and there was hope and much change; there was readiness for compromise, even possibly about precious issues such as 1948. But that period is over – there are no more compromises. I quote someone who told me: This conflict should have been resolved in the 20th century; conflicts like these are no longer resolved in the 21st century. The world has changed.
Ismail says it’s true, the Palestinians no longer believe anything to do with Israel and they have gone back to square one. They understand they must not make any concessions to Israel. The social networks suddenly united Palestinian society, which for nearly 70 years has been scattered all over the world, and that too fomented a tremendous change and contributed to this atmosphere –because what’s sought here is justice and truth, not compromises. The recent past can be divided into three periods: Oslo and hope; the violence of the second intifada; and the relative quiet of recent years. I ask how they account for the quiet.
“The third intifada is a matter of time,” Leila replies. Ismail adds that the West Bank is growing closer to Hamas and also to Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). To which Wala adds, “Sometimes I reflect on the future and I am filled with dread. The rest of the time I repress it. Like with the garbage.”
A residential block under construction in the town of Kafr Akeb, East Jerusalem. Part under Israeli jurisdiction, part-run by the Palestinian Authority, the condition of the roads offers the best clue as to which part you’re in. Photo: Moti Milrod
Late afternoon. The air suddenly turns cold and a light rain begins to fall. I look at the gray separation barrier opposite me and the series of white towers in the Kafr Akeb neighborhood. The plaza in front of us is filled with people – women, men, young and old – who are arriving from every direction and hurrying toward the Qalandiyah crossing. Joining the line, we go through one turnstile quickly and approach a second one. “People who leave Israel don’t get checked,” a young Palestinian standing next to us laughs. “The other way – that’s the chaos.” We get into a yellow Palestinian taxi that takes us to Kafr Akeb.
The town is one big labyrinth. Dense construction, roads with no names or street signs, muddy winding alleys running with sewage, traffic lights that don’t work, tall new buildings everywhere. No fewer than 65,000 people live here, with another 5,000 expected to move in soon. Kafr Akeb is the largest neighborhood that was relegated to the Palestinian side of the separation barrier, and in this case residents of the village who want to get to East Jerusalem have to go through the Qalandiyah checkpoint, which is a far more aggressive barrier than the one at Shoafat.
The case of Kafr Akeb is even more complex: part of it is located within the Jerusalem municipal boundary, the other part in the Palestinian Authority. The boundary line is not entirely clear. We are standing next to a new school that belongs to the PA, next to which is a mosque. But the house to its left is already part of Israeli Jerusalem. Is the mosque the town’s boundary? Possibly the quality of the roads will let you know which country you’re in. The roads in Israeli Akeb are neglected, studded with potholes and covered in sewage, in contrast to the new roads that are felt as soon as one crosses into the area of the PA. Across the way, children are burning garbage bins. Abu Ashraf, the head of the Akeb committee, doesn’t say anything to them. “We are now in PA territory,” he explains. “But 200 meters from here, I would summon their parents.”
Abu Ashraf, who’s in his fifties, has white hair and a neatly trimmed gray beard, lives on a street where all the homes – spacious, fine-looking houses – are owned by his family. There are two pictures on the wall in the entrance hall of his home: one of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin; the other a bespectacled young man with a goatee. It’s his son, who is a security prisoner in Israel. I ask why he’s in jail. Abu Ashraf doesn’t want to talk about it.
“I have been the committee head for two and a half years already,” he says proudly, and promptly cautions us not to speak Hebrew on the street. “Eight years ago, 12,000 people lived here – now there are 65,000. You can buy a five-room, 12-square-meter home for $65,000. But just like in Ras Khamis, there’s no infrastructure, no firefighters, no municipal government.”
He too has stories to tell of his ordeals with the Jerusalem Municipality. There are 17 schools in the Israeli-controlled side of the neighborhood, and after much lobbying on his part, the municipality assumed responsibility for three of them. The other 14 are classified as private, and the Israeli Education Ministry pays the teachers’ salaries. Kafr Akeb lies smack on the border between the two entities, Israel and Palestine, and all the inherent tensions are channeled into the neighborhood. It sometimes seems as though Abu Ashraf is a bilateral victim. He describes himself less as a Palestinian or a citizen of Israel – his primary allegiance is to Jerusalem: that is his essential identity, the one he’s fighting for. “I informed Israel and Palestine that we live here between two states,” he says, “and I told them: I am first of all a Jerusalemite.”
Basically, if one examines this whole area, one finds that all the Jews and some of the Palestinians have citizenship papers, whereas the rest of the Palestinians have no rights and are subject to the whims of a Jewish regime that rules them with the aid of legal and bureaucratic instruments.
But the case of the Palestinian neighborhoods that are part of Jerusalem but on the other side of the wall constitutes a new type of space, vague and undefined. These Palestinians hold an Israeli residence card but in practice do not live in Israel; they are connected physically to the area of the Palestinian Authority, but not legally. They are Jerusalemites but do not live in Jerusalem. What concerns Abu Ashraf most is the Qalandiyah checkpoint, which has turned the life of Akeb’s residents into a nightmare. “We met with the commander of the crossing points,” he tells me. “I told him that this crossing point is a lie to the Jews and a harsh punishment for the Palestinians.”
Why a lie to the Jews?
“You go through the checkpoint, you are checked, humiliated. A hundred meters from the checkpoint you can buy a knife for 20 shekels.”
How many Palestinians from Kafr Akeb go through the Qalandiyah checkpoint every day?
“Many thousands. But there are tens of thousands who would like to and have simply despaired of the checkpoint, or whose rights were taken away by fraud. The soldiers at the checkpoints are always playing with us, firing in the air, closing the passage, shouting. Every day, 3,800 school pupils go through it.”
How hard is it to go through?
“You will soon see.”
Traffic at the Qalandiyah checkpoint is said to be lighter in the evening. The big rush is in the mornings, when Palestinian workers employed in Israel go through. We are crammed under a lean-to with dozens of men and young women. It’s quiet and tense; hardly anyone is speaking. The taxi driver who brought us here is a resident of Israel with a blue ID card. He spent his whole life in the western part of the city, he tells us, but now he doesn’t have a crossing permit and hasn’t seen Jerusalem for the past four years.
We are in line in front of an iron turnstile. Every so often there’s a loud beep; three people go through the gate and then it’s immediately locked. The three who go through stand in a kind of passage. One after another they approach a small window and show their papers. If the papers are in order, they remove their jacket, belt, sometimes their shoes and shove them with their bags into a scanner. If there’s another beep and a red light comes on, the three remove another item of upper-body clothing and place it in the machine.
It takes a few minutes for three people to go through. If the soldiers detect a problem with the papers, the passage can take 15 minutes. Nearly an hour has elapsed. We’re close to the turnstile. Behind us is a line of about 80 people. In the morning, there might be 1,000 here.
Our turn comes. We go through the turnstile and approach the soldiers. They claim we have broken the law: Jews are not allowed into Area A, which under the Oslo Accords is under full Palestinian civil and security control. “But we weren’t in Ramallah,” explains Yehudit Oppenheimer, executive director of Ir Amim, a nonprofit that seeks “an equitable and stable Jerusalem.” “We were in Jerusalem.”
“What Jerusalem are you talking about?!” the soldier snaps back angrily. “You were on the Palestinian side and that is a criminal offense.” “We were in Jerusalem,” Oppenheimer replies. “According to the law and the maps, we did not leave Jerusalem.”
The soldier says he’ll check. In the meantime, we are stuck in the space between the turnstile and the gate that leads to Jerusalem. With us are two young, smartly dressed Palestinians who have already been authorized to proceed. The soldiers, who are preoccupied with us, don’t let them through. The two men don’t complain. The Palestinians know it’s enough to say something or to give a soldier a look he doesn’t like in order to be booted back to the other side. I look back at the Palestinians who are crowded behind the first turnstile. If in the 1980s, and more blatantly after the first intifada, many Israelis were shocked by the occupation and the actions it entails – daily abuse, killing, systematic oppression – by now the occupation routine has become normalized for the vast majority of Israelis.
The sophisticated society of prison guards that was established here, whose top talent, resources and armed forces are busy improving the techniques of ruling the lives of millions of Palestinians who are trapped inside these two vast prisons, one more flexible in the West Bank and one rigid in Gaza – whether by the soldiers at the outdated checkpoint or by the new inventions of Elbit Systems – has become transparent.
The reasons are diverse: despair, habituation, a belief that there is no political solution – on top of which, most Israelis were born into this reality and have never known another, and many of them take part in preserving and enhancing the oppression project. But something else happened. In the 1980s, the shock in the face of the occupation stemmed in part from fear of its impact on Israeli society. The philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz was the prophet of that approach. Today, it seems everyone understands that the occupation has seeped into our lives; whether we like it or not, we are living in a society that was shaped by its influence.
The power of that shock has faded also because there really is no political praxis for changing the situation that looks feasible. When shock is accompanied by persistent helplessness, one stops being shocked.
The moral discourse relating to Israeli society has been supplanted by a different discussion, one that was always there but in the past decade has become the primary argument of the Israeli left: the “world.” The heart of the argument is that the world, the international community, will not put up with the occupation; we will pay a heavy price, and therefore it must be terminated. The Labor Party is the most lucid exponent of this approach.
So great is the left’s reliance on the international community argument that if, for whatever reason, the world were to accept the occupation and the wall and the Qalandiyah checkpoint, the Israel left would have no more arguments to put forward. Maybe the fear of an Arab state would remain.
Leaving the checkpoint, you immediately feel a tremendous sense of relief and your body muscles lighten. The two young Palestinians are also smiling and conversing, having a smoke. Coming from the other direction are Kafr Akeb residents who have finished their day’s work in Israel and are hurrying through the checkpoint to return home. Somewhere over the wall, between the new residential towers, flashes of fire can be seen and the sound of shooting heard. “There’s no way of knowing,” one of the young Palestinians says as he adjusts the fur collar of his coat. “It’s either chaos or a wedding.”
Photo: Moti Milrod
It’s cold in the home of Sarah Eliash. Can you turn the heat on, I ask. She laughs, looks outside and says the sun will be out soon. The house is at the end of a small street in the settlement of Kedumim, in the northern West Bank. The view through the living room window is of the Samarian hills and olive trees. Eliash’s husband is in the kitchen, reading a book, while she scurries about the house energetically. The phone never stops ringing.
This is not a regular day in the Eliash household. In a few hours, Sarah Eliash will be going to Jerusalem to meet with Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. Today she will officially announce her candidacy in the religious-Zionist party’s primaries, in a bid to obtain a realistic place on its Knesset slate for the March election. I ask why her husband is reading a book instead of working the phone with party activists – the primaries will be held in less than a month and there’s no time to lose. She says her husband isn’t enthusiastic about politics. In fact, she herself makes a point of professing a lack of understanding about politics, about the election and the parties, not to mention crucial intraparty alliances.
This is not a regular day in the Eliash household. In a few hours, Sarah Eliash will be going to Jerusalem to meet with Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. Today she will officially announce her candidacy in the religious-Zionist party’s primaries, in a bid to obtain a realistic place on its Knesset slate for the March election.
I ask why her husband is reading a book instead of working the phone with party activists – the primaries will be held in less than a month and there’s no time to lose. She says her husband isn’t enthusiastic about politics. In fact, she herself makes a point of professing a lack of understanding about politics, about the election and the parties, not to mention crucial intraparty alliances.
I’ve come here, I tell her, to meet with the famous woman behind Ulpanat Lehava – a high school for religiously observant girls – in Kedumim, but what I see is a politician. She contorts her face in disgust. She harbors an antipathy to politicians that one sometimes finds in intellectually driven people, a disdain for those who are mired in a struggle for honor and power instead of engaging in life’s true essentials.
Still, she is running. Perhaps her slightly confused air, and the claim not to understand the world of politics, is also a stage in the process of coming to terms with the fact she is joining the game and will soon be campaigning in meetings, party branches and the homes of activists.
Judging by her biography, her decision to enter politics is not all that surprising. She’s no stranger to political activism. She was the legendary principal at Ulpana for 20 years from the early 1980s and was among the founders of the Jewish education system in Samaria. She also took an active part in the campaign against the 1982 withdrawal from Yamit, in northern Sinai, and, 23 years later, the protest movement against the evacuation of Gush Katif (the bloc of settlements in the Gaza Strip), going so far as to take up residence in both places. Disappointed by the Yesha Council of settlements’ failure, in her view, to do enough to oppose the government in 2005, she and a fellow settler, Adi Mintz, established the renewed Yesha Council and she served as deputy to council chairman Dani Dayan.
“I put numberless hours into that project,” she recalls. “After the expulsion from Gush Katif, we understood that the Yesha leaders have many goals, such as budgets, and have inherent reasons for yielding to the government. So we set up a new council, as a lesson from the disengagement.”
Why is she now aiming for the Knesset? “I see it as a mission. I only wonder whether I will be able to wield influence. The Knesset is filled with irrelevancies, and I hate to waste 90 percent of my time on politics. I understand that if I become an MK I will have to demarcate my red lines clearly.”
It’s a misconception that there’s more politics in the political arena than in academe or cultural institutions or a bank, I say to her; the difference is that in politics, there are rituals of elections and public battles for power. In fact, in contrast to other organizational structures such as the academic world – in which promotion can depend on internal politics and sycophantic behavior toward patrons – in politics, at least, one usually has to go to the public for support.
Habayit Hayehudi is running high in the polls. I ask her about Bennett’s vision – the transition he’s seeking from a party of settlers to a trans-Israeli party. Driven by ideology, as she is, isn’t she worried that the party will turn into a marketplace of opinions-for-sale?
“I very much identify with Bennett’s trans-Israeli thrust,” she says. “Not to blur what you stand for, but to bring in many people from all parts of the country. The trend toward atomization, of splitting into shades of hues, is extremely harmful. We need to invest in a search for the ties that bind us. But it’s more than wanting a party of one kind or another. Our public has an aspiration to lead. That suppressed, even embarrassed, aspiration burst into the open after the 1967 war and came to fruition in the past decade. You cannot lead from the extreme edge. Sometimes I ask people: Do you want to be a king or a prophet? Now we are looking for kingship.”
Strong Zionist upbringing
Born in the United States in 1951, while her father was undergoing medical procedures there, Eliash came to Israel with her family when she was 6 months old. She grew up in Kfar Pines, a religious-Zionist moshav in the center of the country. Her father escaped from a “death march” in the Holocaust. He was offered Swiss citizenship after the war but refused, saying he would go only to the Land of Israel.
Eliash had a strong Zionist upbringing, and her mother gave her a religious education. In the 1960s, she majored in physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and went on to obtain a master’s degree in the philosophy of science from Tel Aviv University. She and her husband originally lived in Ganei Tikva, outside Petah Tikva in central Israel. Then came the 1967 war, followed by the emergence of the surging Gush Emunim movement.
Contrary to secular Zionism, which believed its goals had been fulfilled in the Six-Day War and its task was accomplished – and thus entered a period of stagnation – Gush Emunim delineated a clear vision for the future. In 1975, Kedumim became the first new settlement to be established in Samaria. Eliash, who arrived here in 1977, is considered one of its founders.
There was a euphoric atmosphere in the early years, she relates, when there was no water or electricity. Asked at the time what prompted her to live in a mobile home under adverse conditions, she replied that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had walked those same hills, and she was there to preserve the historical continuity.
You seem to be nostalgic about that time, I tell her, but isn’t it over the past few years that your victory has been consolidated? In reply, she quotes Shulamit Aloni, the late civil rights activist, as saying that after the 1967 war, “the vision of the generations has been realized.” She also mentions other figures identified with the secular left, or at least with secularity – such as the poets Natan Alterman and Haim Gouri, who were members of the Movement for Greater Israel. She remembers the wall-to-wall euphoria after the war, when the overwhelming majority of the country’s Jews grasped that the land must be settled, she says. Yes she’s nostalgic, because in her perception secular and religious Zionism were then bound together in a religious and political – some would say messianic – moment when they shared a similar vision of the future.
The passing of that moment still saddens her. Everyone seemed to cry out “Forward!” – but it wasn’t long before the settlers remained alone and became the enemy of the secular public, castigated as, for example, “Jewish jihadists like the zealots of the Second Temple period who brought destruction” (Yossi Sarid, former Meretz leader and Haaretz columnist). Suddenly she became “a cancer in the body politic.”
I tell her I would like to know more about her worldview. “As a girl,” she responds, “I read books about the Irgun and Palmach [pre-state underground Jewish militias], the generation of founders and the Aliyah Movement, and I regretted not having been born then – because the Aliyah period is biblical in its scale. After that, Rabbi Kook [the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine] very much spoke to me with his optimistic approach. In the introduction to his book ‘Orot Hateshuvah’ [‘The Lights of Penitence’], he wrote that ‘every generation casts light with its quality.’ In other words, each generation has a quality, something great that needs to be accomplished. We saw this in the settlement project, which was the generation’s vital need. I accept the historiosophical approach that sees a broader Jewish movement of exile and revival. And now, with our presence here, we are in the heart of the process of redemption. Our deeds must be done in this light.”
She’s amused by the intended insult “messianic” that secular politicians hurl at settlers, though ignorant of its meaning. Eliash says she lives with a messianic awareness, though not of a personal messiah; the messianic substantiality is ingrained in the total process, it is in nature, in the emerging reality of a free people in its land.
Sarah Eliash. “It’s perfectly clear to me that if we end the regime they call occupation and leave, we will be harming many innocent Palestinians.” Photo by Moti Milrod.
She mentions Prof. Jacob Talmon, and we talk about secular messianism according to Talmon’s analysis of totalistic ideologies that believe in a necessary movement toward redemption and a historically ordained transformation of the world order. On the other hand, she has also read Hegel and other philosophers, and is familiar with the cunning of history and its dialectic – at times the movement is not in one direction but in an array of splintered directions, one event reenacting another.
She sees, for example, the “hilltop youth” phenomenon – small groups of young people settling without authorization on isolated peaks in Samaria – as the counterpart of the young people they themselves once were, after 1967. “They are acting with the enthusiasm of building something,” she believes. “They don’t want only to preserve the achievements of the older generation.”
Because preservation means stagnation, lack of movement?
“Exactly. They do not want to preserve the old but to create something of their own. You know, human beings look to be part of something bigger.”
Can you be more precise about that feeling?
“I live constantly in an experience of miracles and wonders. Even now. I sometimes detach myself from the small events of today or yesterday, and I grasp that Jews dreamed of this for 2,000 years, and I am here now. There’s a verse in Psalms: ‘Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord? / And who shall stand in His holy place?’ To ascend with great enthusiasm is perhaps easy; to stay is the meaningful, Sisyphean thing.”
Well, you stayed, I say to her, and it looks like you won. The West Bank is full of settlements, and the whole of Israeli society – religious, Russian, Mizrahim from Arab countries, secular folk – is involved in the project. But you are still disappointed in the others who don’t see the light. Here in the settlements, the shadow of the left-wing is as large as if we were still in the 1970s. Why is the opinion of the defeated so important?
“Because it is a controversial victory,” she replies. “Something within me is always seeking harmony, and I find the disagreement very difficult. Maybe that is why I devoted years to finding what unites the secular and religious publics. I truly do not understand how the left fails to experience anything of what we are experiencing here. I believe the State of Israel is an accomplishment. The settlement project here in the wake of the Six-Day War restored the sense of heroism.”
There is criticism of the settlement project throughout the Jewish world, including the conception that sometimes took complex, tangled ideas and transformed them into a fetish for land. Do you recognize at least part of that criticism?
“Many people here believe in one thing, and that simplicity helps them resolve the contradictions. But public leaders like Benny Katzover or [the late] Moshe Levinger are very complex individuals. The criticism aimed at us, to the effect that our sole interest is in settling the whole Land of Israel, is mistaken. You know, there is high social mobility here – there are Sephardim, Ethiopians, Russians…”
Settlers always talk to me about social mobility, I tell her, about the settlements as a place of the whole Jewish society where all the different communities intermingle. It’s a familiar line of defense, whose thrust is that this is the home of everyone, not only Ashkenazi settlers.
“Then I will talk to you from the opposite direction,” she responds. “If you look hard, you will discover that many members of my generation now live in towns in the periphery, not in Judea and Samaria. We harbor a broader worldview, though it’s true that the center is the settlement project.”
Living with the disparity
You integrate universal concepts of morality into your remarks, I observe; when one speaks with you, it’s not only the Jews and the Jews all the time. How do you cope with the fact that there’s a vast disparity in rights between Jews and Palestinians where you live, a disparity that is visible at every checkpoint, in every courtroom, on every road, within every unit of government? What story does a person tell himself to believe this is a reasonable state of affairs?
“First of all, I will tell you something that is not politically correct: I do not believe there is any such thing as a Palestinian people. In my opinion, we invented that. Its differentiation within the Arab world does not justify another state. The Jews are a people, that’s clear, one with historical continuity – so they require a state. I feel I need moral justification for my life here: I want to act morally; I am here with the whole of my Jewish history. As for the Palestinians: 60 percent of the population of Jordan is Palestinian, so is it really Jordan? If a territorial solution is needed, there’s Jordan.”
I don’t want to be rude, I say, but that is a somewhat laughable argument. You know that nations are flexible entities that, in many cases, are made of myths and legends and some sort of history that prophesied their appearance. So now you want to persuade the Palestinians they are not a nation because they weren’t a nation 100 years ago? And maybe the Italians next?
“With everything that’s happening now – the Sunni-Arab Spring – the Arabs’ national conception is highly dubious and very changeable. Today, the safest place for Arabs in the Middle East is here. Even under occupation their life is freer and more democratic than in the Arab world.”
She’s slightly angry now, and repeats several times she’s happy that she can make me laugh. The tension in the room rises. I tell her I was referring only to her last comment, but it looks as though she is suddenly suspicious again. “My husband asked what I needed this interview for – nothing good can come of it,” she says.
I didn’t understand your answer, I say, pressing on. Here in the West Bank, how do you view the absolute Jewish supremacy that is achieved not least by means of the army? You control the lives of people who can’t even vote for the body that rules them.
“On a human level it’s not pleasant to see Arabs at a checkpoint. That is a by-product of a situation that I don’t like. But I want to be clear: I don’t lose any sleep over it. I think Arab society has not established any democratic region to date – in any case, the democratic conception does not apply to them anywhere. In your opinion, if we leave the territories, will things be better for them or less so? I remember that we left Nablus and they cut off people’s hands and legs there. It’s perfectly clear to me that if we end the regime they call occupation and leave, we will be harming many innocent Palestinians.”
I tell her that in David Grossman’s 1987 book “The Yellow Wind,” a Palestinian public figure from Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, is quoted as saying that if the Jews leave the area, the Muslims will slaughter the Christians and then each other. The prediction of the future here is usually a placard-like product of one’s political posture. Enough contradictory events have occurred for every ideological stance to be able to cite a prediction that came true. In your view, I ask her, do the Palestinians who want an end to the occupation simply not see the light?
“What you’re saying stems from an anti-colonialist approach,” Eliash replies. “That’s also why the Europeans are foisting on us the notion that our case supposedly reminds them of their past. But our regime is far more enlightened and less cruel.”
What future do you see? Are you amenable to the idea of perpetuating the status quo, which is working well so far? Naftali Bennett’s partial annexation? A one-state solution?
“We must not leave Judea and Samaria. Our rights here and in the areas of 1948 are exactly the same. If we can’t be in Judea and Samaria, then we can’t be in Tel Aviv. Uri Elitzur’s one-state idea doesn’t frighten me, though I do not advocate it at this time.”
Yeshiva school students at the Habayit Hayehudi primaries in Elon Moreh, January 2015. “The Arabs have to understand that I am the ruler,” declares one of them. Photo by Moti Milrod
What rights do the Palestinians have in the West Bank, in this territory?
“Gradually, the Palestinians in the territories have to be granted human rights, freedom of movement, rights in the Israeli judicial system, citizenship for Palestinians who want it and who display loyalty to the State of Israel. And at the same time, the Palestinians have to be helped to emigrate honorably. It’s not simple. I am not proposing a binational state: it will be impossible to grant citizenship to all of them.”
As you see it, after we award citizenship to some of the Palestinians and encourage others to emigrate, what kind of state entity will we have here?
“Perhaps a Jewish state with a large Arab minority, let’s say 40 percent. It is impossible to sustain generations of Palestinians with such a large economic disparity between them and their neighbors. Granting citizenship to some of the Palestinians will transform their economic status and their future expectations, and they will also have to change elements of their behavior – such as textbooks that incite against Jews. If that scenario frightens the Jews in Ra’anana, then they shouldn’t vote for me.”
Driving to the girls’ school, we pass through the well-tended streets of Kedumim and take in the view of the Nablus area. Again, we seem to be surrounded by olive trees. In the schoolyard, a few girls are fiddling with cellphones. Some of the girls are wearing quite short skirts. Eliash positions herself next to them and measures them with her eyes. “Do you have any idea how many confrontations I had over issues of how to dress; how many hours I devoted to meetings and arguments with the girls and their parents? That’s something I don’t miss at all.”
A mother of 10 children herself, she became principal of the school in 1982, after her second son was born. Ulpana is her life project and now has more than a thousand students.
What changes do you see in the girls over the years?
“Unequivocally, the attitude toward the body. In my generation we were told to be modest, and the body was hidden. Today it’s very different. There is greater freedom, and far more liberated and progressive thinking about the body. And there are also many tracks in the school that are related to the body and movement, such as dance and theater. In general, women want more room in the public space. On the professional side, too, few schools for religious girls taught physics, cinema and theater – we were the first. You have to understand that Kedumim is a place where women always wielded a great deal of influence – Daniella Weiss, for example,” referring to the activist who was the settlement’s mayor for a decade.
Are you in favor of greater gender separation or more of a mix?
“I am in favor of a separate society in high school. Some girls don’t join [religious-Zionist youth movement] Bnei Akiva because there’s no separation, but I don’t accept that. In any case, boys and girls are together in the outposts, in demonstrations and in volunteer activity. In regard to women’s status, I find myself agonizing. On the one hand, I believe a family with many children is the most meaningful thing in the long run, but it creates many difficulties for women who want to fulfill themselves professionally. How many of my graduates went on to med school? Not many. I was accepted into med school when I already had two children, and I abandoned the idea. How would I have raised a family?”
Eliash says one of her daughters is a member of two Facebook forums: “I am a religious feminist, and I, too, don’t have a sense of humor,” which deals mainly with harassment of women and the official silence in the religious-Zionist movement; and “Orthodox Feminists.” Feminism was not an issue in her generation. “Practically speaking, I was always a feminist. I was the deputy head of the Yesha Council, and I was the only woman in many forums. I remember one time in some forum, someone said it was time for a biblical discourse and no one even thought of asking me. That bothered me, but I viewed it as the only existing state of affairs.”
I ask if she feels her life’s goal has been realized. She looks around the school and says, “This marvel is more than anything I dreamed of achieving.”
Between the Arab village of Dir al-Hatib and Elon Moreh. “Gradually, the Palestinians in the territories have to be granted human rights, freedom of movement,” says Eliash. Photo by Moti Milrod
Our car is alone on the road to the settlement of Elon Moreh, near Nablus. Passing the settlement of Itamar, we glance up at the ridge of outposts that are considered its offshoots. Nablus, densely populated, lies before us, and to the right the boulders take on a ruddier hue.
Elon Moreh has a sophisticated barrier at its entrance: large, round iron columns in the middle of the road, which rise or fall into the earth when the guard presses a button. It’s the day of the Habayit Hayehudi primaries, and there’s no movement in the streets. The only hint is a campaign poster of Sarah Eliash.
The tiled roofs of Elon Moreh, a fairly small settlement founded in 1980, population about 1,600, evoke Kedumim and other settlements. A young man in a black jacket who’s pushing a baby carriage and shouldering an M16 rifle points us in the direction of the voting site. “It’s next to the Birkat Yosef Yeshiva.” We pass by signs – “Nof Hashomron B&B” and “Einav’s Sweets” – and offend a baby-faced young man by asking if he has the right to vote. “I have three children at home!” he replies.
Young people sport signs, banners, flyers, posters, T-shirts, even hats advertising the candidates. A short line has formed at the voting booth. There’s no tension or clashes between representatives of the different candidates, such as I remember from Labor Party primaries. The young supporters – students from the high-school yeshivas in Elon Moreh and Itamar – did not choose their candidate for ideological reasons, and they are not actually prodding the few voters. The results don’t interest them. This booth will close by 4 P.M., when voting moves to Itamar.
I look at the young, vigorous group, most of them teenagers, as they shout and cavort, shift moods and morph from friendly to affronted tone of voice, often talking all at the same time. Shmuel, who’s 20, is a student at Birkat Yosef Yeshiva, combining army service and religious studies. I ask whether he’s excited by Habayit Hayehudi’s big day. Not really, it turns out.
“They keep veering leftward,” he says. “They don’t believe in the Land of Israel like I do. I am not willing to hand over land for money, or to support anti-Torah laws. Here’s who I support.” He shows me the back of his cellphone, on which is a sticker proclaiming, “We’ll let them have it – Otzma Leyisrael” (Strength for Israel), the ultranationalist party of former MK Michael Ben Ari.
I ask another student, Amichai, about yeshiva studies. He describes a daily regimen that lasts until 11 P.M. His favorite class is the one given by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon. He hands me a thick volume, a 13th-century treatise written by a rabbi known by his acronym, the Ritva, who was considered one of the greatest exegesists in medieval Spain. That’s what he’s reading now. “The studies make me a better person,” he says.
“I learn how to behave, what to believe in. The studies prepare me for the army and for life in general. And besides that, to study is an end in itself – it influences life as a whole. At the emotional level, something is liberated and develops. I am in a state of euphoria on the days when I have lessons.”
Politically, he is unequivocal: “The two peoples are connected to the same territory – all we want is for them to scram.”
If political divisions don’t speak to them, a division that does preoccupy them is between the students from the Birkat Yosef Yeshiva (the majority here) – led by Rabbi Levanon, who is considered one of the extreme voices in the religious-Zionist movement – and a few students from the high yeshiva in Itamar, headed by Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, the former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and today also running in the primaries. (Neither Eliash or Rontzki eventually finished high enough on the Habayit Hayehudi slate to earn a Knesset seat.)
‘Life is more complex’
Standing at a table with a Sarah Eliash poster affixed to it is Elhanan, 20, from the Itamar yeshiva. “The yeshiva in Elon Moreh is more Hardeli” – a combination of ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist – “more right-wing and haughtier. But in Itamar, in my view at least, we are more connected to reality, not extreme in any direction.”
What other differences do you see between the yeshivas?
“Basically, most of the values are similar but the methods are different. The method in the yeshiva in Itamar is to reach the goal by being connected with Israeli society. It’s like the difference between external influence and internal influence. With us, it’s being together with the whole Jewish people, including the secular public, listening to the secular public, too, while their approach is more Hardeli and separatist: ‘We are better, we are a model, learn from us, we brook no secular influence.’ In our yeshiva, we believe there’s something to every idea – that it’s good to dispute the head of the yeshiva.”
I ask about the complexity he’s talking about: The difference, say, between the high-school yeshiva and the higher yeshiva in this context. “In the higher yeshiva, I understood that life is more complex. I am now also more moderate politically. I understand that there is no solution here and now, that it’s impossible to make peace and impossible to kill all the Arabs. As a boy in the high-school yeshiva, I saw things in black and white – I wanted everything here and now.”
What’s your take on secular Zionism?
“Secular Zionism has collapsed, they are in a crisis of faith. They don’t know which parts of Zionism they accept and which they don’t. There is a huge rift between the generations. The children despise their parents’ actions – what they did in the Mossad or the army – but live in apartments their parents bought them. They don’t live according to their values at all. By the way, it’s not that we enjoy that situation – it’s just a fact. Not long ago I saw a Labor Party campaign ad from the 1981 election – they boasted about the large number of settlements they’d established.”
Maybe they’ve changed?
“I’m not saying this because I’m religious: secular Zionism is in crisis. What do they believe in now? What is their vision? Religious Zionism did not experience a crisis of faith. Our goal hasn’t changed, nor have our values.”
I am again surrounded by the Birkat Yosef group. Here’s Sherman, a handsome fellow with blue eyes, long hair, kind of looks like a kid in a Coca-Cola ad from the 1990s. Sherman wants to write in Haaretz. “You know,” he says earnestly, “we talked about it just yesterday – about why we weren’t in the demonstrations in Tel Aviv about the price of food, and all that. Maybe it’s because our lives are completely different; we aren’t bothered by those things. Our families don’t go to restaurants and we don’t go abroad.”
Who here has been abroad, I ask the 15 or so 20-year-olds. No one raises a hand.
“You see,” he says, “we don’t want to live in luxury, we don’t care about restaurants and apartments and the cost of living. If Tel Aviv is expensive, we’ll live in Kiryat Gat, in Itamar, in Kiryat Shmona.”
You’re slightly ignoring the ideology of the protest movement, I tell him. There’s also a side that’s against the gap between rich and poor. It’s not just about the price of Milky [the pudding snack]. Maybe you’re being reductive here.
“Like you people are toward us all the time,” Sherman laughs. “Just because I wear a big skullcap and tzitzit and have long hair doesn’t mean my goal in life is to beat up Arabs.”
“Even if that happens sometimes!” someone shouts. He’s just joking, they tell me.
“And just because I’m learning Torah doesn’t mean I want to extort the state,” adds Sherman. “I’m sitting here and wasting a lot of time, in which I could be working, earning money and getting married, because Torah study is the greatest goal.”
“Our life is the Torah. All things come from the Torah, and therefore our values are higher than those of the left.”
Someone else there, Aviad, adds, “We believe the truth is in the Torah and that what God wanted from us is what he wants from the world.”
In some cases, one discerns a disparity between the pathos apparent in what they say and the tone and gaze with which the words are uttered – as though they themselves have not yet reached the age of understanding, or at least an understanding of the severity of such words. Sometimes they talk just to provoke or impress, change their mind from one sentence to the next – and yet still believe with all their might in the truth they are expounding at every moment. This is youth, the strength of argument and the power of persuasion: the belief you are now speaking in the name of the absolute truth.
My notebook is full. A hefty fellow with the broad smile of an avowed prankster volunteers to buy me a new one. I give him 10 shekels (about $2.50). He returns in two minutes holding a new notebook with a wood cover, something I haven’t seen since elementary school. He insists on giving me the change. “Never mind,” I tell him, “consider it Haaretz’s donation to Birkat Yosef Yeshiva.” He won’t hear of it. Finally, we decide to use the money to buy wafers and cookies. I’m slightly surprised: you can buy so many things for 10 shekels.
A religious war
Throughout our conversation, passersby warn them: against Haaretz, which will portray them as racist wackos; against the left; against Tel Aviv types; against secular people. One of them, a real nuisance, asks about my press card (I don’t have one) and observes a few times that these young people “are not from Samaria at all, they are only studying here. They have no business speaking in the name of Samaria.” Another passerby reminds the youngsters not to speak in the name of the yeshiva. Yet another explains that they represent neither the yeshiva nor Samaria. Listen, I say to the last pest, I will erase the word Samaria from my consciousness, just beat it.
I ask the students about their political solution. Another yeshiva student, Elisha, says, “There’s no need to burn Arabs or hit soldiers. I will struggle with all my might, but I will not use violence. There’s a difference between my attitude toward Jews and toward Arabs: I have a greater commitment to Jews. But the Arabs have to understand that I am the ruler. If someone has to be afraid here, it’s preferable for the Arab to be afraid of me.”
What rights do the Palestinians have here?
“Rights under our government,” says Elisha. “The Arab has rights coming to him, but not civil rights. Not the vote. Ideally, we would prefer for them not to be here, but those who are here will have human rights. You people don’t understand that this is a religious war, which is the story of all the wars in the world: they are religious wars.”
Yosef, from the Itamar yeshiva, adds, “Every human being has the right to live in dignity, as long as he recognizes the Jews’ rule of the country. The life of the Arabs here under the regime they call occupation is very good. Would they rather be in Syria? Besides, they can have local councils – you have the same thing in Europe.”
He doesn’t know exactly where when I challenge him. “Morality, in my view, is that a person has the right to live with dignity, he deserves a livelihood, a family and a normal life. We will respect those who are here. But irrespective of that, the State of Israel should encourage the Arabs to emigrate.”
“Arab countries, Europe … people say it’s nice on Mars.”
Elhanan offers his thoughts. “I see it as a long, complex process. There is no quick solution to a conflict of more than a hundred years. Have you read the book by [Defense Minister] Moshe Ya’alon, ‘The Longer Shorter Way’?”
Oh sure, a few times, I joke. “Well, he writes that there are two evils: [population] transfer now, and peace now. Those are two extreme, stale modes of thinking. Maybe there is no solution in our time. That’s a possibility, right?”
I tell him what he said about Ya’alon is interesting – that is, that he read the book. I ask them to name other books that influenced them.
Two cite Ya’alon’s book; one mentions a book by Elazar Stern, a religiously observant retired major general and former Knesset member (“Struggling Over Israel’s Soul: An IDF General Speaks of his Controversial Moral Decisions”); others mention Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s “Five Sermons”; Benjamin Netanyahu’s “A Place Among the Nations”; “Letters to Talia,” by Dov Indig – a dialogue between a yeshiva student-soldier and a kibbutz girl; and Rabbi Haim Sabato’s novel, “Adjusting Sights.” I note that perhaps more than everything they have said, this list reflects the disparity between secular young people and them. “It’s because we are still enthusiastic about Zionism, it still excites us,” Yosef says in response.
As I listen, I recall something Amos Oz quoted from the literary critic Dov Sadan: that the whole of Zionism is only a passing episode, an eruption of profaneness and politics that the halakha – Jewish religious law – will swallow. But the truth is, Zionism was not swallowed. It expanded and became more flexible over the years, while the religious, messianic elements it always contained – redemption for the Jewish people returning to its land and completing an historical continuum – started to acquire a clearer expression, even in the eyes of the secular public. Which is only reasonable, seeing that secular Zionism believes today there is no God, but is ready to swear that he once hovered over this place and gave the land to the Jewish people.
In any event, at a time when the Labor movement is called Zionist Union, it’s quite understandable that secular Israelis, too, are still “enthusiastic” about Zionism as they interpret it. Zionist Union spokespeople, for example, explain over and over that Zionism today means helping the weak and treating everyone equally. Here, too – perhaps because in their eyes I am a representative of Haaretz – they constantly argue with the left and the media, confronting their perceived image in the eyes of those forces.
Tell me, I say to Sherman, I am hearing very confident assertions about your status and your way of life. But at the same time, you are talking to the left and you’re insulted: you attack, you mention Tel Aviv all the time. Why does that preoccupy you?
“It’s a trauma,” he replies without hesitation. “No one ever took us into account or cared about what we thought. Mostly, people laughed at our opinions after first twisting them. Really, does anyone care about our opinion? Does anyone really want to get to know us? With God’s help, everything will change in another 80 years and there will be a Temple here.”
He pauses briefly, then adds, “But we are the elite, and in your heart you know that it’s so.” It’s as though he’s grasped that what he said before attests to weakness and humiliation, and now, defiantly, he is saying the opposite.
Elhanan intervenes, perhaps to highlight what he said earlier about the difference between the two yeshivas. “Where does that condescension come from? Who said we’re better? Just because we’re religious, does that make us an elite?” Sherman insists: “Because I am religiously observant, I am expected to behave morally.”
Elhanan asks: “Do you believe that the Jews are more moral than the goyim, that they have a different role?”
“I believe that,” says Sherman.
“Then you are a racist.”
“It’s not that we’re better,” someone else interjects. “We have more commitment, more responsibility to something larger.”
“Moral means according to the Torah,” Sherman says, jumping on the back of one of his friends. “You see, the great mission of our lives is to accustom the eyes to see according to the Torah.”
Between the Arab village of Dir al-Hatib and Elon Moreh. “Gradually, the Palestinians in the territories have to be granted human rights, freedom of movement,” says Eliash. Photo by Moti Milrod
Morning. Blue skies, perfect visibility. Two children are playing tennis on a court at the edge of Kibbutz Nirim, in the northwestern Negev. They’re wearing short pants and colored shirts, and their shouts can be heard far and wide. Suddenly, the roar of an engine is heard. After a minute or two of tense expectation, tanks can be seen speeding toward the tennis court, kicking up swirls of dust and dirt. The boys disappear in a cloud of dust. They reappear when the tanks fade from view and the dust starts to settle. One of them races to the net, his racquet held high, then vanishes again into yellow dust.
The tanks have been a story here since the start of Operation Protective Edge, three weeks ago, and so has the unease about the army’s behavior. In contrast to the public discourse, which is mobilized to cheer for the achievements and heroic deeds of the Israel Defense Forces, some of Kibbutz Nirim’s residents are less impressed.
At midday, with the sun beating down relentlessly, we travel to farming areas outside the kibbutz, accompanied by the manager of the field crops. A yellowish-gray dust covers everything around the dirt trail. “Dust from the tanks,” he grumbles. To our left are groves of peanuts, currently the main crop here. Their primary client is Italy. Why Italy? He has no idea; they must really like peanuts there.
He points to places where the tanks ran roughshod over the groves and crushed irrigation pipes. “The army has caused hundreds of millions of shekels-worth of damage,” he says. “They ruined the soil here. The damage they’ve done here is enough for me to understand what kinds of things they’re doing in Gaza.”
Scowling, he recalls how paratroopers appeared outside the kibbutz one night. They’d come from the fighting in Gaza bone-tired, and the army’s buses just dumped them next to the kibbutz’s back fence. No one knew they were supposed to be coming.
Standing at the end of the kibbutz fields, we look at a cluster of buildings: the outskirts of the Gaza Strip, 1.7 kilometers (1 mile) away. Opposite us, to the left of a row of trees, is the village of Khuza’a – or Khirbat Ikhza’a in Arabic – which of course recalls the title of the famous novella by S. Yizhar, “Khirbet Khizeh,” about the expulsion of residents from a Palestinian village in the Gaza Strip during the 1948 War of Independence. The clouds of dust on the horizon attest to the movement of Israeli tanks. “Now we’ll go and see a tunnel,” says the kibbutz man, for the first time displaying any enthusiasm.
The tunnel is famous among the kibbutzniks. The bravest of them – such as Peter, the lifeguard at the pool – even walked into it long ago (as did some cabinet ministers, it turns out). One of our group points to dust clouds some 700 meters from us: that’s where the tunnel is. All I can see is two fig trees. Someone says there are three. Dust clouds? No, fig trees. The tunnel is enclosed by the glistening green of the crops.
It was discovered about six months before the war. One day, a division commander came to the kibbutz, collected the emergency personnel and told them a tunnel had been discovered – but not to worry, the IDF was looking after them. Someone asked: If you found tunnels and terrorists can come through them, why is the whole army deployed to observe the Gaza Strip instead of observing the kibbutz? “An excellent question,” the officer replied. “There’s no budget for that.”
‘Want to see a rocket?’
We pass through fields of watermelons, yams, avocado trees; the chicken coops are empty. “Want to see a Qassam rocket?” I’m asked. Not wanting to disappoint, I nod. We look for the Qassam among the yams – “We grow them here from A to Z, including sales” – but, amazingly, the Qassam has disappeared.
The field-crops manager and a young man who works with him make it clear that their criticism of the army is that of the periphery – it’s not the critique of Tel Aviv left-wingers. “There are many left-wingers in the kibbutz for whom the army is not sacrosanct,” he says. “But we get along better with the left in Sderot than the left of Tel Aviv.” Someone whispers to us that even in two religious kibbutzim in the area, Alumim and Sa’ad, “where the army is God, there is fierce criticism of the IDF.”
We return to Nirim. Next to the gate, we stop by a truck packed with workers of Asian appearance; they’ve just returned from planting avocado trees. Dressed in thin black cotton work clothes, they sit jammed together, their faces covered with black kerchiefs up to the eyes. Night falls on Nirim. It’s quiet, not a living soul is walking the paths of the kibbutz. After days of shelling, a cease-fire has been declared – although it will end tomorrow at midnight. Some kibbutz members have returned in the wake of the cease-fire, but they know the fighting could erupt anew very soon.
The only place where people can be seen is outside the Youth House. Here, teenagers are strewn on chairs, benches and swings, some of them smoking, proud of the fact that beer is available. The mood is merry. These boys and girls are meeting here after weeks in which mortar shells struck the kibbutz and they left with their families to seek shelter in Israel or abroad. Liav spent two weeks in the Netherlands and Belgium; Ophir was in Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, in the Jezreel Valley, with most of the Nirim members; Yair (one of the tennis players) was in Germany and Kfar Sava. They’re aged 13 to 15.
We’re quickly invited into the Youth House, which is a three-room apartment. There’s a pool table in one room, a Ping-Pong table in another, and sofas and a large TV screen in the third and largest room. After I lose to one of the kids at Ping-Pong, we gather in the television room. They returned to the kibbutz when the cease-fire began, but are ready to leave again if hostilities resume.
“Every war, we hightail it to a different place,” one of them says. His family moved here from Kfar Sava, to give their children a kibbutz education. “All the kibbutz members are left-wingers,” he tells me. “But not me. I’m not ready to sacrifice anything for the Palestinians. They can live under our rule – and if not, there are another 21 [Arab] countries. You know, if the missiles that are hitting us landed in Tel Aviv, Gaza would have been wiped off the map already. In Tel Aviv, you hear a siren and you get up and get dressed and all that. Here, you don’t hear a siren – you hear a whistling noise.”
Another boy tells us about a mortar shell that landed in the parking area of his house. He didn’t hear a siren, only a whistling sound and then a huge explosion. The window in his room shattered. Immediately, they all browse their cellphones and, with the ardor of old soldiers remembering glorious battles, show me photos of mortar shells: in the fields; on the path to the swimming pool; on a lawn. They argue over which of them was in the gravest danger.
They have their own rules for dealing with the alarms. “If you hear a ‘Red alert’ and don’t hear a whistling sound, everything is alright. But if you hear a whistling sound, run as though your life is about to end,” advises one.
I’ve heard there are people in the kibbutz who are in despair and want to leave, I tell them. As one, they all reply that they don’t want to live in the city; they prefer a kibbutz or moshav. They come from different backgrounds: some are third-generation kibbutzniks; others arrived from a variety of places, in some cases with their parents or after being adopted by kibbutz families. Liav, for example, was born in Bat Yam, Ophir in Lod. The ratio between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim (those of Middle Eastern or North African descent) is different from most kibbutzim – it’s about 50/50 here.
The son of the security coordinator enters. He understands about strategic matters, they all exclaim together. He talks about the tunnels. That’s the new fear. Liav is convinced a tunnel has been dug under her house. A few years ago, she heard drilling and digging noises under it, and when she put her ear to the floor, she says she heard cellphones ringing. Her parents informed the IDF. Soldiers arrived with some sort of machine and announced that they didn’t find anything. Some of the others don’t believe her story.
Names of previous Gaza operations such as “Cast Lead” and “Pillar of Defense” are bandied about. The kids here have developed their own private war language, which includes types of missiles, things to do when you’re fired upon, army units, and incidents such as the huge mushroom cloud that rose over Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense after a senior Hamas figure was assassinated. “You’re not being told everything,” one of the kids tells me. “We know about rocket attacks that the rest of the country doesn’t hear about.”
Kibbutz members enjoy a barbecue during the cease-fire. Meat not provided. Photos by Moti Milrod
A swing to the right
Are any of them left-wingers, like many of the older kibbutz members? No! The idea appalls them. “You can’t live here and be a leftist,” they assert. “The media is left-wing, so the war began only when Tel Aviv was fired at. It’s not interesting when they shoot at us.”
They ridicule the left-wing, antiwar demonstrations in Tel Aviv. “I am in favor of all the Arabs getting out of here once and for all,” someone says. “I agree,” someone else says. But Liav, for one, disagrees. “The people in Gaza are going through worse things than we are here,” she says. Out of the blue, another adds, “If I’d been born on the other side, I would be in Hamas. The moment we came to this country, we grabbed everything they had.” A boy from a veteran kibbutz family says, “We could erase Gaza, but maybe it’s impossible to kill everyone there. We have to tell the UN to go screw itself.”
They’re all aware that the cease-fire will end tomorrow at midnight, and the next day they might be out of here again. In the meantime, they’re enjoying their time together. As the discussion progresses, it becomes clear that the political differences between them are not related to veterans vs. newcomers or Mizrahim vs. Ashkenazim, but to girls vs. boys. Adopting the prevailing jargon, we could call the girls’ approach a little more “left-wingish.”
I tell them I read today about a building in Khan Yunis that was bombed by the IDF and a whole family (the Abu Amers) had died, including children. The youngsters respond:
– “They are children and didn’t do anything bad, but they will grow up and become shahids [martyrs]. If they were bombed, that means there was a reason.”
– “It’s justified, that’s clear. Remember they said the IDF fired for no reason at [four] children on the Gaza seashore? It turned out children fired rockets at Israel.”
– “The IDF warns before it bombs, and people can treat that seriously or not.”
– “It’s hard for me to hear that,” says Liav. “There’s someone there just like you, a child who wants to live and to be happy. Just like you.”
– “But there’s no choice,” one of the boys shouts.
– “So kill them, but I don’t want to know about it,” she responds wearily.
The real talking point
There was also a clear generational divide in Kibbutz Nirim during the war. The children left, usually along with young parents; some people in their forties stayed while others left; but the kibbutz veterans stayed.
It gradually dawned on me that in conversations with the older people, the war was shunted aside – they’ve seen bigger wars – and other subjects came up. More precisely, one subject. You probably wouldn’t hear about it if you spent a whole day with the youngsters, but this issue preoccupies and vexes the old-timers more than the war.
We arrived at Kibbutz Nirim at the end of a major internal struggle, and Moshe Etzion was the first to talk about it. I met him early the next morning, by the kibbutz garage. Etzion has been a member of the kibbutz for 40 years – meaning he was not among the founders. He is one of the Polish-Jewish “Tehran Children” who were rescued during the Holocaust, and was in the first graduating class of the Max Fine Technological College in Tel Aviv. He came to Nirim in 1970. The kibbutz was looking for a technician to install irrigation equipment in the far fields adjacent to the border, which could not be accessed because of the danger of the fedayeen – Palestinians who tried to infiltrate Israel – and he was chosen. He is the father of the security coordinator in the kibbutz, and we met his grandson in the Youth House.
“I came to the kibbutz with big ideas,” he says. “I wanted a real kibbutz. In the past few years, a privatization process started here. I was against the idea, both ideologically and personally. But as time passed, I saw that the young generation – including my son – want privatization, and in the end I decided to cooperate. Unfortunately, in the future Nirim will more resemble a moshav or a village.”
I ask him about the future of Nirim, given that people despair of the possibility of leading a quiet life here. “The Palestinians want to expel us,” he replies. “The Arab entity has not accepted our existence. I hope they will not succeed. But we have to talk to them and work out clear borders. Nirim will survive; everyone will come back when the fighting stops. This is a kibbutz in which most of the people are active and our economic situation is good – so that attracts people. In my opinion, none of those who are threatening to leave will actually leave. I haven’t regretted leaving the city even once.”
War, what war? Children play in the swimming pool during the cease-fire. The next morning, many of them would leave the kibbutz after hostilities resumed. Photo by Moti Milrod
Flying the nest
There’s a large bookcase in the home of Gila and Haim Shiloh, containing novels and tomes about botany along with copies of the Eshkol Regional Council newspaper. “Why are there so many flies in this area, and what can be done about it?” the headline declares. This space is actually the kibbutz’s unofficial library during the war. People who are afraid to leave the grounds come here to exchange books.
Like most of the veterans, the Shilohs have stayed. They have a security space with a bed, armchair and television set. None of their four children live on the kibbutz – they all preferred cities or towns, and in general less cooperative places. I ask whether they consider this a failure. They admit being saddened by their children’s decision to leave.
Nearing 90, Haim and Gila take pride in being Nirim’s most veteran residents. Haim was 20 when he joined the kibbutz’s core group of founders in Rishon Letzion, while he was working at a flour mill in Tel Aviv. At the end of Yom Kippur in 1946, 11 kibbutzim were established in the northern Negev in one night, including Dangur, where Haim’s group lived.
In the 1948 War of Independence, heavy Egyptian shelling destroyed Dangur. All the buildings were flattened, Haim remembers, and the only thing left standing was a wall from the cabin that had served as the dining room, with the inscription, “It is not the tank that will prevail, but man.” After the war, the group looked for a new site. “How did we go about looking?” asks Haim. “Where the wheat was high – that’s where we wanted to live.” In 1949, Nirim was founded in that place.
They quickly mention the white house next to the kibbutz. It was the home of the Abu Sitas, a Bedouin family who controlled large tracts of land in the area and were expelled or abandoned their home in 1948. They now live in the Gaza Strip. “We struck roots here,” Gila says, “but they also had a home here – I always remember that.” At the same time, though, they note the ancient Jewish ties to the area, citing the nearby ruins of a sixth-century synagogue from the city of Maon.
The two had diverse careers in Nirim. Haim hauled sacks of flour and later managed a shoe factory and an electronics plant. Gila worked as a librarian and in the plant nursery, and helped build the kibbutz fence. They’ve been here nearly 70 years and don’t remember every job they held. They were loyal members who always acted in the best interests of the kibbutz.
Gila, at least, feels that when the good of the kibbutz clashed with her personal viewpoint, she always yielded – and something in her personality was partially stymied. Still, she says, she has no regrets about the price she paid: “The sense of togetherness gave people a great deal of strength to overcome the many obstacles.”
But the critical development that disconcerted them and left them with a wound that is unlikely to heal occurred in the past few years: the privatization of the kibbutz. Unlike Moshe Etzion, they did not accept any of it. “Before privatization, the kibbutz possessed real creative power and I loved the life here,” Gila says. “The big confrontation over privatization was very hard for us. Those ideas conflicted completely with our way of life. There were bitter discussions, shouts and arguments between parents and children. The pro-privatization camp also sometimes used forceful methods.”
She falls silent for a moment and chooses her words carefully: “I went through a mourning period after the decision was made. Then I decided I would not occupy myself with it anymore and stopped going to kibbutz meetings.”
This is not the kibbutz they founded and wanted, Haim says; they are brokenhearted. Both Haim and Gila believe the new method leaves everyone to his own devices: If in the past the kibbutz was grounded in mutual assistance and surety, those values no longer constitute its ethos. “The idea to privatize came from the 40-50 age group, who wanted greater economic freedom. But the end result was to create a different kibbutz,” he says.
They admit there were problems with the collective method, such as people who didn’t do enough work. But now, under privatization, it’s the weak who are paying the price, says Gila. “Suddenly, a family with three children can’t make ends meet in Nirim on a salary of 10,000 shekels [about $2,650] a month. That’s inconceivable.”
You’ve been living here for 70 years, I say. It’s true the kibbutz grew and took root, but you saw a constant succession of wars and military operations. You still talk like left-wingers, but maybe in your hearts you feel a sense of despair? In 1948, your original community was destroyed, entire Arab villages were annihilated around you, and yet, 70 years on, we are still in the midst of a war.
“Our viewpoint has not changed: we are here because the land has to be settled,” says Gila. “But things have only deteriorated since we came here. There was a time when the children went to the wadi by themselves and met people from Gaza every day. Today, the children have to be escorted everywhere, and we see people from Gaza dying on television. I know the conditions we are living under here, with all the shelling, don’t suit the young generation. During this current operation, I had no doubt all the children had to leave. But if I look back? In 1956, when Moshe Dayan deployed troops in the area and provoked the Egyptians, and there were cannons next to the avocado trees and there was firing from Gaza above our heads, I would look after the preschool children and plan how to get them down to the bomb shelter. Nowadays, I wonder what kind of world the children are growing up into.”
Moshe Etzion. His son, Ze’ev, was security coordinator at the kibbutz. He was killed by a mortar an hour before the end of the war. Photo by Moti Milrod
Haim: “The population here used to be homogeneous. Today, there are people who come here for all kinds of reasons, including material comfort. On the one hand, these people are not willing to live in the kibbutz without 100 percent security. But on the other, they find life here good, which is why many want to come – and I think they will keep wanting to after the war, too.”
I ask whether they support the operation in Gaza. “We have the right to defend ourselves, but there is no justification for the fact that hundreds of children were killed in Gaza,” says Haim. “The devastation we created there is intolerable. And the world looks on.”
“The population there is a prisoner of Hamas,” adds Gila. “It breaks my heart to see the destruction and the suffering there. You asked about failure. All my life I believed in peace and I lived here. Yet here I am, at this advanced age, and we are in a war again. But I don’t feel a sense of failure. I know we did not waste our lives; we did the things we believed in.”
Everyone here is looking toward midnight, when the cease-fire will expire. Walking through the kibbutz, we encounter two teenage girls who immediately tell us about their media exposure. “We were on the cover of 24 Hours,” they boast, referring to the daily supplement of mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. The girls insist the Haaretz photographer take their picture.
Everyone at the kibbutz knows the role they are playing in the media. Quite a few of the children possess a kind of file of photographic images that are engraved in their memory – or at least in their parents’. A mother hugs her child and declares, “He was on the Channel 2 news, [Channel 1’s] ‘Erev Hadash’ and a special Children’s Channel program ahead of the Festigal [annual Hanukkah show for kids].”
The older kibbutzniks don’t declaim their media appearances so blatantly, but they too will hint about them. One woman here has a blog in which she corresponds with a girl in Gaza; another was interviewed on CNN. Nirim, then, seemingly incorporates the kibbutz where regular people live and which is enduring shelling, and also its conscious representation.
Listening to the people, there are times when you get the feeling some of their statements are engineered, so to speak: that there’s a thesis that constitutes an answer to every question. Maybe that’s unavoidable when you are being bombed for years, always fearing the next alarm, and strangers keep asking you the same questions. One sometimes also gets the impression that a kind of war tourism has sprung up, with kibbutz members urging visitors to come and see shrapnel that only they know about – on the wall of their home, even on trees.
In the line of ire
Arnon Avni, who initiated the privatization idea, is the nemesis of the veteran Nirim residents, and is also – not by chance – a generation younger. Now 60, he was born in the kibbutz, studied at the Bezalel art academy in Jerusalem and was a cartoonist for long-defunct left-wing newspaper Al Hamishmar. As a young man, he was part of the intellectual spearhead of Mapam (United Workers Party), which published Al Hamishmar.
He also experienced firsthand the collapse of the party-based press in Israel, a process that made him doubt the concepts he had believed in – or at least spurred him to question their business model. He subsequently returned to the kibbutz, eventually becoming the owner of the local newspaper. We meet in his small office, which is crowded with newspapers and cartoons. “A newspaper’s power lies in its independence,” he says proudly. “This is a newspaper that criticizes the actions of the regional council fearlessly, even though four pages of the newspaper are theirs.”
Even if he was victorious in the privatization battle, it’s not easy for him to talk about it – a bitter taste lingers. “At first, I was alone and fought against everyone else,” he says. “It wasn’t easy for me to come to the [communal] dining room. But I grasped that without the change, the kibbutz would become an old-age home. I met many leaders of the kibbutz movement over the years. They were people who spoke in the name of manual labor and ideals that made them happy, but they themselves didn’t live on a kibbutz and didn’t work in the barn or in the fields. Their joy did not trickle down to the regular folk who got up every morning for work.”
How did the privatization struggle proceed?
“Those of us in our fifties spearheaded the idea against the veterans and the very young – you know how 20-year-olds are always enthusiastic about socialism. Slander, gossip, you name it – it all started. I even had terrible fights with my parents, but in the end they understood that all their life they saw the weaknesses [of the old system] but ignored them – like a religiously observant person who sees that God is not answering his prayers but still can’t stop praying. I demanded all along that we bring in economic experts. And when they came, you discovered a few things that the kibbutz, as an entity, preferred not to know about. For example, not to know that a certain business fails because the losses are simply passed on to another business. A culture of self-deception had taken root. I told the veterans: You did great things, you couldn’t have acted differently, but either we change immediately or we will no longer exist.”
Could it be that people like you, who are high earners, wanted to keep more of your profits and enjoy a higher standard of living?
“That assumption is wrong. The big earners in the kibbutz were actually vehemently against the idea. This is a struggle over an idea. And to this day we are suffering socially from the confrontation; it tore us apart.”
Avni remained in Nirim during the war. He doesn’t feel like wandering around the country and disturbing family and friends. Politically, like many others, he underwent a change in recent years, becoming “centrified.”
“We are not talking about peace anymore, it’s not practical,” he says. “Most of the people here vote Meretz and Labor, but now there are more doubts. We have to accept the existence of the Palestinian people, and we have played a part in their tragedy. From a historical perspective, it’s clear we cannot rule them indefinitely. There are four million Palestinians between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River who are candidates to become Israeli citizens. That’s my greatest political nightmare. I have a recurring dream: I am standing at the gate of the kibbutz with a rifle and I see along the whole horizon Arabs who have knocked down the fence and are running toward me. I stand there and shoot them one by one. But there are so many of them and their movement toward me doesn’t stop.”
A symbolic dream. Do your children live here?
“My daughters left the kibbutz at a time when the change was still distant. Through their decision to leave, I saw the demographic pit of the kibbutz. But now we are succeeding in attracting young people. You’re visiting in the middle of a war so it’s hard to see it, but Nirim, thanks in part to the privatization, is in a very good situation.”
How do you see the future?
“When Israel goes to war, I am with my country. And this is a war of no choice. But more generally, until now if Israelis believed that if we crush the Palestinians they’ll be quiet, we’ve seen that it’s not so. The vision of ‘We’ll smash them to smithereens’ was shattered in this war. And regrettably, there is nothing else.”
‘Rat in a trap’
The kibbutz dining room no longer serves the members in the evening, only at lunchtime – part of the privatization process. The array of food is impressive. Driven perhaps by childhood memories from kibbutzim, I choose two main dishes. Someone whispers to me that you pay double for two items. And suddenly I see the cash register.
The manager of the dining room is Adi Lagazial, who always makes the point of noting that she is Tripolitanian – a kind of ironic awareness of the kibbutz movement’s dominant Ashkenazi character. It’s worth noting that if Haim and Gila’s generation were all Ashkenazim, these days the population is more mixed in the younger age groups.
Lagazial is in her thirties – after Haim and Gila, Amnon and the youngsters, our encounter with her marks the fourth generation we’ve met in the kibbutz. She grew up in Holon, studied to be a pastry chef, and together with her husband decided to make a home in Nirim. They moved here in 2007 and have two children.
She didn’t always dream of kibbutz life and collectivism, but looked for a place where her family would have a better life. In another month, after seven years on the kibbutz, they are due to begin an absorption process – meaning they will buy a plot of land in the kibbutz and put all their savings into the soil of Nirim. It’s probably the hardest decision of her life, she says.
“The first time a rocket alarm went off, I felt like a rat in a trap,” she recalls. “I still react differently to an alarm when I’m alone; when I’m with the children I immediately smile and say, ‘Who wants to play a card game?’ I turned them from very independent children into children who play outside only when I’m around. Handicapped children.”
She’s very tense. She’s been moving around with the children for almost a month, and if the present cease-fire isn’t extended after midnight, they will leave again. Their bags are already packed. They don’t know where they’ll go – maybe to her parents, maybe some other arrangement.
I ask what drives her to live here and invest all her money in the kibbutz, too.
“I have a brother abroad, and one day he wrote me, ‘It’s not your home; get up and leave.’ But I think it would be insane to go back to the city and trap the children in an apartment. We were the first family to come here as nonmember residents; I’m renting an apartment and paying bills. Now I have to decide whether to invest all my money in this place.
“But I also know something else: I won’t enjoy the standard of living that exists here anywhere else in Israel. And nowhere else in the country will I get the kind of education for the children that exists here, except by paying the kind of money I don’t have.”
Lagazial is in charge of the kibbutz’s food unit and receives a salary for her work. Her husband works in farming for a private company. “I hoped I’d found my place, but now I am wrestling with the idea again,” she admits. “We came back because of the cease-fire, but we could be out of here within half an hour. At the moment, the only thing that interests me is my children.”
It sounds that ultimately you’ll stay because of them.
“Could be. In the end, the life here is the best I can give them – despite everything.”
She always voted Likud when she lived in the center of the country, “but everything changed when I was shot at,” she admits. When I ask why, she responds, “Because they fired at me and my children!”
Where do you stand now politically?
“The Palestinians are not passive, but neither are we. There were times during the war when I wished they would let [Avigdor] Lieberman conduct the campaign – maybe the whole business would be resolved – but that’s just a pipedream. I don’t know what my opinions are. I live in the last row of houses in the kibbutz, and I see the Gaza Strip from my window every day. That’s my political view.”
It is 5 P.M., seven hours until the cease-fire expires. The swimming pool is packed with children who are shooting at one another with water guns or sprawling on mattresses. A medley of colorful bathing suits shimmer in the water. On the lawn, many young couples are pushing strollers and touting baby slings, and infants are wailing; on the far side, fire and smoke rise from a barbecue. To my surprise, I discover that every family brings its own meat. “Really?” I ask. “The effects of privatization,” a young woman says in a mocking tone, and stretches out in a chair.
People complain about privatization here, but as with capitalism – most of whose critics don’t actually see a new order that can arise on its ruins – they understand why the transition happened. The kibbutzniks are adjusting to the spirit of the time, even if they grumble occasionally. They know they went through the transition successfully, but that things are topsy-turvy now: Because of the high cost of living in Israel, kibbutz life – especially on a well-run kibbutz – is again desired by many. Maybe people won’t come to Nirim for the ideological reasons that brought Moshe Etzion in the 1970s. But it can be argued that the transformation that occurred in the kibbutz movement in the past decade parallels the one that took place throughout Israel beginning in the 1980s – after the emergency financial plan introduced in 1985 by Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Finance Minister Yitzhak Moday, which brought about the reduction of the government’s involvement in the economy and the privatization of government corporations and social services.
The event around the pool is something of a party to celebrate summer. Many of those who returned to the kibbutz in the wake of the cease-fire are meeting up again here. Rotem and Einav, sporting sunglasses, are sitting on chairs and enjoying the warm breeze. Rotem asks for a cigarette – she says she’s started smoking again because of the war.
“My suitcases aren’t in the closet yet,” she says. “I’m thinking about what to do if the cease-fire ends at midnight.” At first glance, everything might look normal in this fiesta – people smiling, children shouting and running around – but all you have to do is exchange two sentences with someone for the lurking anxiety to slash through the affable facade.
Rotem’s three children are in the pool, so is Einav’s boy. “I feel depressed,” Einav says. Rotem left the kibbutz for 10 years, but came back because of the children. She always knew, she says, that a kibbutz childhood is the greatest gift you can give a child. But if the cease-fire ends, she will go someplace else. Einav is already contemplating the possibility of leaving the kibbutz completely. “I’ve been here four years,” she tells me. “We left Tel Aviv for the sake of the children and because of the cost of living, but I’ve been wandering around the country for a few weeks already, and I’m exhausted.”
Unlike Einav, Rotem is a kibbutz member. In fact, she and her husband were the last couple to become members. Leaving is not an option for them. Rotem’s husband voted against privatization. “Families like ours, with three children, paid the highest price for the privatization,” she explains, “mainly because of the expenses for education, which suddenly shot up. It was less of a change for the over-50s, so they supported it.”
“My husband was right-wing, but now his views have changed,” she adds. “I’ve stayed quite left. If there’s an oppressed minority in Gaza who make use of children and hospitals, that’s terrible. We don’t want to kill children, but they hide behind them.” In recent years, she notes, new residents with different views have come to the kibbutz from the center of the country, including some who vote for Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Einav says she has no wish to talk about politics now. She’s worried about the war’s effect on her son: “I noticed that he has become a lot more military-minded – suddenly everything is weapons and tanks and rifles. I find that very sad.”
Rotem adds, “This is a lovely moment: everyone’s here at the pool with the children. But tomorrow the place might be abandoned and the kibbutz will look like a cemetery.”
Time passes, the sky turns ashen, and night will fall soon. “Did you ask yourself where the black people are?” I hear someone whisper. I turn around, but the young man has moved away. I walk after him. “You’re a kibbutz native?” I ask. “I’m black, how could I be kibbutz-born?” he laughs. “I’m married to a kibbutz woman.”
He doesn’t want me to use his name. He’s lived here a few years and has children. “My views may be left-wing, but the reality here is right-wing. Most of the leftists are living under an illusion. They need to understand that our most educated people want to talk with people in Gaza from 200 years ago. In the end, technology will trump religion.”
I ask what he meant by his whisper about black people. “It was a little joke,” he replies, playing it down. “The best life in Israel today is in the kibbutzim, and they also have superb education systems. The people here are high quality, but they’re a particular breed, very different. At first I felt odd, I wasn’t part of them. But now there are Russians here and more Mizrahim. It’s all a little less Ashkenazi.”
Some people are thinking of leaving, I tell him – after all, you’ve been under fire for a month. “Take a look at that,” he replies, pointing to the pool. “Just another summer day, parents and children in the pool together at five in the afternoon – where can you find that in the city? Do you think anyone is about to leave that kind of life?”
Arnon Avni spearheaded the successful campaign to privatize the kibbutz, to the chagrin of older members.. Photo by Moti Milrod
The dining hall of the Otniel yeshiva in the South Hebron Hills hurtled me back into childhood. The long, crowded tables. The old utensils, meager food and slices of dark bread. The sounds of conversation and laughter that fuse into a surging buzz reminded me vividly of the years I spent in a day-care center run by the women’s organization WIZO. That’s where I lost all my taste for food: When I entered the army, while everyone complained about the gruel served in the mess hall, I was flabbergasted at getting free schnitzel, chicken, rice and hummus (not to mention gizzards on a base of labaneh –strained yogurt – that had hardened and become mashed potatoes).
We decide to go outside on this sunny day in the hills. A bevy of cats assail us: they climb onto the table from every direction and attack the food. Lethargically, I slice the meatballs into quarters, praying that some cat will grab them. Unfortunately, though, they set their sights on the plate of Rabbi Yakov Nagen.
Thin and bearded, Nagen has an American accent and great faith in the glorious days that await us. He was born to a bourgeois Manhattan family in 1967 – his father is a physics professor, his mother a lawyer – studied at Yeshiva University and came to Israel in 1993. After teaching in Har Etzion Yeshiva, in the Etzion Bloc settlement of Alon Shvut, he has taught at the Otniel yeshiva for the past 18 years. His wife is head of the local pre-army preparatory program for women. The couple has seven children. Nagen is not your typical teacher at a hesder yeshiva, which combines religious studies with military service: He wrote a column for the New Age channel of the Hebrew-language NRG website; is the author of “Awaking to a New Day: Stories and Insights from Life”; and is interested in the Bratslav movement, in neo-Hasidism, Buddhism and Israeli culture – and, of course, the ideas propounded by the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, from the settlement of Tekoa, whose spirit hovers over the yeshiva.
On the way out of the dining hall we stop next to the kitchen door. To its right is a memorial wall with a number of photographs on it. Very young faces. In December 2002, at the height of the second intifada, two terrorists entered the yeshiva’s kitchen on a Friday evening. There were only a few students there at the time, though dozens more were eating and dancing outside. When the shooting started, Nagen relates, the kitchen door locked and the terrorists were unable to breach it, though they fired volley after volley. The security forces found the body of Noam Apter – a beloved student of Nagen’s – next to the door. Apparently he managed to lock the door before being shot and killed, thus saving the other yeshiva students.
The broad and handsome beit midrash, with its heavily laden bookshelves, chairs and wooden tables, is filled with students who have finished lunch. The blue sky is visible from every corner of the study facility, through a row of windows that lines the upper walls. The students sit at the tables, whispering, striding back and forth as they carry huge books, studying in groups and singly. A few of them gather around one of the tables to hear a lesson from their teacher, whose voice rises and falls alternately. A curly-haired young man with a hipster beard, earrings and a bored look passes us at a sprightly gait, holding a book half the size of his body. Some of the hills around us are colored yellow and white, others cloaked in green vegetation.
Secular and spiritual
More traditional yeshivas, I say to Nagen, accuse the Otniel institution of speaking in secular Hebrew or using a kind of spiritual Israeli language. Nagen takes that as a compliment. He is not a great admirer of the traditional hierarchical yeshivas that speak in a “closed symbolic language.” For him, the yeshiva’s connection to Israeli culture, including the secular culture, is self-evident.
Indeed, when I ask some of the students around us about the books they’re reading, the difference between the books they mention and those that were cited by the students from the yeshivas of Elon Moreh and Itamar is immediately apparent. The canon here is a total mixture: Rabbi Kook alongside Tolstoy and Amos Oz; “The Matrix,” Thomas Mann, even the Beat Generation. In this yeshiva, Nagen says, they want to hear different ideas and they encourage clashes of ideas. For example, he says, one student recently wrote a prayer about the “brothers in the Syrian civil war,” and everyone learned it.
“I start each lesson by noting the date,” Nagen tells me. “And then I say, ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it’ [Psalms 118:24]. I look at life and see that it is joyousness. The joy resides in life as it is, which is being. But reality is also flawed and difficult and frustrating, and therefore we must find a balance between doing and being.” He quotes “some French thinker”: the challenge of life is not to discover new landscapes but in having new eyes. Finally he remembers the name – one Marcel Proust.
I ask how he would categorize his mode of education. “To live a different life,” he replies without hesitation. “I fuse very diverse ideas: Hasidism, kabbala, spirituality. I want to create a balance between the spiritual realms and the concrete worlds. But make no mistake,” he adds, his voice hardening momentarily, “spirituality in the hesder yeshivas is a rising wave. The Hebrew date of the year 2000 was תש"ס , and that was ‘the Sixties’ of the religious-Zionist public. In the past they didn’t deal with Rabbi Nachman from Breslov, with the Baal Shem Tov, with spiritual methods, with the imagination. The special thing about our yeshiva is the interconnection between the classic element of yeshiva studies, namely halakha [Jewish religious law] and everything else.
“Listen,” he continues, “Zionism maintained that it constitutes a return to doing, and I believe that the intellectual, non-insular side of Judaism is very important and needs to be rehabilitated and promoted. There is a clear movement in the hesder yeshivas in the direction of feeling and imagination, a connection between inner elements of your life and outer elements.”
There are some, I put it to Nagen, such as Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Tau, from Har Hamor Yeshiva, who are against this mix of the religious and secular worlds, which is entering the yeshivas in all manner of guises and, they say, rendering the religious world shallow, lite. For example, here’s what Rabbi Chaim Navon, from Har Etzion Yeshiva, wrote about the notion of 5760 being the religious-Zionists’ “Sixties”: “It is also difficult to ignore the striking motif of the imitation of the Sixties in America. In the 1960s we were busy building up the country, and we ignored the nonsense of the peculiar Americans. Now we are witnessing the sweet revenge of the Sixties. Long-haired and barefoot, our moon children gather … There is so much imitation and so much posturing in this belated hippie flickering.”
To which Nagen replies, “Many of the things that Otniel represents have moved from the margins to the center. It used to be that anyone who took an interest in more secular matters was considered strange and weird. Now it’s mainstream. The normal fellows take an interest in Hasidism and kabbala and secular culture, even of the Western variety.” And in a jab at his rivals, he notes.
There are about 400 students in the Otniel yeshiva, some of them in active army service. The yeshiva was founded in 1987, originally as a kolel – a yeshiva for married men – by former students of the Western Wall Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It became a hesder yeshiva at the beginning of the 1990s. The tuition fee is 1,200 shekels ($317) a month – not cheap at all. I’m told by people in the yeshiva that government budget cuts, particularly during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as finance minister (2003-2005), hurt them, and student subsidies diminished. In addition to paying the economic price, the young men here also have to meet the study requirements of the yeshiva, entailing never-ending days of study. Yedidya, for example, is 23, lives in the religious neighborhood of Har Nof in Jerusalem, and has been a student at the Otniel yeshiva for five years. A reflective young man who takes his time before answering a question, he possesses a youthful passion that drives him to contemplate the big issues. He brings to mind characters in the cafeteria of the humanities building at Tel Aviv University after a class on Walter Benjamin.
Yedidya is interested in reading and writing. The inclination toward books about history and wars is natural among the religious-Zionist public, he observes, but he tends more to fiction and invention. What works have influenced him, I ask. “Almost everything touches me,” he replies. “I very much like Tolstoy’s historical gaze and his poetic expression; also the Hebrew of Amos Oz and David Grossman. I liked the film ‘Fight Club’ and also – you might be surprised to hear – [your novel] ‘World Shadow,’ which contains a kind of deep demand to dismantle the world we live in. I read American authors such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen and others. I also read ultra-Orthodox magazines and Haaretz. Everyone here reads those kinds of things, but the scale of my involvement in them is especially grand.”
All the students I speak to declare their pride in the distinctiveness of their yeshiva and are politely scornful of the traditional yeshivas, which they consider outdated. Yedidya, too, talks about the Otniel yeshiva as exceptional. “Here you will find less [Defense Minister] ‘Bogie’ Ya’alon and more writers,” he says, adding, “I write poems, stories and culture criticism.”
Is he political, I ask. “At heart,” he replies, “‘political’ for me is the question: What do you want from the world? I believe that here the political is the existential: one has to understand the meaning of the Jewish return to this place, not only to the Holy Land but to the Middle East as a whole. For example: How do you interact with the culture around you? What kinds of things do you have to tell your neighbors? What can you learn from them? It’s not clear to me what the solution to the conflict is, but I find the ideas of ‘Let’s separate and everyone will go his own way’ laughable. That’s the idea that underlined the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. In my eyes, the question is how Palestinians and Jews live together.”
The beit midrash at the Otniel hesder yeshiva in the South Hebron Hills. ‘I want to create a balance between the spiritual realms and the concrete worlds,’ says Rabbi Nagen. Photos by Moti Milrod
Jews and Muslims praying together
Nagen and I stroll through the yeshiva’s corridors. In the yard, the basketball court is empty. I ask him whether the students actually play and he immediately launches into an account of a stormy game that took place here once. He’s not really into sports. Many students pass by, teachers too – no one takes a special interest in Haaretz and you hardly hear opinions about the left and how it rules the world. We’re standing on the lawn now, looking at the yeshiva’s new and quite magnificent building.
Tell me, I say, to Nagen, some people will say your life here in Otniel, as a settler amid a Palestinian population that views you as an occupier who enjoys the protection of the Israel Defense Forces, doesn’t jibe with the fine theories you’re expounding.
He’s a bit taken aback by the question. “The root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the presence of Jews in Judea and Samaria,” he says. “I do not accept the proposition that our being here, in Judea and Samaria, both as settlers and as the army, is creating the problem. The IDF is in Judea and Samaria as a result of the conflict – this is not the cause of the conflict. To my mind, this is borne out by the withdrawal from Gaza. All the settlers and all the soldiers were removed, and things are still bad for Jews and Arabs alike. In my conception, separating the populations cannot constitute a true solution to the conflict.”
Nagen suddenly remembers there’s something he must show me in the beit midrash. Do we have to go back there, I ask; it’s lovely here, outside. He insists.
When we get there he shows me a photograph on his computer: Nagen is hugging an Arab sheikh. “Every year Google puts out a video summing up the year,” he explains, and his eyes light up. “In 2014, this was the only picture they used from the Middle East. It was taken at an event called ‘Jerusalem Hug,’ in which Jews and Arabs hug the walls and each other. The caption was, ‘It makes sense.’ The clip had 30 million views.”
It’s hard to withstand his burst of enthusiasm. I make a point of looking at the photograph for a whole minute, recalling that in Beijing I was taught that if a Chinese businessman gives you his business card, you must examine it carefully on both sides. If you stuff it into your pocket immediately, you are dead to him.
The computer image is only a prelude to the main subject that has occupied Nagen in recent years: Islam. “I was always interested in religions,” he says. “I started a little with Sufis in Nazareth, Jerusalem and Acre, but we live in peace with Sufis. Then I read the Koran a few times. It’s filled with beautiful things about the perception of mankind and the perception of morality – a very impressive book. I invited a scholar from Egypt to the yeshiva. He’d written a PhD thesis on the status of the Jews in the Koran, and he was received here with tumultuous applause. Afterward we prayed together in the Tomb of the Patriarchs [in Hebron]. That’s the future I see.
“In fact, the ties between settlers and Arabs are far more complex than people in Tel Aviv – who have never crossed the Green Line – think. There’s more here than uprooted olive trees and shooting attacks. The picture is far more complex. There is also a great deal of love and solidarity here. I believe the religious human encounter is the key to everything. When I meet a Palestinian and see how much he loves God – the same God I love – all the barriers fall.”
Those are truly fine words, and I hear them a great deal in your yeshiva. So your vision is a religious peace in which everyone lives together because they love the same God. What is the political practicality of that peace? “I want to take what these religions have in common – that we pray to the same God and are all descendants of Abraham – and actualize it. I am a member of many groups of Jews and Muslims who meet all the time,” Negan replies, somewhat opaquely.
I ask him to set forth the principles. He tells me, “These are the principles of a religious peace: 1. Opposition to violence; 2. Living peacefully with one’s neighbors is a religious value; 3. Islam and Judaism believe in the same God; 4. We need to live in a society in which there are full equal rights between Jews and Arabs; 5. To recognize the religious and historical Palestinian connection to the Holy Land.”
What is the settlers’ reaction to this plan, especially to the fifth point, which is the most far-reaching of all? You are denying the Jewish people’s unique and exclusive association with its historic homeland. “Some of the settlers have already reached the fourth point, and in the end they will also accept the fifth,” he replies confidently.
Once more I get the feeling that Nagen may speak softly and rather diffusely, but that he is afire with the great determination of one whose goal is clear to him. “The Hebron Hills region is not the bourgeois [town of] Efrat and the Etzion bloc,” he says. “I am constantly meeting with people and giving talks, and I don’t see very great opposition. In the end it’s possible. It’s like the move of the religious-Zionist public from the newspaper Hatzofe, which was conservative and bourgeois, to Makor Rishon, which offers far more challenging opinions, including a clear discussion of the ideas I’ve presented.”
So you’re saying there is a great change among the settlers that the secular public doesn’t see? “Unequivocally, yes.”
You know, the feeling I get here is that, ultimately, you are one-state advocates. “Rabbi Froman would say that the Jewish state of the left is a totally Western state that’s separated completely from all its neighbors. I don’t want that. I would not wish to annul the state’s Jewish identity, but nothing bad will happen if we give an equal place to an additional identity. My direction is perhaps that of a confederation in which each side can preserve its identity. I am not a political thinker, but I find the one-state idea – which was also put forth in Makor Rishon – reasonable. It’s possible that the natural movement of things is leading us there.”
Quiet descends on the yeshiva ahead of the afternoon minhah prayer service. Some 200 students, wearing skullcaps, hats or bandanas, stand in the beit midrash –which consists of the ground floor and an overlooking balcony – and pray. The silence is shattered only by the occasional whisper or outcry. Some pray ardently, body swaying up and down; others stand motionless, staring at some point in space. I make my way to the large porch outside. Two students are there. I presume they are local rebels and ask about a cigarette. There’s no smoking here. I take in the view: plenty of grazing ground and a few buildings to our right, and, in the distance, the blue-gray sky hangs over a strip of hills dappled with vegetation and trees. That’s all you can see when the sun is so dazzlingly bright.
Rabbi Yakov Nagen: ‘When I meet a Palestinian and see how much he loves God – the same God I love – all the barriers fall.’ Photo by Moti Milrod
Looking for clear answers
I’m with Shahar now. He’s also been a student here for five years. Midway through, he spent a year and a half in Project Nativ [an army program to strengthen Jewish-Zionist identity] and then returned to the yeshiva. Like Yedidya and others here, Shahar uses words such as “meaning,” “empowerment,” “spirituality.” For a moment, the words and the landscape flood me with memories of the time I spent with Israeli backpackers in Rajasthan.
Shahar took yoga classes in Jerusalem’s Ein Karem neighborhood, and he shares what he learned with his fellow students. Once a week, before all the students’ major lesson with the head of the yeshiva, Shahar conducts a kind of yoga class. Yoga, he says, strengthens concentration and hones attentiveness and awareness of complex processes that occur within the psyche, and this prepares you to experience the lesson with your whole being.
You’ve been here five years already – don’t you want to go out into the world? Shahar: “I like being here. Torah here doesn’t alienate one from life but empowers life. It has a backbone and doesn’t fall under the way of every passing fad. In the end I will go out into the world, but after a place like this the world becomes more complex. Not long ago, I was at a meeting with Muslims from the town of Yatta. Suddenly I grasped the conflict at the most distilled human level. Life together in equality with people who ultimately share the same God can be less impossible than it seems.”
I ask if everyone here is left-wing, and laugh. “It’s not the left and right that everyone knows, or all the talk you hear from politicians,” he replies. “We are not in the left wing of separation – we are truly living here with Muslims.” In this yeshiva you won’t hear talk about Jewish supremacy or the suspicion of Arabs that’s voiced in many settlements. On the other hand, it sometimes seems that the talk about brotherhood and sharing camouflages an absence of readiness to take a stand in favor of clear political ideas, of the kind that exact a price.
For example, the one-state idea means placing Jewish sovereignty in question. One can support the idea or oppose it, but it’s impossible not to recognize its feasibility. In the meantime, though, I don’t hear clear answers on the subject in Otniel.
The prayer service is over. Some of the students leave the study hall; others stay on. Something is bothering me – I look for Nagen. I’m offered tea and cookies as I roam the dimly lit floor of offices, but Yakov isn’t there. I’m a bit lost in these long corridors that encircle the beit midrash, but I finally track him down at the same table outside the dining hall where we sat in the morning. The cats are gone. Students fiddling with hoops, movies and all kinds of accessories surround us, and it’s not clear whether they’re doing exercise or engaged in some sort of performance art.
You know, I say to Nagen, I feel that we didn’t jump far enough into the future. You’re fond of imagining things, right? So let’s imagine together what a single state will look like. One could say that Nagen isn’t so fond of imagining concrete entities, but he’s a polite fellow. “Not long ago,” he says, “I met with a sheikh and he said to me, ‘You understand the root of the problem: the approach is that what’s mine is not yours and what’s yours is not mine, but what about something that’s yours-mine?’ Aren’t there such things in the world? That’s the failure of Oslo: a secular Western idea that did not examine any religious element and did not examine an option of life together. For 20 years they’ve been trying to influence us from above, to build fences and divide the land into A, B and C. But the truth is, the Palestinians aren’t enthusiastic about two states. They don’t want fences and barriers, they want freedom. That’s why they’re talking about one state.”
The Jews are less enthusiastic. Nagen: “That’s temporary. I’ve been meeting a lot of Jews and Palestinians lately, and we talk about one state.” Suddenly Nagen’s eyes light up. “And gradually we understand. Imagine that Jews and Palestinians create a state together. Can you imagine what a power we will be in the Middle East? In the world?” *** On the road to the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements, we find ourselves enshrouded in fog amid a huge traffic jam and can barely see a thing. We pass the tunnels checkpoint – the fourth checkpoint we’ve gone through since the morning, after Hawara, Hizma and another one. We’ve been driving the roads of the West Bank for nearly a year, but I still can’t remember all the checkpoints; ones I don’t know keep cropping up.
The memory of the blue skies from the South Hebron Hills seems to belong to a different season. It’s overcast and cold next to the Gush Etzion Winery. Until a few days ago, the land here was covered with snow, and now rigid white mud-stained mounds dot the fields. We’re driving on a potholed, stony dirt road, and the highway quickly vanishes. A few cars are parked in soft, deep mud, which we leap over to enter a large courtyard with weeds along its sides and silver solar panels in the center. Behind the panels is a broad building, its walls made of wooden beams, and in its center is a huge stone stove. Some people are sitting around it.
This site is called Hasadeh (The Field). Ali Abu Awwad, 42, owns the land, having inherited it from his father. Awwad’s parents were expelled from the Lachish area of Israel in the 1948 war and settled in the nearby town of Beit Ummar, in the West Bank. His mother was a well-known activist in the Fatah movement and spent a few years in Israeli prisons. Awwad himself was jailed by Israel at the beginning of the 1990s, and it was in prison that he formulated his ideas for nonviolent resistance to the occupation. His brother was killed by Israeli troops in the second intifada.
Awwad is devoting the land he inherited to intriguing activism. First, he and other associates from the Palestinians’ generation of young leaders are laying the foundation for the establishment of a movement of nonviolent resistance to the occupation – in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Second, Awwad and like-minded Jews are cultivating the Roots initiative, a meeting place between Palestinians and Israelis, particularly people from the area. About 25 people are sitting in the circle: settlers from the central and eastern sections of the Gush Etzion bloc; a few disciples of Rabbi Froman; the poet Eliaz Cohen from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion; young Palestinian women who have returned from work; young and older Palestinian men from the area; and a Protestant priest from the United States.
The occasion for this meeting is the shloshim – a Jewish custom marking the 30th day since someone’s passing – of the mother of a key movement activist, Myron Joshua, from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. The only sound, other than Joshua’s voice as he reminisces about his mother, is the crackling of logs in the big stove in the center of the room. A joint meal is eaten – a ceremony of significance. The Jews and the Palestinians cook together. This meal consists of mujaddara and schnitzel, along with pitas and hummus, served on disposable dishes. The participants exchange personal experiences during the meal. The talk isn’t about politics but about getting to know one another. Khaled, a Palestinian contractor who is currently building villas in Rishon Letzion, talks about his experiences on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
A meeting of Palestinians and settlers at The Field, in Gush Etzion bloc. The future, after all the large-scale agreements have failed? Photo by Moti Milrod
An extraterritorial meeting site
Part of the idea of The Field is to create an extraterritorial site which is neither Jewish nor Palestinian, neither Zone A, B or C – a place where the rituals of the encounters, time spent together and work done in unison are the essence. The people here are not trying to draw up a peace treaty, but to forge a model for life together in which no one is trying to hide the religious element. On the contrary.
John Moyle is the pastor of missions and social justice at the Oakbrook Church in Reston, Virginia. A large, heavyset man who looks like the former professional wrestler John Cena, he is responsible for the experience at The Field. He came to Israel a few years ago and held separate meetings with Jewish and Muslim clerics. “When I came here,” he relates, “I noticed the separation between the nations. In those years I studied the history of the region and I realized that the greater the separation, the uglier and more complicated the conflict becomes. I looked for a way to stand in the middle and resist. Since then, I have been bringing together people from both nations together, especially the religious.”
Moyle is alluding to both the right and left in Israel. The fact is that in the past decade, broad agreement has been struck within the left-center parties that a country surrounded by a wall, a country that has effectively become the world’s biggest ghetto, is the solution to be aspired to, with a Palestinian state within borders of one kind or another alongside. Other models for the life of Jews and Palestinians in Israel – models that do not sanctify the principle of separation but advocate a dynamic shared life together – are not discussed in depth. The mantra of “two states for two peoples in order to save Zionism and end the occupation” is almost the only one heard from the moderate public in Israel.
In the period when Moyle was holding his meetings, Awwad started to articulate his concept and looked for Jewish partners. After Rabbi Froman’s death, in 2013, Moyle organized a meeting between Awwad and his friends and a few people from the Gush Etzion bloc –among them Eliaz and Joshua from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion; Shaul Judelman, who is a former member of Bat Ayin – a settlement in Gush Etzion with a reputation for extremism; and Hadassah Froman, Rabbi Froman’s widow, along with some of his family members and disciples.
Together, they formulated the model of The Field. They began by holding a meeting between local Jewish and Palestinian families, in which the adults conversed while the children played in the vineyard. They conducted courses to teach Hebrew and Arabic, organized youth gatherings, and are now working together in organic farming, growing vegetables and raising free-range chickens, while also working the small vineyard and the young grove behind the barn.
One of Froman’s students from the settlement of Tekoa says, “Isaac and Ishmael are brothers. This the reality of wakefulness, not of sleeping. Our group is small in the meantime, but maybe we will grow large. We are experiencing a terrible life – everyone on the roads is frightened and thinking about death – and how will we break out of this? What’s special about us is that we are determined to learn how to do it as one group.”
“We ask: How can we teach Palestinian children not to hate when they are constantly confronted by the occupation soldiers?” says Awwad, emphatically. “Who will remind the Palestinians that the Jews, too, were created in God’s image?”
To which Eliaz Cohen adds, “We learned the key to the approach and the creative work we are doing here from Rabbi Froman. It’s a matter of shmita versus shelita [referring, respectively, to the seventh year of “release,” when land was to lie fallow, and to control and domination]. Those are two contradictory and conflicting terms. Ali is teaching me what shemitah is. Can you imagine a settler providing his land for a joint initiative with Palestinians, the way Ali did? Of course not. We in Bnei Akiva, the yeshivas and Gush Emunim were raised on the slogan, ‘The Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.’ But that is exactly what we have to release, let go of. We have to end the relations of ‘ownership.’ Rabbi Menachem always said that this is the land of peace, that the land is God’s. Tremendous work is needed to liberate the consciousness, to recognize the fact that we are not the ‘lords of the land’ or the owners of the land, but that we belong to the land. And then the slogan is reversed: ‘The people of Israel belong to the Land of Israel,’ and also ‘The Palestinians belong to the Land of Israel, to Palestine.’”
Tell me, I say to Cohen, many people will read what you’ve said and think: Here’s someone who’s living on occupied land, in a settlement in the heart of a Palestinian population – which is suffering daily human-rights violations in part because of his settlement – and talking about brotherhood and peace.
Eliaz, angrily: “That is an impudent left-wing question coming from the patronizing, pampered place that has mired the two peoples for too many decades in a racist approach of ‘We are here and they are there.’ That’s a question that all kinds of critics sometimes come ‘equipped’ with. But the moment they see what we are doing here, and the joint partnership and responsibility that is being created, the prejudices start to melt away and the bewilderment starts to give way to a new consciousness. To a transformation, as I noted. That happens to almost everyone who comes here, and it happens to us – the partner activists from both sides – all the time.”
Tareq, a young Palestinian, speaks nostalgically about the “phone book” from before the first intifada, which consisted of Jewish and Arab names alike. It’s a refrain I’ve heard a few times in the West Bank. “I remember when I was a boy, in the 1980s, my father’s phone book had the numbers of people named Yitzhak, Shlomo, Amnon. The people who worked with my father visited us at home; we were at their family weddings sometimes. Jews and Arabs mingled in that period. Then the leaderships decided to build a wall between the nations, but that solution is dead – the mix between Jews and Arabs is part of this place, the national and religious mix. Maybe our generation is lost, but in another generation or two we will be able to live together.”
Rabbi Menachem Froman
Staying together in a crisis
The group is perhaps still small, but it has generated a number of meaningful initiatives. They were forged as a group and grasped that The Field is indeed a territory apart after the kidnapping of the three Jewish teens last summer, about 500 meters from the place where we are sitting. They’d been holding meetings between Jews and Palestinians for years, Cohen relates. But whenever a security event occurred, whenever blood was shed, each side withdrew into itself and everything came to a halt.
This time, the story was different. Immediately after the kidnapping, they met here and decided to go ahead with a planned Palestinian-Jewish day camp, whose highlight was a joint trip to the seashore. The Nitzanim beach near Ashkelon turned out to be too risky, because of the mortar shells fired from the Gaza Strip, so the children went to a beach in Herzliya. In addition, members of The Field declared a joint prayer service for the well-being of the kidnapped youths. After it turned out the three boys had been murdered, the group paid a joint condolence visit to the mourners’ tent erected by the Fraenkel family. Hundreds of people were there when the Jewish-Arab group sat down opposite the bereaved family. There were Shas people from Beit Shemesh; bourgeois Ashkenazi settlers from Efrat; secular folk from Ra’anana –in fact, people from all over Israel.
As they were sitting there, Hadassah Froman heard two Jews whispering, trying to catalogue the events according to their standard set of values: “But after all, we have a higher soul than theirs, right?” one of them whispered.
Beit Ummar’s Jamal relates that he was assailed in his mosque for collaborating with the Jews, but in the end the imam embraced him and said, “He is a holy person who is doing what Mohammed did – the prophet, too, had Jewish friends.”
On the night after the visit during the shivah, the group met again in The Field and decided to declare a Jewish-Muslim fast. It was the month of Ramadan, so the Muslims were fasting during the day in any case; the decision was to connect the Muslim fast to the Jewish fast of the Seventeenth of Tamuz (marking the day on which the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, a few weeks before destroying the Second Temple). The idea of the joint fast, which the group called “choosing life” – amid the expanding cycle of blood with the murder of the East Jerusalem teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the war in Gaza – was adopted by others not only in the immediate area but in Palestinian and Jewish communities in Israel and internationally.
In an interview to Makor Rishon not long before his death, Rabbi Froman said, “I have been proposing this path for the past 40 years. People said I was crazy. Now they have a better understanding … I studied Islam in Merkaz Harav [a famous Jerusalem yeshiva], and it became clear to me that the religious public, who are the root of the problem, are the root of the solution. Why do I support interreligious peace so fervently? Because it is realistic. You can sweep dirt under the rug, but you can’t sweep a tiger under the rug.”
Are his ideas workable? It’s interesting that people who cling to the two-state idea in the familiar formula and like to explain how off-the-wall the other ideas are, don’t wonder sometimes about how much longer it will be possible to talk about their good old solution without sounding off the wall themselves. Will we still be talking about the Clinton plan for two states in the year 2045?
What’s fascinating about The Field is that Ali Abu Awwad and his Palestinian associates took the elements of the religious peace that Froman talked about – based on the concept that the religious and spiritual experience must be accorded a place – and added a key layer that the privileged Jews from the surrounding settlements were not familiar with: the language of nonviolent resistance to the occupation. Awwad invited them into the Palestinians’ nonviolent struggle.
Its principles, which have taken shape in recent years, are focused on the Palestinians’ rights in this area, on the plunder and dispossession to which they have been subjected – a struggle in which the central experience of the participants revolves around the violation of their rights in every area of life.
Outside, from afar, sirens constantly wail, as though resonating the tension between the real world of the adjacent Gush Etzion Junction, where people are still being killed and where there are still soldiers and checkpoints and where arrests are made, and the reality that the people of The Field wish to create.
After witnessing so much suffering in this region, one’s heart is tempted to believe in a place like The Field. One can imagine this model – which at least for now is quite marginal – sweeping Jews and Arabs in its wake and becoming a force in the region. The imagination can encompass everything, and the need for spaces of hope after all the scenes of normalized cruelty can blur a person’s judgment. But at the same time, inordinate disillusionment – which many people here voice proudly – is also foolish, not least because it does away with every prospect of changing the future.
Most of the people in The Field insist that after all the large-scale agreements have failed, and after all the declarations and speeches, the reconciliation will begin precisely in places like this: territories, groups, communities, small movements that want to foment a different life – like lighthouses still concealed from the eye by the fog, but which in the future could well be beacons for masses of people. *** Postscript After the murder of the Palestinian infant Ali Saad Dawabsheh last Friday, Yakov Nagen and Hadassah Froman organized a prayer service in Gush Etzion bloc: A protest against the murder by fire in the village of Duma and the fatal stabbing during Thursday’s Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Ali Abu Awwad also took part in the prayer. That’s certainly a welcome initiative, I tell Nagen, but the violence is only increasing. How can we cope with the ideology of these people, the murderers and their supporters?
“There’s a saying,” he replies. “A little of the light repulses much of the darkness. But the opposite is equally true: a little of the darkness repulses much of the light. These are small groups – not total loners, definitely groups. They advocate an anarchistic, wild, antiestablishment doctrine. They scorn all authority. They puncture the tires of cars belonging to members of the Yesha Council of settlements. If people in Tel Aviv believe that they do what they do because rabbis tell them to, you should know that that’s nonsense. It’s exactly the reverse: they scorn the rabbis. In their eyes, everyone who accepts the laws of Israel is a contemptible collaborator. But that mind-set exists and has to be confronted with a hard hand.
“However,” he continues, “the question is, what doctrine do we put forward against that? The critical question of our time is whether the Jewish people is part of the nations of the world. And I say: Yes! The people of Israel have a role in the great story of humankind – but the Torah does not begin in Israel, it begins with all of humanity. And that is what I want every person in Judea and Samaria, in Israel and in the world to believe.”
The Yotniel yeshiva was built in the West Bank in the late 1980s. “The root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the presence of Jews in Judea and Samaria,” insists Nagen. Photo by Moti Milrod
The market in Barta’a is bustling. Cars packed with yawning children stand in a long line on both sides of the old road. The show windows display clothing, food, pitas, car parts, toys, carpets, sports shoes, electrical appliances. A cloud of smoke emanates from the kebab stand as people pass by; children hawk rings, sunglasses and electric shavers. There’s a good reason for the commotion here: there are said to be more than 1,200 businesses scattered around the market, and every day up to 10,000 vehicles pass through the small village to shop.
Yusuf Jassem, the proprietor of a large clothing store for religious women, buys his wares in Jordan, Dubai and Turkey. He shows me jilbabs in different colors, a hijab that’s favored mainly by women from the Ramallah area, and another that’s all the rage in Syria and Jordan.
Jassem lives in Bani Na’im, a Palestinian town near Hebron that is known for the high educational level of its population. His brother is in med school in Germany, he tells me with unabashed pride.
“In our town, no one takes any interest in politics,” he says. “We compete over who makes more money. We have good ties with companies in China and Turkey. We buy a lot from China.” His previous store, in Hebron, lost a lot of business during the second intifada (2000-2005). He thought about moving to Ramallah, but that city is mostly NGOs and money from abroad, he says. Eventually, he decided on Barta’a. His clients are mostly Palestinian Israelis: he’s dependent on them to maintain his business. And the truth is that if a resident of the Palestinian Authority wants to sell to Palestinian Israelis, he can’t do better than the market in Barta’a.
Running through the middle of Barta’a – which lies about three kilometers (1.8 miles) east of Wadi Ara in the north of the country, amid stone buildings and a lean-to made of trees – is a small valley and riverbed filled with stones, vegetation and garbage. I hear clucking chickens and wailing cats. Standing here in the fairly narrow riverbed, I am smack on the Green Line [the pre-1967 border of Israel].
This valley is the border between Israel and the PA, possibly the only place in the country where an Israeli from Tel Aviv or Be’er Sheva can enter PA territory without going through a checkpoint or a terminal or seeing a warning sign. Two steps forward and you’re in Palestine; two steps back and you’re in Israel. Behind the houses is the spring that lured the Kabha hamula (clan) to settle here.
It’s not entirely clear when the Kabha clan left the Beit Jubrin area, near Hebron, and settled in a village adjacent to Wadi Ara for its spring and good soil. What is perfectly clear, though, is that the clan has been severely jolted by the vicissitudes of history in the past 70 years. In 1949, the village was split in two in the Rhodes Armistice Agreements: western Barta’a went to Israel, eastern Barta’a to Jordan. The clan was split into two camps. In the first years it was still possible to cross from one side to the other, even if Jordanian and Israeli soldiers made the passage difficult. But then, in the wake of violent events in the area, a fence was erected between the two parts of the village. In 1956, for example, the Israeli press reported an incident in which Israeli customs personnel were fired on from Jordanian Barta’a, triggering a battle in which four people were killed and many others fled their homes.
The two Barta’as were reunited after Israel’s conquest of the West Bank in 1967. Movement back and forth was facilitated and meetings of the two populations became increasingly frequent. But the disparities loomed large. The inhabitants of Israeli Barta’a held blue ID cards of Israeli citizens; those in the eastern section were under military occupation.
In his 1988 book “The Yellow Wind,” David Grossman wrote about a tense meeting between clan members from the two sides of the village after 1967. One reason for the fraught atmosphere was the fact that Israeli Barta’a was economically prosperous compared to the former Jordanian half. A resident of the Israeli part of the village described to Grossman the renewed encounter with his family from the other side: “Jordanian soldiers lived among them and intimidated them; they were trained to say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ … People pay less attention to their father’s advice among us, and every person sets out on his own.”
Grossman then quoted something a young man from eastern Barta’a wrote about the people on the other side in 1971: “They are shallow politically. They do not have a serious foundation for understanding current events … They took the shell of modern society and threw away the content.”
The new enclaves
Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, eastern Barta’a was transferred to the PA. The latest twist in the plot occurred when the separation barrier cut off Palestinian Barta’a from the West Bank. Although the two parts of the village weren’t disconnected again like in the 1950s, a new enclave was created: 4,500 Palestinians – the vast majority of them in eastern Barta’a, subjects of the PA but on the Israeli side of the wall – are separated from the West Bank. If someone in eastern Barta’a suffers a heart attack and has to get to a hospital urgently, the ambulance, which will usually come from Jenin, has to go through the Reihan checkpoint. In such cases, it’s preferable for the person to get to the checkpoint on his own.
According to attorney Sonia Boulos from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 80 percent of the businesses in eastern Barta’a folded after the barrier was built – every truck carrying merchandise from the West Bank has to go through the checkpoint. As a result, the residents and shopkeepers have to buy products in the Barta’a market, at what they consider to be high prices.
Sound familiar? If you think about it, eastern Barta’a, on the Israeli side of the barrier, is a mirror image of Ras Khamis and Kafr Akeb in East Jerusalem – neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty but on the Palestinian side of the wall. All these tenuous spaces reflect the creativity displayed by the occupation mechanism in connection with the separation barrier. Few people today are acquainted with all the enclaves, the changing rules that apply in them and the checkpoints related to them.
These developments made life more difficult for the people in the Barta’a enclave and accelerated the evolution of Barta’a market – which is entirely in the village’s eastern section – into a bustling commercial zone.
“Barta’a was built from the ruins of Jenin,” a young man from Jenin who works in his father’s spice store tells me. “The market here began to expand after the second intifada and the destruction of Jenin by the Israeli army. People moved their businesses from Jenin to Barta’a.” The proximity to Wadi Ara and its large population of Palestinian Israeli turned out to be a goldmine for the merchants. Around 80 percent of the customers here are Palestinian Israelis; the others are Jews who come for the low prices.
The purchasing power of Palestinian Israelis is one of the pillars of the Palestinian economy. According to a recent Bir Zeit University survey, Palestinians in Israel spend 1.1 billion shekels (about $288 million) a year on goods and services in the West Bank. But what are the criteria for examining the Palestinian economy on both sides of the Green Line? I ask a leading Palestinian economist, Raja Khalidi, whether there are separate Israeli and Palestinian economies.
Yusuf Jassem: ‘In our town, no one takes any interest in politics. We compete over who makes more money.’ Photos by Moti Milrod
Unified approach required
“The most interesting drama of recent years,” he replies, “is the tightening of the economic ties between the Arabs in Israel and the West Bank. After all, before 1948 the Triangle [a concentration of Arab towns and villages in central Israel], Galilee and the West Bank constituted one commercial region. They were separated for 20 years, reunited after the Israeli conquest in 1967 and separated again in the wake of the second intifada and the building of the wall.
“The latest modification occurred in 2008, when Israel launched a policy of economic peace and support for the government of [then-PA Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad, and removed many checkpoints and restrictions on movement – especially in the north, in Qalqilyah, Nablus and Jenin.
“Since then,” he continues, “we have seen a large flow of Palestinian Israelis to the West Bank, where they mainly spend money on services – restaurants, hotels, shopping, tourism in Jenin and Jericho. That movement is constantly increasing. In 2013, the Palestinian police recorded a million visits by Israeli Arabs in the West Bank. Without the purchasing power of the Arabs from Israel, Jenin, for example, would become one of the poorest communities in the West Bank. Another good example is eastern Barta’a. Everyone in Qalqilyah, Jenin and Nablus is aware of their economic dependence on the Israeli Arabs, and they are adjusting the codes, prices and even traffic arrangements to their ways. In contrast, the Israeli Arabs play no economic role in Ramallah.”
There’s also economic movement in the opposite direction, right?
“Indeed, it is a two-way street. There are Israeli-Arab products from Umm al-Fahm or Nazareth – rice, labaneh and more – that are sold throughout the West Bank. And there is a large flow of farmhands from the West Bank – some legal, some not – who work in Israeli-Arabs’ businesses. In the Tamra region, for example, you’ll find thousands of workers from the West Bank during the harvest season. But the first type of movement I mentioned is more significant.”
Khalidi maintains that Israel is implementing an economic policy aimed at benefiting the Jews, and in response the Palestinians in both Israel and under Palestinian Authority control need to be unified – irrespective of their different political beliefs – into an economic alliance that will serve as a counterpoint to Israel’s economic clout.
“Before 1948, there were two economies, Arab and Jewish, that were components of the British Mandate economy,” Khalidi explains. “But since Israel conquered the West Bank, there has been only one economic regime: the Israeli one. The regulations, currency, control of the movement of goods, legal framework – all are determined by Israel. In other words, all the Palestinians live under the Israeli economic regime. But the Palestinian economy is split into several regimes. The Israeli Arabs are supposedly free of the restrictions and have access to the full potential of the Israeli economy, but they suffer from discrimination in regard to investments, employment and commerce.”
The West Bank, too, is not exactly an economic zone.
“The Israelis view the West Bank as one region, but everyone who lives there is looking at a few regions. For example, Area A, which is under the control of the PA; Area C, which constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank and is under Israeli control; East Jerusalem, which is a separate region to which the PA has no access; the Gaza Strip, of course; and Hebron, which has a kind of independent economy – you know, many Hebron businessmen have established factories in China and are manufacturing products there. These economic regions are largely separated, and each region is under different Israeli regulations.”
Can this situation be changed?
“The different regions have to tighten their relations, in order to create a joint economy such as existed before 1948. In short: an Arab-Arab market. Only as one force is it possible to create a functioning economy and maintain fairer ties with Israel’s strong global economy. Recall that in 1944, the Palestinians accounted for 60 percent of the population of Palestine and the Jews for 40 percent, and the division of money was roughly 55 percent in Jewish hands and 45 percent in Arab hands. At present, the population of the Israeli economic region is 52 percent Jews and 48 percent Palestinians, but the Palestinians’ share of the economy is only 15 percent. This disparity must be reduced – and that won’t happen because of Israeli generosity. Israel benefits from the existence of the separate regions. All the efforts that were made to merge the Israeli and Palestinian economy failed. The only viable idea is a joint Arab-Arab economy on both sides of the Green Line.”
Barta’a certainly represents such a model of cross-border Arab-Arab commerce. An Israeli-Palestinian businessman I spoke to observed that, naturally, the Barta’a model is good for Palestinians from the West Bank, who benefit from the buying power of the Palestinians in Israel. But on the other hand, the latter earn far more from commerce with the Jews, meaning Arab-Arab commerce is not a reasonable option.
Mujira Kabha and Mohanad Kabha. ‘One thing is clear after the 2015 election,’ says Mohanad, ‘we are the demon. If you want to succeed politically in Israel, revile the Arab.’ Photo by Moti Milrod
There are a great many women in the market, mostly in small groups. They come from Carmiel, Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm and Jerusalem. Rayan, for example, a young woman in a shiny leather jacket and boots, is here with her elderly mother. She was born in the village of Baana, in Galilee, was a psychology major in the Hebrew University, and works in Jerusalem. Her mother first came here to buy clothes ahead of a pilgrimage to Mecca and fell in love with the prices. They now come her to shop every six months or so. Standing next to a store that sells women’s underclothing are young mothers from Nazareth, here to buy toys for their children and some clothes for themselves. “We’re here every couple of months,” one of them tells me, “but lately the prices have gone up.”
Tawfik, the proprietor, is from the village of Silat al-Harithiya, near Jenin. We’re having a coffee in the colorless store, surrounded by brassieres, panties, stockings and new nightgowns, which Tawfik imports from Turkey. Until 2005, he had a business in Jenin. But after the second intifada and the destruction wrought by the Israeli army in that city, fewer Israeli Arabs came – Jews didn’t even consider the idea – and sales plunged. He looked for a new location. He’s an engineer by profession, having studied in Jordan at the end of the 1970s, after which he worked for many years in construction in Pardes Hannah, north of Netanya. However, by the late 1990s, he encountered difficulties entering Israel and started to advance his own initiatives.
“I am here because of the Israeli Arabs,” he says. “After the collapse in Jenin, I concluded that my business should be close to them. And they can get here easily, without checkpoints or other obstacles. Green Line or no Green Line – I am not interested in that, or in whether there will be one state or two. The important thing is to have free passage and for the economic ties to grow stronger.”
Sitting next to him is Ali, a young man wearing jeans and a floral shirt, from a family of footwear merchants in Tul Karm. His new shoe store is across the road. Both of them say business here has been slack for some time. The years 2007-2008 were the market’s peak period, Tawfik relates. “I would take in 8,000 shekels a day back then, but now I barely make 1,500 shekels.” Ali adds, “Yesterday, in our three stores in Tul Karm we did 12,000 shekels, and in Barta’a I came out with 400.” People don’t have the money these days, they both say.
To reach eastern Barta’a, merchants like Jassem, Ali and Tawfik, who come from the West Bank, have to go through the Reihan checkpoint. For that, they need special permits from the District Coordination and Liaison Office. The permit states that they are allowed to be present on the “seam line” for commercial purposes – and it’s only valid for Barta’a, of course. If they leave the village and head for Wadi Ara, say, they will be arrested and punished.
Israeli flags fly on the streetlights leading to the Reihan checkpoint, about three kilometers east of Barta’a but on the “Israeli side” of the security barrier. A large checkpoint that is managed not by the Israeli army but a civilian firm, Reihan is considered a “soft” crossing point, where the checks are less stringent and passage is quick – certainly in comparison to checkpoints such as Eyal or Qalandiyah.
I arrive and observe the busy scene. At all hours of the day, passengers disembark from taxis in front of the crossing, which is surrounded by fences, and cars go through from both sides. Walking along the long checkpoint, I pass young women who are returning to Tul Karm. Suddenly, an armed security man appears and tells me to accompany him. We leave the sleeve and I am surrounded by grim-faced guards. “For all we know, you could be from Hezbollah.” After a brief interrogation, I am allowed to leave.
At the taxi stand, I meet Hussein Maqbal, who is also from the Kabha family, though he doesn’t have its name. He lives in eastern Barta’a and is a member of the local council there. He also drives a taxi between Reihan and Barta’a, picking up people at the checkpoint and taking them to the market, and then back to the checkpoint. Many of his clients are workers coming from the West Bank – not only those who work in Barta’a but also in Hadera, Afula and Tel Aviv. He’s 50 and his CV includes jobs in Hadera and Jerusalem. “I was a plasterer for many years, and after that I worked for eight years in a restaurant in Beit Dagan,” he relates. I ask him what he does on the local council in eastern Barta’a. “There are many problems because of the checkpoint and the distance from the West Bank,” he says. “But now we are promoting the market and we also want to build residential buildings in eastern Barta’a. I know many people from the West Bank who would like to live on this side of the wall.”
The end of the main street of the market twists into a steep decline to western Barta’a. At the bottom of the descent, it’s no longer clear whether the stores are in Israel or the West Bank. Merchants standing around the square, buckets teeming with fish at their feet, say we are roughly in Israel. The best evidence of this is an election campaign poster in Arabic touting the Joint Arab List, which is still here two weeks after the election.
On western Barta’a’s main street, I talk with three 11th-grade biology and chemistry majors in the local high school – Hamam Kabha and Abbas Kabha from Barta’a, and Ahmed Sharqiya from Arara.
The market in Barta’a. If a Palestinian wants to sell to Palestinian Israelis, this is the place to come. Photo by Moti Milrod
I ask them about the recent election campaign. The only memory they seem to have retained is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remark about Arabs flocking to the polling stations in their droves. “I understood that I am a stranger,” Hamam says. “The prime minister said clearly that he loves Jews and hates us,” Ahmed observes, and Abbas adds, “Netanyahu is a racist and doesn’t like Arabs, but he also exposed the face of the whole Israeli society.”
These youngsters hardly ever encounter Jews, apart from Hamam, who plays for Barta’a’s soccer team in a mixed league and is a fan of Real Madrid and Maccabi Haifa. “The Jewish students don’t like to study with Arabs,” Ahmed says. Abbas: “Studying with Jews would help me improve the language, but Jews keep their distance.” What about the Green Line that passes through the middle of Barta’a, I ask them: How real is it in their political imagination and in their daily life? It turns out they rarely cross the Green Line into the West Bank – maybe once every few months. “There is law and order in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hadera,” Abbas says, “and you understand how things work. But there was no order on the road in Tul Karm – it’s all chaos.” Ahmed adds that he didn’t care much for Nablus, for the same reason. I ask about their peers in eastern Barta’a, who are also from the Kabha clan. They say that they spend time with them: it’s family and there are no differences between them other than money – their parents are usually better off than the eastern Barta’a families.
What kind of future political settlement would they like to see? They’re in favor of one state for the two peoples, but two states is alright, too. Any political arrangement that creates equality between Jews and Arabs looks reasonable to them. In any case, they are less troubled by the future comprehensive agreement than by everyday wrongs. Abbas is disturbed by the situation of the “unrecognized” Bedouin villages in the Negev, which face demolition; Ahmed talks about the army having demolished his uncle’s house at Katzir Junction.
Hamam’s father, from eastern Barta’a, received Israeli citizenship when he married Hamam’s mother (marriage was also a strategy of young people from eastern Barta’a to move to the western section). However, since the amendment to the Citizenship Law in 2003, Israel no longer grants citizenship to West Bank Palestinians who marry Israelis, and that infuriates Hamam. “We see things through the prism of our Palestinian identity,” Ahmed says.
Ahmed’s father, a veteran teacher from Barta’a, enters the conversation. “That’s the difference between today’s students and the way it used to be,” he says. “Twenty years ago, high-school students did not term themselves Palestinian. If you asked them about the Palestinians in the West Bank, they would say they had no connection with them, they wanted to be Israelis. Everything has changed since the second intifada. The young people are more nationalist, more closely tied to the homeland. They feel they are part of the Palestinian people.”
Next I meet with two young men, Mohanad Kabha, married and the father of three children, who holds an MA in Hebrew language from Kibbutzim College of Education in Tel Aviv and teaches in the Barta’a high school; and Mujira Kabha, a graduate of the nursing school at the University of Haifa, who works at Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center, Hadera. Both were born in Barta’a after the 1967 Six-Day War.
I ask them whether anyone in Barta’a is not a member of the clan. “You’re welcome to look,” Mujira says. “They’re not easy to find, but they do exist.”
For Mohanad and Mujira’s generation, born in unified Barta’a after 1967, the first intifada was the formative political event. In its wake, questions began to arise in regard to identity, political approach, family vs. state. In their childhood memories, they are swept up in the Palestinians’ uprising against the occupation.
Mohanad: “Everything changed in the first intifada. You saw members of your family oppressed, humiliated, shot with rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, people wounded. I remember that when I was a boy, the boundary between the two Barta’as was one of the points of friction between kids from eastern Barta’a and Israeli army soldiers. A lot of kids went there to stir things up. We would stand nearby and not find our place; we didn’t know where we were in all this. Sometimes the kids from the other side shouted to us to join them – that we shouldn’t be afraid, that we are all Palestinians.”
Mujira: “In that period, as a boy, I first encountered an Israeli army search of our house because they suspected we were assisting the uprising. Suddenly our house is shot at and you find bullet holes above the window.”
Was that where your identity as Palestinian Israelis was shaped?
Mujira: “Our identity was also influenced by the fact that, in the past few years, the ties between the two sides have become much stronger. We spend more time in the West Bank. Even though Israel is against family unification, that doesn’t prevent young men and women from Barta’a from marrying someone from the other side.”
One effect of the amendment to the Citizenship Law is that reverse moves sometimes take place: the wife from western Barta’a moves in with her husband in eastern Barta’a. Here’s the testimony of Mison Kabha, who was married in 2001 (originally published on the Haokets site in Hebrew and Arabic): “Things began to get even more complicated after I moved to the Palestinian side of Barta’a with my husband. Because I lived there, I lost my health insurance. The hospital demanded 6,000 shekels when I went there to give birth. That was a hard time, my mental state was not stable … Later, I rented a place in Israel and lived there alone with my baby.”
Mujira agrees that the movement between western Barta’a and the West Bank is a two-way affair. “It’s no longer a case of people moving from there to here. Many young people from our part of Barta’a are going to the West Bank to study.”
According to Mohanad, “What David Grossman wrote is long out of date. The closeness between the Palestinians here and in the West Bank has increased a great deal; the cultural and political differences have almost disappeared and it’s a two-way connection in fields like literature, cinema and the economy, too. Nursing and medical departments in West Bank universities are full of Palestinian Israelis. You see educated people in eastern Barta’a now, just as in western Barta’a.”
Although media reports talk about the rise in the number of Arab students in Israel, there has also been a sharp increase in the number of Palestinian Israelis attending schools in the West Bank. For example, of the 7,000 students who enrolled in the Arab American University of Jenin in 2014, 3,000 came from Israel.
Mohanad also refutes the claim that the separation barrier inflicted a serious economic blow on eastern Barta’a. “Look, the market is an initiative of eastern Barta’a. It’s completely on their side and they profit from it, and it’s the main reason the economic disparities have decreased. People on the eastern side are now building large homes and doing well economically. They’re even building towers there.”
I ask whether they think, as some do, that the intensification of Jewish racism against Palestinian Israelis is due in part to the economic advancement of the latter. They both reject the idea. Mohanad says, “You know that Mitzpeh Ilan [one of a series of Jewish hilltop communities built in the Wadi Ara area], which is near us, was included in the national plan of priority sites and we were left out? There are a large number of poor children in the Arab communities, most families still have only one provider, there are no leisure areas and no master plans for construction. Wherever you look, the Jews enjoy privileges we can only dream about. That’s part of the Israeli state structure.”
Mujira: “You have to remember something else about the distinctive traits of the Palestinians in Israel. After 1948, many villages in Israel took in people who were expelled or left their homes – the Nakba refugees. They arrived with nothing, after a great disaster. Their absorption in the villages is a basic element in the poverty of the Palestinians in Israel.”
Mohanad: “I see the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as one big refugee camp, even a concentration camp. There is no state and no genuine self-rule, everything is hemmed in by walls and all movements are dependent on Israel.”
Many Palestinians are talking about a one-state solution. What do you think?
Mujira: “I think the talk about a one-state solution by West Bank Palestinians is the result of frustration.”
Mohanad: “Already in the Oslo Accords the Palestinians stripped naked for the Israelis, but nothing came of it. Now Israel society is moving to the far right, and Palestinian society in the West Bank is moving to the far left, and few advocate Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. One state or two states is not the right question. The question is who is in favor of Israel-Palestinian coexistence and who is not. Those who don’t want coexistence are growing stronger, so there is no model for an agreement.”
Mujira: “In 1982, the Zionist left removed the Israeli army from Lebanon. In 1989, I remember that we formed a hand-in-hand circle in Wadi Ara – Jews and Arabs together – to protest [Yitzhak] Rabin’s policy of breaking bones. I was there, and it seemed to me that the Israeli left had the role of being the country’s conscience, and that an alliance could be created. But today I don’t see it as having a chance.”
Mohanad: “Everyone here voted for the Joint Arab List. You have to understand: we are not dependent on the Jewish left and its goodwill. Our identity as Palestinians has changed. We will not forgo things that my grandfather did, because perhaps he had no choice. Not land, not education, not rights. I see the rights a Jew has and I want the same thing. It’s that simple.”
Before I part with Mohanad, he says, “One thing is clear after the 2015 election: we are the demon. If you want to succeed politically in Israel, revile the Arab, threaten him, make up stories about him. You won’t pay a price for that; on the contrary, you’ll just become stronger and win support. That’s the story of the election, that’s what’s engraved in the memory.”
Journey’s end: Ghost timeAs Barta’a recedes into the distance, I am struck by the idea that for many years we have been moving in the opposite direction to the two-state vision – rowing a boat that’s relentlessly pulling away from the shore, yet continuing to believe that through some bold initiative or formative historical moment, we will return to dry land.
The market in Barta’a. If a Palestinian wants to sell to Palestinian Israelis, this is the place to come. Photo by Moti Milrod