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Waiting on the West Bank

by Rabbi Amy Klein
Published on September 9, 2008 in Jewish Currents

It’s like waiting in line for a roller coaster ride – that’s the image that occurred to me at the Tarqumia check­point terminal in the south Hebron hills, where bars snake around and hold people in an orderly line. Many of the Palestinians seeking to enter Israel, however, have never visited a luna park (that’s Hebrew for “amuse­ment park”) and would not have appre­ci­ated the comparison.

I was there on a Sunday morning in May with Aviva Weisgal of Machsom Watch, an orga­ni­za­tion of Israeli women who volun­teer as observers at check­points throughout the occu­pied terri­to­ries. Aviva joined after years of protesting the occu­pa­tion at the Nachshon inter­sec­tion of Routes 3 and 44 every Friday with Women in Black. She empha­sized to me that she might meet her son’s army friends at any given check­point: the soldiers are not her enemies and she always tries to be very civil to them.

We had left Jerusalem in the dark at 4 A.M. On the way we saw tran­sits headed toward us, a sign that the check­point was open and that the flow of Palestinian workers into Israel had begun for the day. We arrived at around 4:45 and were waved through to the Palestinian side with hardly a glance. The Tarqumia terminal is large and modern and oper­ated by a private secu­rity company rather than the Israel Defense Forces. The idea behind the “monstrous appa­ratus,” as Aviva called it, is “to take the sting out of the check­point process.”

Most of the Palestinian workers on line had left their homes by 3:30 AM to ensure that they wouldn’t miss their 5:30 transit, which would deliver them to their jobs by 7. For some, missing a specific transit means losing a day’s work. Most work in construc­tion, some as contrac­tors: others in agri­cul­ture. They told us that things run rather smoothly at this crossing, which admits them to Ashkelon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Bet Shemesh and, in some cases, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The secu­rity workers are polite and effi­cient, yet there simply are not enough of them: only two of the eight gates were manned. On the average day, it takes fifteen minutes to get through, but on Sundays like this nearly two thou­sand workers cross over, many with permits to spend the week inside Israel.

I have been to the occu­pied territories/West Bank/Yehuda and Shomron (the names vary as you move polit­i­cally from left to right) a few times. The first was as a tourist in 1990 with a van full of young adults. We visited Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem (where I refused to accept a piece of red string promising me fertility), and from there to the Cave of Makhpelah, the burial place, according to Jewish tradi­tion, of the rest of the Jewish matri­archs and patri­archs. It is also the site where Baruch Goldstein massa­cred 29 Palestinians in 1994.

I was in the West Bank next in 1992, on a rabbinical student tour. While admiring the beauty of Tekoa, the reputed birth­place of the prophet Amos, south­east of Bethlehem, I couldn’t help thinking how Jewish settlers there had acquired some of the most beau­tiful land in the region. I was angry when our tour ended with dinner at the guide’s house in the settle­ment of Efrat, as I had a policy of not making social visits to Jewish West Bank settlers. Yet I broke that policy soon after, when I was a coun­selor for a summer tour group in Israel. One of our Israeli partic­i­pants invited the group to spend shabbat with fami­lies in the West Bank settle­ment of Ariel, where she lived. I went on the condi­tion that I could tell the group in advance why I was uncom­fort­able doing so. It was an unset­tling shabbat.

In 1997, after moving to Israel, I went with friends to Ramallah, where I could purchase wood shelving more cheaply than in Israel. We were between intifadas, yet I felt nervous and went straight home from the lumberyard.

Today, I am forbidden by Israeli law to visit any West Bank places under the Palestinian Authority’s control. I did manage to go olive-picking during the early fall harvest last year with Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), helping a Palestinian family that lives outside the settle­ment of Alon Shevut, near Nablus. As we swapped personal stories and ate home­made pita, labane and olives, it was easy to forget that we were there to protect the farmers from attack by the settlers.

This year, the harvest went more smoothly, as the Israeli mili­tary (IDF) granted more work days to the Palestinians with IDF protec­tion from settler attack. The gains made in the harvest are enabling RHR to turn its atten­tion to trying to regain access to farm­lands and prove owner­ship of lands taken by force by settlers. One chal­lenge is convincing the IDF to remove unnec­es­sary block­ades that prevent Palestinians from accessing their land: after each success, new block­ades are put up else­where, and the whole proce­dure begins again.

A nuanced picture of the Israeli and Palestinian atti­tudes that shape life on the West Bank is found in the “Code of Peace Activism: Towards a New Shared Set of Principles for Israeli/Palestinian Peace-Building 2007,” by the Center for Democracy and Community Development’s Walid Salem and Edy Kaufman. The docu­ment analyzes “www – what went wrong” with recent peace-building efforts in a violent atmos­phere. “When civil­ians in partic­ular are targeted,” they write, “the trauma caused by loss and vulner­a­bility, by violence being consid­ered ‘normal,’ by feel­ings of uncer­tainty, threat, and stress, leads to the reci­p­rocal accu­mu­la­tion of hostility…” While support is still broad in both nations for a nego­ti­ated peace, they continue, people also endorse violent responses to the aggres­sions of the other, and the peace camps on both sides have had no success in opposing calls for revenge and violence.

Salem and Kaufman note the asym­metry of the violence. Israel’s violence, they say, is connected to the contin­u­a­tion of the occu­pa­tion: if the occu­pa­tion ended, Israel would no longer act violently against Palestinians. Palestinian violence, however, mani­fests regard­less of whether it will help end the occu­pa­tion. Israel has responded to this Palestinian “irra­tionality” by moving to a strategy of “managing the conflict” – which post­pones the Palestinian right to self-determination and state­hood and, they note, furthers the moral dete­ri­o­ra­tion of Israel.

Salem and Kaufman also point to asym­metry in the ways the conflict’s violence is described. Israelis cite “concrete violence,” the kidnap­ping and killing of Israeli civil­ians and soldiers, while Palestinians cite “struc­tural violence” aimed at their daily exis­tence, including the disrup­tion of access to health­care, food, jobs and shelter. The suffering endured by the entire popu­la­tion under occu­pa­tion is unre­lieved and results in prema­ture deaths, reduced life expectancy and gener­al­ized post-traumatic stress disorder. “Most Israelis can conduct their daily lives obliv­ious of the occu­pa­tion,” the authors note. “Most Palestinians,” by contrast, “have to confront the imped­i­ments and ordeals of the restric­tions in their lives … on a daily basis.”

Israel’s demand for an end to Palestinian terrorism as precon­di­tion of peace­making ignores the diffi­cul­ties of building a democ­racy under occu­pa­tion, they say. Even Palestinian nego­tia­tors often cannot get through check­points to partic­i­pate in peace talks. Indeed, partic­i­pa­tion of late has been restricted to East Jerusalem Palestinians, who have a much easier time because of their Jerusalem resi­dency status.

I got to meet Walid Salem, the co-author of this report and director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development, when I spent a day in May in East Jerusalem with Encounter, an educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion that provides Jewish leaders from across the reli­gious and polit­ical spec­trum with expo­sure to Palestinian life.

In the morning, we first met with Hajj Ibrahim Abu El-Hawa, whose family has a 1400-year history in the East Jerusalem city of At-Tur on the Mount of Olives. Most Jews know only about the Jewish ceme­tery there, close to the “Holy of Holies,” the inner sanctum of the Temple. They don’t realize that a Palestinian commu­nity lives there as well. Ibrahim’s home is a hostel open to all who promote peace. A Muslim influ­enced by Sufi mysti­cism, he inher­ited the concept of opening his home from his father, who worked for the Jewish ceme­tery trans­porting head­stones on donkeys and hosted many Jewish and Christian leaders in his home. The family was also the village’s dairy farmers, boiling and deliv­ering milk every morning to resi­dents. Ibrahim himself worked thirty-four years for the Israeli phone company Bezeq. He encour­aged his chil­dren to study in American univer­si­ties – but now they are not permitted by the govern­ment to come home to Israel. Perhaps the most jarring words amid Ibrahim’s talk of peace and love were this: “Weapons have an expi­ra­tion date like milk. So when they are about to expire, the busi­ness people need to find some­where on this earth to fight.”

We met next with Ashraf Khatib, from the Palestinian Authority’s Negotiations Support Unit. He is from the East Jerusalem village of Sheikh Jarrah, which was annexed by Israel after 1967. Most of the village lands have since been appro­pri­ated by the settle­ment Ma’alot Dafne. A Muslim, Khatib was educated primarily in Christian schools and attended univer­sity in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he studied construc­tion manage­ment. He took us to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, from where we could see Ma’ale Adumim, Abu Dis, and Ras al Amud, as well as the sepa­ra­tion barrier and the Route 1 check­point going down to the Dead Sea. The Ma’ale Adumim Jewish settle­ment has expanded in a way not permitted for the surrounding Palestinian villages. There are currently over 30,000 resi­dents there, with plans to expand to 120,000.

Ehud Olmert has promised to review settle­ment expan­sion plans left over from Sharon, to moderate their impact and ensure that they will not block conti­guity of a Palestinian state. Yet settle­ment expan­sion is happening every­where. In Abu Dis, Irving Moskowitz, an American gambling mogul, bought the aban­doned police station to expand the settle­ment of Ma’ale Zeytim. The munic­i­pality refused the request of Palestinian resi­dents of Abu Dis to use the building for a much-needed school.

Palestinian resi­dents of Jerusalem like Ashraf Khatib number two hundred and fifty thou­sand. They are not citi­zens, and on their iden­tity cards, in place of “Arab” or “Jew,” are aster­isks. They can vote in munic­ipal but not national elec­tions. They pay between 20 and 22 percent of Jerusalem’s taxes but receive a much lower percentage of city services. While they offi­cially have access to West Jerusalem, some fifty thou­sand Palestinians with Jerusalem iden­tity cards now live outside the sepa­ra­tion barrier and can only cross at check­points – many of which are for pedes­trians only and are not always open. It used to be a fifteen-minute car trip from Abu Dis to West Jerusalem: now one must drive around Ma’ale Adumim, a forty-five minute ride if one is not delayed at the Zion checkpoint.

After Ashraf Khatib, we at last came to Walid Salem, who gave a presen­ta­tion at once theo­ret­ical, fact-laden, and personal. He opened by citing the conclu­sion of the 1994 U.N. Human Security Report, which states, “All human beings should have freedom from fear and freedom from want.” Ensuring this right, Salem believes, requires two new inter­na­tional commit­ments: to move beyond state and national secu­rity to guar­antee the phys­ical safety and basic needs of indi­vid­uals, and to require the U.N. to enforce human rights, not merely educate about them.

Applying this concept to East Jerusalem, Salem noted that on June 28th, 1967 – his tenth birthday – Israel had annexed the city of Jerusalem but not the people. Palestinian resi­dents are consid­ered by Israel to be Jordanian citi­zens, but their Jordanian pass­ports are consid­ered tempo­rary by Jordan. Salem also has an Israeli travel docu­ment, but not an Israeli pass­port. This status has many impli­ca­tions. He lives in Shuafat, a part of north­eastern Jerusalem that has not been zoned since 1967. He built his house ille­gally because he could not get a permit. In 2002, the munic­i­pality issued a demo­li­tion order, which he has success­fully stayed, though it is still on the books. (The munic­i­pality demol­ished forty homes between January and May 2008: its budget limits demo­li­tions to one hundred and fifty homes per year.) If Salem leaves East Jerusalem for more than seven years, he, like Ibrahim Abu El-Hawa’s adult chil­dren, will not be permitted to return. Palestinian spouses from the West Bank, more­over, no longer qualify for Jerusalem resi­dency status: Salem’s wife, from Nablus, has had to renew her permit to stay in East Jerusalem every six months since 1985.

East Jerusalem Palestinians feel manip­u­lated by all sides, Salem observed. Jordan uses them to continue to main­tain the special respon­si­bility of the Hashemites over the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. The PA uses them to post­pone reso­lu­tion of the perma­nent status of Jerusalem. West Bank Palestinians think of them as having better rights and so resent them. East Jerusalem Palestinians consider them­selves Palestinians, said Salem, but they have bitter­ness toward the PA for ignoring them. Still, they are not Israeli citi­zens – and Israeli author­i­ties demo­nize them.

Only twenty thou­sand Jerusalem Palestinians received citi­zen­ship between 1967 and 2002. Today, none would apply, as they consider Jerusalem to be an occu­pied city. What Salem said he wants, however, is both the access he has now to West Jerusalem and a Palestinian national iden­tity. If forced to choose between Israeli citi­zen­ship and leaving the city, most East Jerusalem Palestinians, he believes, will opt for citizenship.

Asked about the reper­cus­sions of the terrorist attack on the Yeshivat HaRav yeshiva by an East Jerusalemite, Salem described a compli­cated situ­a­tion. There are resi­dents, he said, who are part of the Jordanian regime and report on others; there are those working with the PA, and those who have been recruited by Hamas and/or Hezbollah. East Jerusalem has six seats in the PA parlia­ment, two reserved for Christians. In the last elec­tion, the Christian seats went to Fatah and the other four to Hamas. It is clear that Hamas is the strongest party in East Jerusalem. However, Salem said, a vote for Hamas is not a vote in support of terrorism, but a vote in support of effi­cient services. Hamas, for example, is working with Israeli author­i­ties to improve health­care – much more success­fully than Fatah.

According to Yossi Alper, coed­itor of bitter­lemons, a journal of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, the Abbas govern­ment in unable to come to terms with the depth of the crisis in Palestinian society brought on by the rise of Hamas. The West Bank is still ruled by gangs and clans, not the PA secu­rity forces. Nonetheless, the PA govern­ment has regis­tered some successes. There is today much more coop­er­a­tion than ever before between Israel and PA secu­rity teams, partic­u­larly in the imple­men­ta­tion of an amnesty program that to date has included four hundred and thirty-eight Palestinians accused of terrorist activity.

The PA has also revoked the legal status of three hundred orga­ni­za­tions for chan­neling funds to Hamas, and has increased super­vi­sion over imams in mosques throughout the occu­pied terri­to­ries. In all Palestinian cities,  there has been dramatic improve­ment in public order and a more effec­tive response to crim­inal activity since the summer of 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza. A high Israeli secu­rity officer recently commented in Ha’aretz: “In recent years the thing that most affected the West Bank Palestinian citizen was the secu­rity chaos. Today, West Bank resi­dents are most both­ered by the economic situ­a­tion and the [lack of] freedom of move­ment in the territories.”

Somewhat reluc­tantly, PA secu­rity forces are also acting against terrorism, predom­i­nantly in areas where Israel requires them to be active or where the PA feels threat­ened. The PA is reluc­tant to arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, however, and usually releases them quickly. Even in Jenin, where the largest secu­rity campaigns of the PA have taken place, terrorism has not been rooted out. As a result, Israel has no current plans to return specific areas to PA control for fear of a takeover by Hamas.

On Israel’s side, the biggest problem is that Prime Minster Olmert, who seems serious about nego­ti­ating a final-status agree­ment with the Palestinians and has openly recog­nized the immorality of the occu­pa­tion, is under inves­ti­ga­tion for corrup­tion and will no longer be prime minister soon after this column is published. All of his likely replace­ments from within Kadima would do well to heed Olmert’s words before the Knesset Committee on Security and Foreign Affairs on May 26th: that among the American elite the idea of a “state for all its citi­zens” is growing in popu­larity. This is a very dangerous devel­op­ment that threatens Israel’s exis­tence as a Jewish state.

Indeed, Ali Jarbawi, professor of polit­ical science at Birzeit University, has suggested in bitter­lemons that the only way Israel might get serious about a two-state solu­tion, rather than just “managing the situ­a­tion” while expanding its pres­ence in the West Bank, is for the Palestinian Authority to announce its own dead­line for such a solu­tion. Handmade rockets are not a serious enough threat, says Jarbawi, but the promise to begin pursuing a one-state solu­tion could be.

Meanwhile, there are many Israeli, Palestinian, and joint Israeli-Palestinian orga­ni­za­tions working for peace. The Geneva Initiative (www​.geneva​-accord​.org), to cite one, has been stead­fast in sharing its wisdom about the real possi­bil­i­ties of peace. In the last week of May alone, six Knesset members from five different parties partic­i­pated in Geneva Initiative events, where MK Yossi Beilin, co-=founder of the initia­tive, was a tire­less pres­ence.  A two-day seminar was also held with senior members of the Shas party and ultra-Orthodox press members; partic­i­pants toured the sepa­ra­tion barrier in Jerusalem, heard lectures from senior secu­rity offi­cials and Palestinian leaders, and learned about conflict solu­tions. Similar activ­i­ties took place for Jewish resi­dents in the northern city of Ma’alot-Tarshih, and for Russian immi­grants in Ashdod and Or Yehuda. A Russian-language Initiative blog was begun to encourage discus­sion on the part of the participants.

The Geneva Initiative also held a confer­ence on the rela­tion­ship between the sepa­ra­tion barrier and the peace process with former senior secu­rity offi­cers, acad­e­mics, and the mayor of Alfei Menashe, a settle­ment on the Palestinian side of the sepa­ra­tion barrier. The mayor, Eliezer Hasdai, said that Alfei Menashe resi­dents have taken up a protest to push for their secu­rity needs. At the same time, however, in exchange for “real peace,” he is willing to leave Alfei Menashe. The Geneva Initiative is thus working to convince deci­sion makers, future leaders, inter­na­tion­al­ists and grass­roots commu­ni­ties, both Israeli and Palestinian. That peace and a final-status agree­ment are achievable.

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