Sunday, January 23, 2011

Settlement Tour

January 23, 2011

This past week we went on a tour of settlements. Settlements are Jewish communities established across the Green Line in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is separated from the rest of Israel by this thing that is called “the separation fence” (if you’re more right wing), “the separation wall” (if you’re more left wing), or “the apartheid wall” (if you’re super left wing.) We drove in an armored bus, which looks to the naked eye just like other buses except with double windows, across a checkpoint and into the West Bank.

Before we crossed the line we visited was Arab village just on the Israeli side. We met with a linguistic sociologist from Canada whose first language was Yiddish, named David. We sat outside in a park in the bitter wind as he told us about living so close to the green line, some about the sociology of Arabic in Israel/Palestine, and what it’s like to be both a researcher and friend to the people who live there. We then went up to the house of a friend of his and heard about how he is campaigning to get street names and addresses for the Arab villages. Many of the villages, this one included, have no street names or numbers because they are built by clans, and the people who live there all know where everyone lives. But in terms of living in the modern world – getting mail, paying taxes, being distinguished from the 12 other Ahmad Farams in your same village – you really need an address. He has encountered quite a bit of resistance from within the community and is seen as quite a rebel, but he really believes in what he is doing. He gave us coffee and fruit and pastries, and we all said how much we love Arab hospitality.

After that we went across the green line and met with this man, Baruch, who was born and raised in St. Louis and now lives in a settlement called Bet El. He has seven children, an untamed beard, and carried a pocket sized bible with him. He took us around to several sites in Bet El to tell us about how they can prove that those sites are mentioned in the Bible. There was a clearing where he swears that Joseph (of Technicolor dreamcoat fame) lay down to sleep, and a wine press where something else important and biblical happened. He was incredibly invested in proving these things to be truths to us, because without this indisputable biblical connection, he has no reason for being there. He made it very clear that Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the areas that are now the West Bank, are actually the heart of biblical Israel and, thus, are the most important part of Israel.

We went for lunch at his house (hamburgers, hot dogs, and goldstar?) and he told us some very interesting things. Someone asked him if he would ever compromise on the West Bank. His answer was basically: “if someone asked if they could spend one night a week laying with my wife, what would I say? Of course not. She is my wife, she is mine, you can’t have her. It’s the same with the land. I love my wife, I love this land. You can’t have her/it.” Someone else asked what he would do if Palestine became a recognized state. He, in essence, said: “God forbid Israel should abandon us to the dogs, but if they did we would live here. And if the Palestinians tried to ethnically cleans us, we would be ethnically cleansed.” He also used the phrase “when peace broke out” to describe the situation of the Oslo accords and the ends of the Entifadas.

His connection to this land, based in the bible, seemed to border on fanaticism. He went to lengths to tell us that he has Arab friends, or he did until “peace broke out” and he wasn’t allowed to see them anymore, but when he tried to say something in Arabic to us, he actually said “good morning, fava bean” instead of “good morning to you too,” which was also not what he meant to say, we think. He did not seem to care one bit about peace, about compromise, about any of the shades of gray that are involved with settlements. In his opinion, the land is integral to being Jewish, and this land was given by God to him and it is his destiny and his duty to hold it for the Jewish people.

The last settlement we went to was a very small settlement a few hills away from Bet El. We met with a woman grew up in Bet El, and then went out with some other families to settle a new hill for the land of Israel. Her settlement is famous for having had nine houses destroyed by the Israeli army during the disengagement from Gaza. In the settlements before houses and permanent buildings are constructed, everyone lives in RVs. Her settlement is entirely RVs now, and was entirely RVs except for these nine houses until 2005. One of the houses was her family’s home (she has 5 children), and she was clearly greatly traumatized by this event. She showed us a video created by and for settlers to give them hope, which had footage of the destruction at the beginning of it. It showed huge crowds of settlers, from all over Judea and Samaria, and probably from the rest of Israel as well, crying, praying, and trying to stop the bulldozers. The army charged in with horses and billy clubs, and over 300 protestors were injured. She feels betrayed by the Israeli government and army, which makes her situation even more difficult.

She, raised in the West Bank, really has no connection to the rest of Israel. She lived in Israel proper for a year but it didn’t feel right to her, so she moved back to the settlements. She doesn’t belong in Israel, with the government and army who have so traumatized her, but can she stay in Palestine forever? All the political people say that the two-state solution is coming, and it is only a matter of time before Palestine declares independence. What will happen to the settlements and the settlers? As we know from the disengagement from Gaza, they will not leave willingly or peacefully. It was incredibly traumatizing for the men and women in the army who had to pull people out of their homes in Gaza, and for the people who were being removed. Would the government do that in the West Bank if Palestine declared independence? I don’t see these people leaving willingly, or staying away. As far as I know, there is not the biblical connection to Gaza that there is to Judea and Samaria, so it seems like disengagement from the West Bank could be even harder than from Gaza. These settlers really believe they are doing God’s work, living in the land God promised to them, and they are not going to leave it.

I have no idea what the solution is. I feel much less ambiguous about the settlers than about other Israeli issues – I don’t think they should be there now, and I really don’t think they should be there after Palestine is a state. But I think I better understand the challenges and complexities and why these people are living there now that I’ve been in them.

There are so many facets to this conflict, I don’t know how it’s ever going to end.


  1. I just wanted to let you know that I love reading this blog. Thanks for thoughtfully sharing the awesome experiences you're having.

    It's real fun to read, I say.