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Up North

23 July 2008

I’ve been feeling very transient lately.  And by lately, I mean for quite a while.  The other day, in fact, I looked at a calendar, and figured out that of the last seven months, a full three of them will have been spent somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa.  And that’s not to mention the fact that even when I’m in the central time zone this summer, I’m shuttling back and forth on a near constant basis.  Suffice it to say, it’s just a little bit tiring.  Much of this, I think, has to do with the fact that of these travels, they’ve nearly all been essentially “academic tourism”.  In Egypt, Turkey, and now Israel, I’ve been staying in dorms, and striking out on my own each day to find something interesting to do.  That’s fine, to an extent–I like having my own space as much as anyone else.  But it’s also isolating in so many ways, and makes me more and more aware of the complete lack of cultural interaction.  Looking around the program here, it seems that the vast majority of students clump together in groups from their home country, and go bar-hopping every single night (that last bit isn’t too much of an exaggeration either).  I understand the mentality very well–unless you have something to force you out of your cultural and linguistic comfort zone, it’s so easy to retreat into a familiar environment.  

This weekend, though, I had a marvelous chance to break out of that rut.  My friend Ben’s dad works from the UK for an Israeli company, Arava, that is the main wholesale exporter for many farms in Israel and the West Bank.  He phoned up Yair, one of the liaisons between the growers and the company, and asked him if he wouldn’t mind showing the two of us around some of the Jordan River Valley, in the northern part of the West Bank.  Yair, of course, wasn’t content to merely give us a day tour.  He insisted that we spend the weekend with him and his family up in Ya’avneel, a small town not far from the foot of the Golan Heights.  And so, after a great deal of phone tag, off we went on Thursday morning, hopping a bus to Bet She’an instead of going to our morning class.

After meeting us at the bus stop, our tour began.  He took us along the security fence that encircles the West Bank, built in 2002 as a means of stopping Palestinians from crossing into Israel without permission.  It is, to say the least, slightly chilling to imagine people living behind this:

The IDF claims that that fence has cut down on terrorist attacks by 90% (although interestingly, they’ve also conceded that most suicide bombers were entering through checkpoints…), although it has also been condemned by human rights organizations–mainly on the grounds that it cuts off access to medical care and employment.  The economy in the West Bank is in shambles, and since the fence went up Palestinians are not allowed to spend the night in Israel, significantly limiting the type of employment available.  Here, it’s just a barbed wire, electrified fence.  Near Jerusalem, it’s a 14-foot-high concrete barrier.

The growers we spoke to had conflicting feelings about the situation in the West Bank.  The northern part of the territory is not nearly as segregated as others, and these growers are somewhat exceptional in that they mostly chose to employ an all-Palestinian workforce on their farms.  To man, each of them said something to the effect of: “There is no hatred up here.  If I were the PM, I could solve the West Bank problem in five minutes over a cup of coffee”.  At the same time, though, they said that the economic situation created problems.  The farms themselves are surrounded by barbed wire, evidently because teenagers from nearby villages are known for breaking in and stealing anything lying around, including ripping copper out of the electrical system to sell.  

The whole time, though, the idea that relations in this part of the West Bank are entirely normal was too ridiculous to stomach.  You have an entire group of people living behind a patrolled, barbed wire fence, within which there are even more fortified “Israeli Only” areas–known as “C Zones”, along with “Palestinian Only” areas, or “A Zones”.  The settlements look like quaint suburbs, while we drove past Palestinian towns littered with burnt out cars, amalgamations of lumber and sheet metal that might charitably be called shelters, and broken bottles.  Areas where, according to Yair, no Israeli would drive unarmed at night.  That’s not to say that the security concerns aren’t very, very real, as any newspaper published in, say, 2005, can attest.  But each time one of the farmers claimed that everything was peaceful, that relations between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were as great as could be,  I couldn’t help but think about how this segment of the society is so privileged as the sole source of economic advancement (to use the term loosely) that they have the opportunity to ignore the glaring inequality of the situation.

This is an area that is so rarely discussed in coverage of what is going on in the West Bank.  I don’t necessarily blame the mainstream media for running the stories of crisis–Gazans unable to get medical care, bombings, dismantling settlements.  Those are the stories that sell, the stories to which a reporter can, without too much trouble, get the facts and tell a story.  But I have a hard time believing there’s not another side to the story here, in which privilege, power, and harsh economic realities play out another West Bank drama, unfolding without any explosives or bullets.  One has to wonder what it is that pushes someone over the edge from one conflict into another.

While politics dominated our whole weekend no matter where we were–if you’ve ever heard the stereotype that Israelis LOVE to talk politics at every opportunity, well, that’s one preconception to which I’ve found little contradictory evidence–staying with Yair and his family was a real treat.  Yair showed us around some absolutely stunning places in the area, including the Golan Heights.  Absolutely gorgeous–I can understand a little better why Syria might want them back…

Sunset over the Sea of Galilee

Beyond taking us around the Galilee and the Golan Heights and the juxtaposed sites of beauty and violence, they simply opened up their entire home to us for the weekend.  As much as we enjoyed the hospitality and the chance to just relax a little bit, I have to say that Ifrit, their four-year-old, probably enjoyed it more.  

As you can see, Ben was essentially designated as a piece of mobile British playground equipment for the weekend.  Each morning, at 6:30 in the morning, we were awakened by a sharp poke to the head, along with a menacing glare that said: “Why are you not up and playing with me yet?”.  Oy…

Anyways, it was a marvelous weekend.  I’m back in Jerusalem now, just doing the whole class thing.  Truth be told, the academic program itself is pretty underwhelming, so I’m just trying to spend as much time exploring as I can.  Barack Obama is in Israel today, and there was talk among some of us of trying to pin down when he’d be at the Western Wall so that we could try to catch a glimpse of him or–dare I say it?–snag a picture together in front of the Temple Mount.  Sadly, though, I don’t think that’s going to happen.  

I’ll be working to put up some more of my photos up on Flickr sometime soon, so you can see what I’ve seen in all its digital glory.  Stay tuned!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Cari permalink
    25 July 2008 3:07 pm

    Cute, cute little boy…sounds a lot like my cousin. No sleeping while he’s awake!
    And you may have Barak Obama, but Mr. McCain is in Denver today. So there. 🙂

  2. Cari permalink
    26 July 2008 4:27 am

    Oh, and the Dali Lama was here as well. Top that.

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