'There's One Good Thing Israeli Settlers Do'

A Swedish former NGO observer who believes Israel can't stop terrorism by raiding homes and arresting kids, a French student who found Paris boring after living in Israel

Hans and Nora Jonsson.
Tomer Appelbaum

Hans Jonsson, 66, and Nora Jonsson, 27; live in Stockholm and arriving from there

Hello, what will you be doing in Israel?

Nora: We’re going to the wedding of my second cousin in Caesarea and then we’ll sightsee in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It’s my third time here.

Hans: I have been to Israel many times. The first time was in 1984. My cousin was a volunteer in a kibbutz, fell in love, converted to Judaism and got married. And I went to visit her. At that time I hardly knew anything about Israel. In the late 1960s there were many antiwar movements in the world and they raised broader colonialist questions, and then the horizons opened. Since then I have deepened my interest. My cousin is very national-oriented and supports Israel. I am more critical, but we are on good terms, despite the political arguments.

What did you do here, apart from arguing with your cousin?

I was an observer for the Council of Churches, even though I am not religiously observant. The organization has observers from 20 countries who report to the United Nations and to UNICEF. We come to talk and look, and we always obey the soldiers. I came twice for that, half a year ago and four years ago. Then, too, it was in the days after [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu was elected, and the feeling of hope collapsed. You could actually see that.

What else did you see?

We were at checkpoints in Bethlehem and Qalandiyah. Half a year ago, I saw that more people were being turned back at the terminals and more soldiers said not to take pictures or to delete pictures. I visited the south Hebron Hills, where people wanted to build homes because their families grew, but the prospect of getting a permit is zero, so they build anyway and get a demolition order. I saw soldiers raiding homes at night, saying that a 15-year-old boy had thrown stones. The boys admit it, but they are so young that sometimes it’s hard to know if they did it.

In any case, raiding homes and arresting boys is not what will stop terrorism. In my opinion, it will only increase it. These boys will miss half a year of school, and when they get back from prison they will only be tougher. It’s hard for the parents to get them to return to school. That is not the right way to do things.

A very delicate way of putting it.

What amazes me most is that this is an abnormal situation that has been normalized. Sometimes you see that both sides know this is happening. In one village we met Palestinians who succeeded in to preventing violence in the demonstrations. They go, demonstrate, and the soldiers detain them and the Palestinians give them a lecture about the occupation. It’s almost an agreed ritual, and after an hour everyone goes home. No one shouts.

Or everyone shouts and no one listens.

Yes, there is strong propaganda from both sides. Even the fellow who managed to calm the violence in the demonstrations was eventually arrested as a terrorist. On the one hand, it’s hard not to think that it’s unfair when you’re in the West Bank. On the other hand, I chose to be an observer because it’s important to see for myself what’s true and what isn’t. and I also visited the Israeli side.

What did you see on the Israeli side?

I am now watching “Shtisel” [a sitcom about a Haredi neighborhood] and it’s very interesting. Even though the program is limited to the religious life, it also illustrates how much alike we all are. The majority of the settlers I met are normal people, but there are small groups of lawbreakers who are not punished. They cause harm to the other settlers and to the whole of Israel. They do bad things which I don’t think 95 percent of the Israelis would accept.

Is being an observer dangerous?

I did not feel that I was in danger, but sometimes the checkpoint is so crowded that you can be crushed. But actually I have finished being an observer, so the main danger now is that I will have problems entering Israel because of this interview. I hope not.

Why are you done with being an observer?

It became too difficult to let go, it stays with you.

What do you do in Sweden?

I’m retired now, but I worked with companies that protect the environment and manage forests. I have to say that this is the one good thing the settlers do – they plant a lot of trees. That needs to be done. It’s dry here.

Sara Massnaouii.
Tomer Appelbaum

Sara Massnaouii, 22; lives in Tel Aviv, flying to Paris

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Paris?

There’s a birthday in the family, so I’m going. I only decided two days ago. It’s a surprise. My parents don’t know I’m coming, only my siblings. I hope they’ll control themselves and not tell.

What do you do in Israel?

In the present round I’ve been living in Tel Aviv for almost a year and I’ve started university.

Was there another round?

Yes, I also lived here two and a half years ago. I came to intern in the French Embassy after getting my undergraduate degree. It was a very intensive period. There were moments that I loved and moments that I hated, but when I got back to France and moved to Paris, I was really bored.

So you came back? No shortage of action here.

It’s not only that. Before that I interned in Morocco, and it was strange going back to France then, too. You know everything but you don’t know. I felt that things that had seemed normal stopped being normal. One time I visited my mother in the school she works in and I wasn’t allowed to enter. I told them, “Look, we have the same name, she’s here every day and I look a lot like her.” But they refused. And I thought that in Israel, even with all the security, that wouldn’t happen. They’re so afraid in France – they use laws without thinking. In Israel they use common sense, the laws are more flexible.

Yes, flexibility of the law is an Israeli trademark.

Obviously there are also irritating things here. It’s expensive, and there are many food and cosmetics products that you can get in Europe but not here. The security situation. But mostly the isolation. In Europe you can go to another country for the weekend in an instant. Here it’s hard to get out.

Do you have any family ties in Israel?

No, and I’m not Jewish. I was born in France, my father is Moroccan and my mother is German. I grew up in a secular home. We celebrated Christmas, and during Ramadan my father cooked traditional foods but we never fasted. I like Israel because here I found all the things I know and like in one place. On the one hand, couscous, and on the other hand, cheesecake – both sides are represented. It’s not that I feel more at home here than in France; I just meet a lot of people here for whom it’s normal to move between two cultures and to speak three languages. That’s not common in France, certainly not in a small city like the one I grew up in.

Where was that?

I grew up in Chalons-en-Champagne.

The source of champagne.

Unfortunately, I’m not crazy about champagne, even if with us a bottle only costs 12 euros. In any case, we don’t attach so much importance to identity. If you speak French, you’re a French person. But when my brother, whose name is Ishmael, registered on a ride-sharing site, no one offered him a ride. Then he added a photo. My brother is fair-skinned with blue eyes. He immediately got plenty of offers.

There are racists everywhere.

France is also very pro-Palestinian, but when you come here you understand that the situation is much more complex. Not only in Israel – in the whole Middle East.

What’s the situation in Morocco, for example?

I lived in Morocco for five months, four of them in Agadir. To be a European girl in Agadir is complicated. As long as you’re at home, it’s fine. But the streets belong to the men, and if you’re a young European woman passing by, they cluck their tongues and make sounds at you. I didn’t go out at night. I dressed modestly. One time a few interns, including men, were having supper together, and the neighbors wanted to call the police. They told me it wasn’t legal. I told them that was a lie, and they said, “We know what the scene is with Europeans – they have dessert and then there’s another dessert.”

You didn’t tell the neighbors that you are half Moroccan?

No, I didn’t want to argue. As a girl, we traveled a lot to visit family. My mother’s family in Germany is very well established and Protestant, and then in Morocco we would go to bring water with the mule. That’s what Israel reconciles for me. I like it that you can be who you are and dress as you wish. If I feel like having Arab food I go to Jaffa, if I feel like having cake I sit in a café on Dizengoff, and if I want to speak French I go to Frishman [Street].