30 June 2006

good fences make good neighbors.

Let me begin by saying the West Bank is breathtaking. Reddish-orange rocky desert, steep hills, and terraced olive groves scattered across the landscape. There are long, low stone walls dividing olive groves (Palestine is rumored to have the world's best olive oil) and grazing lands crisscrossing the terrain, and random ancient ruins of stone houses and columns. The entire landscape is virtually empty save the occasionally Israeli settlement or Palestinian village, or perhaps a nomad leading his goat herd to new grazing ground. With the Israelis essentially holed up in their settlements and Palestinians' travel limited, the roads are practically deserted. Driving through the West Bank, the quiet calm makes it easy to forget it's one of the most hotly contested regions of the world.

However, today's topics - the Israeli settlements and security fence/barrier/wall - brought us crashing out of the beautiful scenery to the tense realities of the West Bank. We spent the morning touring settlements with Gidon Ariel of Maale Adumim and Yair Shalev of Shilo, the only settlement built on true biblical holy land. We started the morning with Gidon in Maale Adumim, a large settlement of over 30,000 people outside Jerusalem. Maale Adumim, as well as other settlements we saw later, bore a disturbing resemblance to Disney's planned community in Celebration, FL. Instead of Disney characters, however, there are "peace dove" traffic circles and biblical themed neighborhoods and streets (flowers, Bible verses, instruments, etc). When I pictured settlements, I thought of Israeli families moving on their own to settle in their "promised land," building a house and making a living for themselves. Instead, I found carefully orchestrated communities of rows of identical apartment buildings and landscaped streets. The settlements are in violation of the Geneva Convention - I can't buy the argument that Jordan claimed the West Bank and somehow that justifies moving Israeli civilians into lands occupied by the Israeli army. Maale Adumin is preparing to expand, building more housing right up to the edge of Palestinian-controlled East Jerusalem, essentially closing it in. As Gidon explained, the settlers "look forward to peace," and see their occupation (in the non-military sense) of the West Bank as a step towards closer Arab-Israeli relations. How living behind a barbed wire fence in a Jewish-only community contributes to peace is beyond me.

While the settlers claim to support peace, Gidon said they opposed the barrier originally, but since it's being built, they support it as a way to "keep the terrorists out." The Israeli government calls it a fence because less than 5% of it is a bona fide "wall," (the rest being a multi-layered barbed wire fence) but to me, it's still a wall. Does Berlin during the Cold War ring a bell, or am I the only one who still remembers that fiasco? I can accept the logic for a wall to keep out suicide attackers - they're a legitimate threat that needs to be addressed. However, if Israel's building a security wall, it should be in Israel (i.e. along the Green Line). Even the East Germans built the wall on their own territory. As it stands now, the wall meanders from the Green Line well into the West Bank in order to circle around settlements and protect them. Since the settlements are illegal in the first place, I don't have any sympathy for further violating international law to protect them. Furthermore, the wall isn't just encircling the existing settlements - it's leaving space to continue expanding them (in the case of Maale Adumin, more than doubling it). So here we have an illegal wall being built not only to protect illegal settlements, but to continue building them. All while Israelis (settlers and non-settlers) are supporting a peaceful solution. By building the barrier on Palestinian territory, Israel is essentially claiming an additional 5% of the West Bank. The generally accepted two state peace is a 78-22% split of the land, which is hardly an even divide even along the Green Line, so what reason does Israel have to claim more of it? Gidon said that the Green Line is only the 1948 ceasefire line, not an official border, so why shouldn't they be allowed to build east of it? By that logic, shouldn't Palestinians be allowed to move west of the line? According to Gidon, no, since they're not Israeli citizens. I don't follow the logic.

In that same vein, Gidon also asserts that the settlements are on uninhabited land (save some nomads, who don't count since they didn't build anything there), the 5% of the West Bank the settlers have claimed is "miniscule" because few Arabs were displaced. In his words, "There's nothing wrong with people moving into uninhabited, desolate lands." Would he feel the same way about Palestinians settling in 5% of uninhabited Israel proper? I don't imagine so, and as he said before, they're not Israeli citizens, so they can't live there. I just can't understand why, if these settlers are so determined to settle in the desert, why did it have to be in the West Bank? There's plenty of uninhabited desert in Israel proper, and only Shilo is on biblical lands, so that can't be the reason. The wall and the settlements are a huge issue in resolving the conflict, and I just cannot equate them with any real desire for peace on Israel's part. One bright moment in our discussion with the settlers came at a candy factory where we spoke to the Israeli owner and one of his Arab managers. He employs Arabs and Jews in near equal numbers, although he didn't address the issue of salary. Talking about the political situation, he said that "our problems are because of our leaders. Not leaders, our politicians - we don't have leaders." He was the only settler we met who was genuinely interested in using settlements to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian interaction - everyone else said it was a good idea, but puts up barbed wire to keep out the terrorists.

At a mashav (form of kibbutz), Yair took us to meet a former Texas rancher who moved to Israel to begin raising goats in the West Bank. While the rancher was proud to say he employed several Palestinians on his farm as harvesters, he expressed his distrust of them, and reinforced the master-servant relationship. While he may be interacting with Arabs, it's not on a equitable level, and thus isn't really contributing to cultural understanding. On the topic of refugees, Yair said that he was against forced relocation and supported the Palestinian right of return in principle, but that it wasn't practical yet. He said that it was impractical for Palestinians to expect to return to a village after decades as refugees in other countries. But somehow, it's perfectly logical for the Israelis to expect to return to a land after 3000 years? He never adequately addressed this question for my tastes, and it's one more example of the hypocrisy in the settlement movement that prevents me from believing it can ever be well-intentioned.

And I'm not the only one opposed to settlements and the wall. After a morning in the settlements, we met with Dror Etkes of Peace Now Settlement Watch, a leftist Israeli group. Peace Now was formed in the 1970s as a group of Israelis dedicated to urging their government to serious negotiations. When the settlement movement began, the Settlement Watch segment of Peace Now was formed to protest the policy and monitor the development of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Although long winded, Etkes made a compelling argument. He doesn't have a problem with Jews living in the West Bank, and indeed thinks such arrangements can be a valuable contribution to peace. However, what he does oppose is the state-sponsored and constructed settlements being strategically placed around the West Bank to isolate Palestinian areas, dominate natural resources, and attempt to surround Jerusalem. The Israeli government provides incentives to settlers, making the housing there the most affordable in all of Israel. By encroaching on Palestinian territory, and now building a wall to solidify such encroachments, the Israeli government is rejecting any real efforts at peace. I just can't support a government that claims to support a peaceful two-state solution on one hand while implementing policies to undermine such a peace at every step of the way. I don't think the Palestinians are in the right either, but I'll get into my criticisms of their policies at a later date.

The devil's in the details - two small things to point out about Israel and the West Bank, one sad and one irrelevant. The sign pictured points the way to Jerusalem from the West Bank. The Arabic word in the right is the phonetic spelling of Jerusalem, while the shorter word in parentheses is al-Quds, the Arabic word for Jerusalem. By calling it by its Hebrew name in Arabic, I feel like the Israeli government is making a subtle statement about who's really in charge, regardless of negotiations. There's no reason to call it anything besides its Arabic name - if you speak Arabic, you know what al-Quds is. It's a minor detail, but language is such an important part of a culture. It'd be like the post-WWII allies calling the country Germany in German instead of Deutschland. There's no logical reason for renaming the city besides to belittle the Arabs in the West Bank. On a brighter note, while Israelis drive on the right side of the road, the colors of the road lines are backwards - white in the middle, yellow on the edges. Tomorrow is a tour of Jerusalem, so there will finally be pictures of the city. In the meantime, live vicariously in the West Bank.

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