Explaining the Occupation to Polite Jewish Journalists

Settlers were only too happy to tell their story to a rather bemused audience.

Judy Maltz

NEVE DANIEL, WEST BANK – We live in harmony with our Arab neighbors, local resident Shuli Moalem reassures the delegation of Jewish journalists as they admire the view from the scenic lookout. We ride on the same roads, we shop at the same supermarket, and we get treated at the same infirmary down the road there in Efrat.

For many of the 40 or so participants on this tour – among them journalists from Jewish media outlets in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Russia, Belgium, France and Holland – this is a first trip ever, or at least the first in a very long time, beyond Israel’s internationally recognized borders. They’re here participating in a four-day summit on Jewish media, and the Israeli government offices sponsoring this trip have put careful thought into what they will and won’t see and hear on this day-long break from their panel discussions in Jerusalem.

Many of the others they will meet later today will reiterate Moalem’s message of harmonious coexistence: Despite what you hear and read in other media, these journalists will be told, life is good here for all sides concerned, which is why the recent kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers came as such a shock to us, and which is why the two-state solution is unnecessary, not to mention unviable. To hear it from some, the primary reason these Jewish settlers are disinclined to uproot themselves from these disputed areas is that they would miss their Arab neighbors too much if they did so.

Moalem, a Knesset member representing the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, receives a warm round of applause when she bids the journalists farewell, reminding them that “your visit here is both an expression of support for the Jewish world and for our Zionist world.” And before long, they are back on the special bus with protective glass windows heading out to their next destination in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc: the bus stop where the teenage boys were kidnapped almost two weeks ago to the day.

Waiting for the group is Ze'ev Elkin, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, a member of the ruling Likud Party and a longtime West Bank resident himself. Only then do the journalists discover that the woman with the same last name on the bus, Maria Elkin, is in fact his wife. Maria, it turns out, is the Government Press Office’s liaison for Eastern European press, and quite a large contingent attending the conference hail from the former Soviet Union (though, for some reason, the organizers neglected to provide them with interpreters). Her Ukrainian-born husband tells of the formative years he spent in Gush Etzion and about his special connection to this region. When the organizers motion that time is running out, he ignores them.

“Is he also like this at home?” one of them whispers to Maria. “Even more at home,” she responds.

Back on board the bus, the chaperones promise the journalists they are about to witness with their own eyes the greatest symbol of coexistence in this part of the world: The Rami Levi supermarket in Gush Etzion – a place where Jews and Arabs shop together and work together. And as icing on the cake, they will hear about it all from none other than the man behind the blockbuster brand.

For lack of space in the supermarket itself, the journalists are ushered to the back where they are seated in its attached synagogue. And after telling his rags-to-riches story, Levi fields a host of questions from the group, ranging from “does the supermarket also have a mosque?” (answer: no) to “are there ever tensions between Jews and Arabs on your staff?” (answer: nothing out of the ordinary, and often it’s the Arabs who quarrel among themselves).

The Foreign Ministry chaperone coaxes the supermarket magnate to talk about his activities in BTI, a forum of Israeli and Palestinian businessmen and women, whose mission, as Levi defines it, is to “encourage our leaders not to stop talking about peace.” What does BTI stand for? Levy doesn’t remember.

Meanwhile, Miri, a woman from Neve Daniel who has joined the group for part of the day, shares some of her personal experiences about standing in line at the Rami Levi cash register. “This is the one place where I get to meet and talk to people from the nearby Arab villages,” she says. “Very often,” she discloses, “we find ourselves standing in line complaining about how prices have risen.”

Up until now, the journalists, all guests of the Israeli government, are quite well behaved. They clap politely after the speakers have finished delivering their talks, they exchange business cards with their hosts, and more importantly, they refrain from tough questions.

That is, until Davidi Perl, the new mayor of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, joins them after lunch. It all starts off well and good, with Perl declaring to his audience that “we don’t teach tolerance here – we live tolerance here.” He then proceeds to divide the local Arabs into two distinct groups, referring to them, not in so many words, as the good Arabs and the bad Arabs. “Those in the villages close to us, we work with them, we shop with them at Rami Levi and are happy with them,” he says. “But there is the group of Arabs closer to Hebron and in the big cities, and that’s much more complicated.” 

Prodded a bit, Perl acknowledges there are limits to the amount of coexistence he can stomach, even when it comes to the good Arabs. “I’m not happy for my kids to play soccer or go to the swimming pool with Arab kids,” he says. “We’re different cultures. We don’t want to intermarry with them.”

Somehow, a collective decision has been taken at this point among the journalists to remove the kid gloves and ask some tough questions. So tough, in fact, that the organizers forcefully break up the discussion and herd them back to the bus. “A disgrace – an absolute disgrace that a Jewish person could speak like that,” remarks one journalist under her breath as she makes her way out.

En route to Rawabi, the new Palestinian city being built from scratch just outside Ramallah, the journalists are informed of a change of rules at their next meeting. Originally, the conversation with Bashar Masri, the Palestinian-American businessman and entrepreneur who conceived the billion dollar plus project, was supposed to have been on the record, but without bombastic headlines, as the Foreign Ministry chaperone relayed her instructions. Suddenly, the journalists are told, it will be “an open conversation, but off the record.”

The visit to Rawabi is clearly intended to lend some balance to the itinerary – showing the journalists not only how Jews live in the West Bank, but also how Palestinians live, or at least how a very specific group of Palestinians could live one day if Masri is able to obtain all the permits he needs from the Israeli government to proceed with his super-ambitious project.

On the bus ride, the journalists speculate about what’s behind the latest change of rules. Could it be that at this very delicate time in Israeli-Palestinians relations, Masri is afraid of being called out for meeting with an Israeli-government-sponsored delegation? Or could it be that Israeli government officials are afraid that Masri might take advantage of the platform to say nasty things about them?

What’s clear is that the Israeli government likes bringing delegations to visit Masri because his project shows a different face of the occupation. What’s also clear is that Masri needs the government because without its approval, he can’t get basic things for his city like water. That doesn’t prevent him, though, from opening his remarks to the journalists by declaring that the creation of this new city does not mean that the occupation is acceptable or sustainable. Oh, and by the way, as the journalists were later informed, everything he said they could eventually quote on the record.

More confusion ensues at the next stop on the trip – an overview located near the settlement of Kokhav Hashahar, on the cusp of the Jordan Valley, where the journalists were supposed to hear from Uzi Dayan, the former deputy chief of staff and national security adviser, about the strategic importance of this particular region for Israel. Except that Dayan was called away, to be replaced at the last minute by his more militant cousin, Dani Dayan, the chief foreign envoy for the Yesha council of settlements and formerly its director general.

The Dayan stand-in appears not to have been apprised of the fact that he is to limit his remarks to the strategic importance of the Jordan Valley and not branch out into Judea and Samaria. “I’ll talk about whatever I want,” Dayan tells the Foreign Ministry chaperone, who spells out the restrictions. “That’s not what we agreed,” responds the chaperone.

“Then I’m leaving,” says Dayan, and begins heading toward his car, before the chaperone acquiesces. “OK, talk about whatever you want,” he says.

Dayan’s message is a variation on the overriding theme of the day, expressed in some form or another by the other settler representatives. “The bad news I have for you is that I don’t see any peace agreement in the foreseeable future,” he says. “The good news is that that’s not as bad as it sounds.”

And one final change of plans, as the journalists board the bus yet again for their next destination. “We’re not going to have time for our tree-planting ceremony at the JNF forest,” the chaperone informs them. “But no need to worry because each of you will get a certificate tomorrow validating that a tree has been planted in your name.”

No loud protests were heard.

Judy Maltz