Mere weeks after returning home from the Annapolis peace talks, the Israelis are once again building Jewish settlements in what they call “Southern Jerusalem” but is actually privately owned Palestinian land.
And as the biweekly talks begin between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians are refusing to recognize Israel’s Jewish character, while Hamas tightens its stronghold on their government.
I wish I could say I had the solution to it all.
After all, I’ve lived in Israel for a year and a half already, and by now I should have figured out something, right?
I thought I had it for a minute there; I really did. I thought that if I could just convince the Israelis that building up the settlements in the West Bank is nothing more than shooting themselves in the foot, or if I could get the Palestinians to realize that they’re going to have to put forth a bit more effort to show the word that they’re not all as violent as their leadership, everything would be fine.
To be honest, I still kind of believe that.
I recently spent a few days in the West Bank town of Bethlehem with a group of future rabbis, Jewish educators and Dorot Fellows on a trip called Encounter, which takes future Jewish leaders from North America who are studying in Israel into the West Bank to meet with Palestinian activists and stay in Palestinian homes.
We met with representatives of Open Bethlehem, a group attempting to garner worldwide support against Israel’s construction of the separation barrier around Bethlehem, which has effectively ruined its tourist-based economy.
We walked in the shadow of the separation barrier, which separates the West Bank from Israel and the Jewish settlements. We listened to the personal stories of a professor from Al-Quds University, a Christian Bible teacher, and a mother who was forced to divorce her multimillionaire husband because Israel wouldn’t let him live with her in the West Bank and she wasn’t allowed to leave with her son. And we met with representatives of the Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestine Liberation Organization who had spent the preceding days prepping their colleagues for their trip to the Annapolis conference.
Throughout the trip a sense of hopelessness hung over our heads. My host for the night, Osama, a news anchor for the Palestine News Network, spoke about his wishes to travel in the future. For now, though, travel remains in his dreams. Israel rarely grants permits for Palestinians to leave the West Bank to get to the airport in Tel Aviv or Amman, Jordan, and even if he were to receive permission, the chances of him being able to buy a plane ticket are slim.
His girlfriend, Betty, a third-year student at Bethlehem University studying business administration, was originally from Gaza. She received a five-day visa from Israel to travel from Gaza to the West Bank three years ago. With Gaza now under Hamas control and her visa having expired three years ago, she will be arrested if she ever tries to return to her home. For three years she has been unable to see her friends and family. Thank God for the Internet, she reminds me.
“Would you like to see two independent states, living side by side?” I asked them both at dinner on our first day.
“No,” Osama replied with conviction. “Even if we had our own state, Israel would still control us. We have no airport, and all of our borders are with Israel. They give us our food, our water, our electricity. If we do something they don’t like, they would strangle us and cut us off from the rest of the world like they have done in Gaza. Two states could never work.”
I had expected to hear a clear and confident yes. On my side of the wall, it’s hip to support two states: It shows that you’re aware of the issues out there and support the Palestinians, but you’re still Zionist enough to get the Israeli stamp in your passport. I could only ask in response, “What kind of state would you like to see?”
Betty replied this time because her English is much better than his. (We were told to avoid Hebrew for fear of offending anyone.) “One state: Palestine, as it used to be, with everyone living together. We don’t hate the Jews. We don’t want them out. We just want life to go back to the way it used to be.”
I have to admit, she made a convincing argument. One country with everyone living in harmony? It sounds fantastic to me. I’d love to see a place where ethnicity and religion have little impact on society, but of course there’s reality to deal with. We decided to change the subject.
We spent the rest of the night talking about our favorite movies, things to do and, of course, the number of friends we each had on Facebook. Some things, it seems, are universal.
After our dinner Osama and Betty drove us around Bethlehem and the neighboring towns of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour, all of which are surrounded by the wall and kept apart from Israel. We passed destroyed buildings, one after the other. Some had been destroyed by F-16s, others by Israeli bulldozers. Some houses had been rebuilt (illegally) by villagers and foreign visitors; others remained piles of rubble. No one has the money to rebuild legally, and permits are hard to come by.
The next morning found us at the Church of the Nativity, followed by a return to our program and the continuation of another hard day.
The last component of our trip was a tour of the village of Al-Walaje, a town that until 1948 was six kilometers (3.7 miles) north of its present location. Its residents were evicted when Israel conquered West Jerusalem in the War of Independence and moved farther south, where they would stay until 1967, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem and the West Bank and their lands were annexed to be part of the “reunified” Jerusalem.
Today the residents are in a bitter fight at the Supreme Court: The separation barrier is slated to go straight through their village, taking with it all of their houses and land.
Aside from Jerusalem’s expansion from the north, the settler-only road — roads Palestinians are prohibited from using, although they run right through the West Bank — leading from the settlement bloc of Gush Etzion is strangling them from the west while the Jewish settlement of HaGilo is crushing them from the east. They will soon be forced out of their homes again because Israel is trying to create territorial contiguity between the settlements of Gush Etzion (Efrat, Alon Shvut, Bat Ayin, Migdal Oz) and Jerusalem.
The Israelis say that through a network of tunnels the Palestinians will have “transportation contiguity” to their villages, rather than land contiguity. The Palestinians say that it’s just another way for Israel to cut them off from each other and from their livelihoods.
So what now? How can anything be solved when neither side has shown the other that peace is an actual objective? How can Israel show the world that it is serious about giving the Palestinians the West Bank when it keeps building new Jewish settlements over the Green Line? How can the Palestinians persuade the Israelis to pull out of the West Bank when the only example of self-government is the political chaos of the Gaza Strip?
I thought I had the answer, I really did. To be honest, I still kind of believe I do. But of course, with every possible solution, reality tends to get in the way.