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O, Little Depressed Town of Bethlehem

by Robbie Medwed
Published on December 21, 2007 in JTonline: The Atlanta Jewish Times Online

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.

The Israeli security barrier's path is based on the needs of the Jewish settlements, not the Palestinians. (Robbie Medwed)

The Israeli secu­rity barrier’s path is based on the needs of the Jewish settle­ments, not the Palestinians. (Robbie Medwed)

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.

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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