Standing on a hilltop in the South Hebron Hills over Pesach, the group of British Jews who had come to visit the southernmost tip of the West Bank was joined for a small part of the trip by four IDF soldiers who stumbled across this unlikely band of travelers whilst on patrol. Jews from all over the U.K., with a kosher-for-Pesach picnic packed in the trunk of the bus, they wanted to see the West Bank for themselves. The soldiers wanted to hear what they were discussing.
The Jewish group’s visit is reflective of a growing sense of concern amongst U.K. Jewry as to what is to be done with this piece of territory, apparently loved so deeply by a sector of the Israeli population and Jewish people at large, that they are prepared to allow this toxic love to kill Israel, slowly but surely.
This concern manifests itself in a desire to see and understand the West Bank, with various groups organizing fact-finding and experiential trips. Yachad, of which I am the director, has, in its first year of operation, taken close to 200 British Jews on such trips. Many British Jews are stepping over the ‘line’ to see the mythical territory they so often read about.
As Avner, our guide from Breaking the Silence, who regularly takes our groups into the south Hebron Hills as well as Hebron, explained the relationship between the IDF and settlers that is required for Israel to maintain its control over this piece of land, the soldiers shifted uncomfortably at the back of the group.
One soldier accused both Avner and the group of being ‘Tel Avivim’, or living in a pampered and disconnected bubble. The implication was, of course, that any group that comes to see, and perhaps even question, simply doesn’t understand the reality and does not have much right to an opinion.
But what about those thousands, in fact millions, of Israelis and Jews all over the world who choose not to see, not to understand? Surely they are more worthy of the accusation?
You can easily stumble upon more uncomfortable truths in the southernmost West Bank which most people don’t see or hear about. This is land demarcated as Area C under the Oslo Accords, which means that in order to build, Palestinians must be granted permits by the Israeli Civil Administration. Very few permits are granted, and as a result, infrastructure is often illegally built and therefore under permanent threat of demolition.
Declared a closed military area in the 1970s, this particular spot is referred to as Firing Area 918. Since 1999 the army has been trying to evict the Palestinian residents of the area on the basis that they are not permanent residents. In November 1999, 700 of them were evicted by force. The Palestinians beg to differ on their status and have petitioned the High Court to remain in their homes. The IDF says it is too dangerous for them to live in a firing zone. But it was not too dangerous for the residents of the now-evacuated illegal outpost of Ma’on Farm.
So what was that group of British Jews looking at? They were looking at an area where close to 1700 Palestinians live in caves, farm the land and graze their sheep and goats. An area with no physical infrastructure: no paved roads leading from the villages, an area not linked to a power grid, telephone lines or a running-water system.
They were also looking at the illegal outpost of Avigail, built illegally according to the Israeli government, connected to the water supply, the electricity grid, with a road paved by the IDF so the settlers can drive to their illegal outpost on their illegal road. A far cry from the primary school located in the Jinba cave village under threat of demolition on account of being illegally inside the Firing Zone 918. The nearest school is 14km away in the village of At-Twani, accessible only by four-wheel drive.
In a hearing that took place on April 17, 2012, residents of the area were told that in the next 30 days the Minister of Defense would submit a recommendation to the High Court regarding what should be done with the area. That takes us to the end of this week.
If the recommendation results in the removal of Palestinians from the local area, and the demolition of their homes and infrastructure, what should the reaction of those British Jews standing on that hilltop be?
It should bother them greatly, for two reasons.
Firstly, as British citizens, it should bother them as within the firing zone is a U.K. government Department for International Development project, providing basic sanitation and water to some of the residents, which will be destroyed in any demolition. That is British taxpayers' money, spent on the most basic of humanitarian needs in a desperately poor area of the West Bank, lost to the unresolved conflict over that piece of territory.
In a world where Europe seems paralyzed by American inaction in the region, it gives the U.K. an opportunity to play a role independent of Uncle Sam, to step in and try to work with the Israeli government to prevent it from happening - much as the German government is trying to do over its funding of solar energy instillations in the neighboring villages, also under threat of demolition.
And secondly, as Jews who are committed to Israel and its Jewish character, it should be of great concern that yet another unilateral action makes the possibility of peace ever more elusive. By removing the local population from the area, Israel’s grip becomes ever firmer over land we so urgently need to let go of.
If being ‘Tel Avivim’ means being concerned by the fate of those 1700 residents of Firing Zone 918, it is an accusation that British Jews can live with, indeed be proud of.
Hannah Weisfeld is a founder and the director of Yachad, the pro-Israel pro-peace movement in the UK. She previously managed a wide range of international social justice campaigns.