A Good Friend Jumps the Fence

Residents of Jabal Mukkaber in Jerusalem fight against its impending bisection by the separation fence.

Golda Meir would have described a person like Andreas van Agt as "a great friend of Israel" and he certainly was - until two or three years ago. When he was prime minister of Holland, he gave an enthusiastic speech that absolved Israel of all responsibility for the massacre in Sabra and Chatila in 1982. "What a fool that prime minister was," van Agt said this week; he tends to speak about himself in the third person.

At 75 he has silver hair, a hawk-like nose and a royal medal of honor on the lapel of his jacket. Part passionate crusader, part poignant joker, he is more than pleased to be interviewed about the big change he has undergone: Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian Golda Meir whom he visited this week, could consider him "a great friend of the Palestinians."

Every newspaper in Holland and even CNN was interested in this story this week, and between one shot glass and another and puffs on a Dutch cigar, he has not tired of repeating it. He was a professor of criminal law and his sympathy for Israel reflected a desire to perpetuate the self-image of the good Dutch people who saved Jews during World War II. As a Catholic, van Agt also shared a sense of guilt over the behavior of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.

A generation of new historians that arose in Holland shattered the myth about the rescue of the Jews: Many Dutch people collaborated with the Nazis, usually out of cowardice. As a result, sympathy for Israel took on new momentum: It was based on a sense of guilt. As it turns out, Israel profited twice. Van Agt made more and more "blah-blah-blah" speeches (as he puts it) in favor of Israel. He also has an embarrassing secret that he carries with him, and now for the first time, he is coming out with it: During the Yom Kippur War, when he was deputy prime minister, he turned a blind eye when the defense minister permitted American jets that were rushing military aid to Israel to make an interim stop at Schiphol airport, without the rest of the government ministers knowing about it. Yes, yes -shame on him, that deputy prime minister.

Meanwhile, many books about Pius XII have been published and today he no longer appears to have been as despicable as he was made out to be; van Agt is no longer sure that everything he used to think about "The Deputy" was correct. In February 2002, van Agt read an article in the International Herald Tribune about the motivations of suicide bombers, written by Palestinian journalist Lamis Andoni. And then it happened: He was shocked to the depths of his being. He will never forget the headline: "Give young Palestinians a reason to go on living." At around the same time, he learned that Israel was building more and more settlements in the West Bank, in contradiction to the Oslo agreement. This outraged the jurist in him: An agreement is an agreement, right? And so he became a great friend of the Palestinians.

He does not oppose Israel's right to exist in the 1967 borders; he does oppose terror, but understands that its source lies in the occupation. He could live with the separation fence, if it was built within Israeli territory. He does not agree to it being built east of the Green Line. The withdrawal from Gaza doesn't impress him: All in all, Israel only did what is good for it. It doesn't need to be thanked for that. And oppression of the Palestinians goes on. This week, in Hebron, he saw with his own eyes a woman settler throw a bottle at a Palestinian woman who was passing by.

Penitents often tend to be very zealous. Van Agt also analyzes the change he underwent in psychological terms: He is angry at himself and also scornful. How could he have been so wrong in regard to Israel? And the angrier he gets at himself, the angrier he feels toward Israel. Europe is full of people like him at the moment; since early summer, the territories have been inundated with various peace delegations. Van Agt also came here as part of such a delegation; his friendship for the Palestinians keeps bringing him back. This is his third visit with them since the beginning of the year.

The residents of the village of Jabal Mukkaber in southeast Jerusalem are fond of small white flags; they wave from almost every roof and balcony and give the impression that the village has just now surrendered to the Israel Defense Forces. But close to 40 years after the village was conquered in the Six-Day War, the white flags only signify that someone in the household has gotten married; the custom is to leave them in place until they get worn out by hot winds and winter storms, usually until after the birth of the first child.

Last week, two more white flags went up in the village, one at the groom's home and one at the bride's. The fireworks that were set off in honor of the occasion lit up the entire village. But the groom came from the Sheikh Sa'ad neighborhood, which is located in West Bank territory, and the bride's family lives in the Israeli part of the village. The bride has a blue Israeli identity card, while the groom possesses an orange one, like the residents of the territories. Like many of the villagers, he is a plasterer; when he goes to work in Jerusalem, he takes a risk.

Jabal Mukkaber is named for Omar Ibn al-Khattab, a disciple of Mohammed and the second Caliph, who cried out "Allahu Akbar" here. Sheikh Sa'ad was a Muslim sage from Spain. While returning from Mecca one time, he stopped at Jabal Mukkaber and died there. Many miracles and wonders are ascribed to him; his grave is said to protect the village from thieves. It's not easy to figure out why Israel annexed only six of the village's seven neighborhoods. The village's total population is currently about 14,000. Whatever the reason, up to now, the dividing line between the annexed neighborhoods and Sheikh Sa'ad that remained outside has been essentially nonexistent. Holders of blue and orange identity cards lived in either part and the Jerusalem municipality provided services to all of them.

Some identify the place with the Hill of Evil Counsel from the New Testament; the UN headquarters, formerly the residence of the British High Commissioner, is not far away. Nowadays, a large guard tower is going up on the edge of the village; it seems to have been brought from somewhere else, but it apparently is connected to the mighty concrete wall that is supposed to isolate Jerusalem from the West Bank. The wall is slated to bisect Jabal Mukkaber; the Sheikh Sa'ad neighborhood will remain outside and its 1,700 residents will be cut off from their relatives and from the center of their lives, including workplaces, schools and hospitals. In Sheikh Sa'ad there is no grocery store or post office branch; the clinic only operates twice a week for a few hours; the schools only go up to sixth grade. The nearest village is far from there, separated from Jabal Mukkaber by desert wadis that are home to foxes and snakes; there is no road. Holders of blue identity cards who have built homes in Sheikh Sa'ad stand to lose their property.

Two weeks after several thousand Israelis were evacuated from Gush Katif and their communities destroyed, in accordance with the separation principle, there's something surrealistic about the demand of the Palestinians from Sheikh Sa'ad to live in Israel. From the roof of one house in the village, you can see Talpiot, the Jerusalem neighborhood that is home to Hillel Bardin, a veteran peace activist who is trying to help his Arab neighbors through, among other things, all sorts of demonstrations of friendship.

Bardin and friends pose a thorny challenge to the accepted line of thinking on the left: In Jabal Mukkaber, the correct leftist position actually requires annexation and inclusion, not disengagement and separation.

Village residents are not fighting against the wall itself; they just want to extend it, so that it will encompass Sheikh Sa'ad, too. Holders of orange identity cards are not seeking to exchange them for blue ones; they just wish to be issued permanent entry permits to Israel. The Defense Ministry insists on having the separation fence stick to the predetermined route, arguing that Sheikh Sa'ad and Jabal Mukkaber are two distinct localities. But in other places, the Defense Ministry is also leaving tens of thousands of Jerusalem residents, holders of blue identity cards, outside the separation fence. The authorities also claimed that this is considered a hostile village; the residents presented a letter from Yitzhak Rabin, ostensibly proving the opposite.

Residents of Jabal Mukkaber have gone to court and are currently awaiting a ruling. Meanwhile, the fence still stands. On one hill, not far from Jabal Mukkaber, it is built in a half-loop visible for miles, and appears seemingly uncompromising. The peculiar route was meant to include (and not, heaven forbid, abandon to the Palestinians) some archaeological ruins that were discovered there. In Jabal Mukkaber, they say that what could be done for the good of the dead also ought to be done for the good of the living.