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31 July 2008

In between waxing political, relaying witty anecdotes about my adventures and, y’know, taking time to actually have said adventures, I haven’t really been able to talk about probably one of the more interesting times I’ve been fortunate enough to have here in Israel.

Despite the inevitable disclaimer of our program coordinators that it was strongly inadvisable to go anywhere near the West Bank–there was no need to mention that going into Gaza would be an act of insanity–I haven’t met a single person who heeded that warning.  Most people took the opportunity to spend a day in Bethlehem, Nablus or Jericho, and the historical sites in the area.  But at the suggestion of one of the guys in our program, Ben and I decided to see some of the West Bank in a slightly different way.

We manage to get in touch with this group out of Tel Aviv called Breaking The Silence  (or Shovrim Shtika, in Hebrew).  It’s an organization started by former IDF soldiers–which is, for the most part, the entire Israeli population–who are trying to start a broader conversation about the occupied territories that does not center on the security issues involved.  In the view of the leader we spoke to, mainstream Israeli society’s outlook on the situation amounts to: “Let the IDF do whatever they need to do so that we’ll be safe in our coffee shops in Tel Aviv.  What goes on inside isn’t our problem”.  Thus, while there is widespread discussion about matters such as the security fence, checkpoints, policies on Palestinian employment within Israeli lines, the silence that this theatrically-named group seeks to break is more to do with the internal policies of the Israeli government, specifically military operations in the refugee camps, and unequal legal conditions in “C Areas”.  Rather than staging protests or lobbying members of the Knesset (those are well-covered bases), the organization has three main areas of activity: recording testimony from soldiers leaving their service in the IDF, sponsoring traveling photography exhibits of what they view as human rights violations in the West Bank, and leading tours into Hebron, showing both tourists and soon-to-be-conscripted Israelis a side of Hebron that isn’t usually discussed in the mainstream press.  In short, they hope to dispel the idea that there is such a thing as an “enlightened occupation”, and that any occupation has a moral price tag.

What’s so remarkably effective about this strategy, I think, is that this group can’t readily be dismissed as a bunch of hippie radicals.  BTS isn’t comprised of so-called “refuseniks”.  Every member has served already, and many continue as IDF reservists, although they have filed for conscientious objector status to serving in the Palestinian Territories.  This is not a college student with a “Free Palestine” flag in their dorm window.  These are soldiers saying not even ‘this is what I have seen’, but ‘this is what I and many others have done, and we ought to be troubled that we were ordered to do so, and could carry out that order so easily’.

Needless to say, this sounded like an intriguing trip.  The group is currently barred from Hebron, after their last tour was attacked by Jewish settlers in the area–the police have declared BTS tours to be a ‘disruption to public order’.  But while their lawsuit against the Israeli government proceeds, they are offering tours to South Hebron.  So, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we boarded a bus one Friday morning for Hebron.  

Our drive started with a tour of the West Bank highway system.  It looks more or less like this:

The wall is 14 meters high, and in fact separates two roadway systems.  There are literally highways for use by Israelis traveling to the Settlements and IDF controlled areas, and roads for use by those living under PA control.  Certain villages near the green line–the 1967 border of Israel–are to be completely encircled by the wall, with one guarded tunnel in and out.  

Our first stop was to a place called Lucifer’s Farm.  Or, more accurately, to about a half mile from Lucifer’s Farm.  It’s one of many places that are referred to as ‘Outposts’ in the West Bank.  During the now-defunct Oslo Accord negotiations, one of the terms agreed to was that Israel cease establishing settlements in the West Bank (note: that seems to have changed recently).  Most of the settlements in the West Bank are populated by the most hard-core of hard-core religious zionists.  As I’ve been able to understand from this tour, as well as professors I’ve spoken to on this program, many of them are almost cult-like, closed off from the outside world.  They believe that these settlements are fulfilling a divine mandate for Jews to reclaim the entirety of Judea and Samarra as a pre-requisite for the Messiah’s coming.  Many of them even choose not to recognize the Israeli government, and in any case, this condition didn’t go over well.  In response, there was a widespread practice of ‘outposting’.  As essentially an act of civil disobedience–although it doesn’t really stay civil, as you’ll see–settlers would go in the middle of the night to a hill maybe 10km from their legal settlement, and start building.  Temporary structures, shacks, anything.  The message was simple: this land belongs to us, and not only are we not leaving, we’re going to expand.  

This is really where the whole internal story of the West Bank gets interesting.  Because the Israeli government’s response to these outposts was–well, that’s just it.  Nothing.  No outposts have been demolished thirteen years on from Oslo.  What’s more, these outposts were often built in the middle of farmland where Palestinians grazed their cattle.  There are widespread accounts of settlers arming themselves and shooting at any Palestinians who came near the area.  In response, of course, a “Security Buffer Zone” [the technical term] was established around the outposts, into which no Palestinians could venture, until the conflict was resolved.  Hence, we stayed pretty far from Lucifer’s farm.

The whole story was painted more vividly, though, when we were taken to meet a Palestinian family living near Sunya in South Hebron.  As Nasser, the head of this family tells it, they were farmers who had been living on an otherwise largely untouched plot of land for about four generations, and in fact little had changed since the Six-Day War.  Until, of course, archaeologists discovered that in the middle of their farmland laid the ruins of a synagogue from the Second Temple Period.  Overnight, the area was declared a national park, and the family was forced to relocate.  They moved just outside of the new park, and started to erect new buildings.  These were torn down, as they did not have the proper building permits.  The process of even applying for a building permit would consume about three months salary of an average Palestinian family, and since the committee consists of half IDF soldiers, and half settlers from the region, it’s nigh impossible for Palestinians to get building permits in C Areas.  That, of course, hasn’t stopped these folks.  They keep returning, and erecting more shelters, which are also under demolition orders from the IDF.  The case is pending in Israeli courts, but for the moment, this is what their village looks like:

Those are Red Cross issue tents–surprisingly roomy, actually.  Before those whole thing started, they lived in caves, which were demolished (we saw the evidence).  The wells were collapsed, and in one particular well soldiers shoved an entire car down the opening (again, we saw it) so as to poison the water with gasoline, oil, and the metals of the frame.  

But honestly, that’s not what gets Nasser and his family, in the end.  It’s that right now, in the middle of the National Park from which they were removed, is a Settler Outpost.  It’s been there for about ten years now, and no legal action has been taken against it.  Moreover, there are constant skirmishes between this family and the illegal settlers.  Nasser told our group about once incident about two weeks ago.  From his perspective, he and his brothers were taking their sheep out to graze in what is supposedly neutral territory.  Or, as neutral as possible when nobody’s really supposed to be living there.  As they did so, a group of settlers came over the hill, and started throwing rocks.  The Palestinians retreated, and called the police.  When the cops showed up, they went the Outpost first, then came and arrested Nasser’s brother, since the Settlers had made an identical claim.  His brother was in jail for a week before being arrested without charge.  No settlers were arrested.

Miscarriages of justice happen, and there are as always two sides to every story.  But then we met some of the volunteers.  There are three folks from Ireland living with this family right now, and mostly, they videotape.  When they go out to graze, the volunteers are there with cameras to record these sorts of incidents.  Often, the police confiscate them as evidence, and they’re never returned, but every now and then, one makes it to the media.  We were shown some of the tapes that they still had.  The one that was burned into my memory showed a group of Jewish settlers–women and boys, mainly, sitting on a rock slope.  This was taken on Saturday, when there are no Jewish schools in session, but Muslim schools are.  When students as the Islamic school started to walk out, the group of settlers stood up as one, and started throwing rocks at them, shouting any number of murderous slogans.  In the background stood a group of soldiers, who stood there, not doing anything.  When we asked our guide why this happened, he said that there is so much political backing for the Settlers that it is “more trouble than it’s worth to try arresting them”.  There are also stories like this–we saw a similar version, without the chains.

On the tours to Hebron that were led until recently, visitors were able to meet with some members of the Settler population (the settlement in Hebron proper is legal under Israeli law).  In South Hebron, it’s all outposts, who it seems are less amenable to dialogue about an issue.  From the one side I saw, though, there aren’t words to describe how heartbreaking it is. It seems to epitomize the Israeli policy of “deciding not to decide” when it comes to the West Bank–everything’s in limbo, and no one can count on justice.  It truly reminded me of the cinematic Wild West.

The trip closed with our guide talking specifically about his experience as a soldier in Hebron.  I could never do justice to his account, and you can find most of the stories, among hundreds of others, here.  If you have some spare time, I strongly recommend reading them.  For those Carleton folk, I also have a bound book of them, if you’d like to save your eyes a little bit.

I’ve heard no shortage of arguments over this issue.  Truth be told, I’m beginning to see why so many cynics here just say “There will never be peace, so the only thing left to do is to build bigger walls”.  I can entertain so many arguments from the non-Palestinian side (I’m not going to say ‘The Israeli Side’ any longer, because it seems as though very diffuse arguments–many made out of solidarity rather than any interest in the issue–could only be charitably be called a side), about historical rights to the land, security issues, rightful conquest during a time of war, et al.  But what I’ve seen on this tour, and at checkpoints in Ramallah, there’s an issue that completely escapes this maddening question of land and determination.  Breaking the Silence, I believe, is absolutely right when it claims that there’s a price tag to occupation beyond perpetuating the security threat.  There’s no such thing as a humane, enlightened occupation.  Evidently, in Israeli schools children are taught that the IDF is better, that stories of abuse and dehumanization don’t happen in the West Bank.  And honestly, I used to believe the same thing as an outsider.  But at a certain point, you have to ask the question: is it worth it?  Is the damage to Israel’s national conscience, not to mention the dehumanization of an entire society, really worth it?

I’m in no position to say yes or no.  I have no historical, religious, or security stake in this.  But it seems that the sooner Israeli society is pushed to answer that question, the better.  Because deciding not to decide just doesn’t seem to cut it here.

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