Some things they don't tell you about the West Bank

Here are some things they don't tell you about the West Bank.

The West Bank is beautiful. For some reason, it's hard to imagine a place of great conflict and human tragedy as being a place of great natural beauty, but that's the case in the West Bank. In the central West Bank, near Jerusalem, the landscape is hilly and lush, with groves and orchards on every mountainside. As you continue south, past Hebron, the terrain becomes increasingly mountainous and barren as you approach the Negev Desert, its stark beauty reminiscent of parts of the American West. At one point, I flippantly commented to a friend that the natural beauty alone is enough to make you understand why people fight over this place. 

A West Bank hillside orchard

A West Bank hillside orchard

 

The term "settlement" is really a misnomer. "Settlement" implies impermanence and transience, as if they can be folded up and moved when the political situation changes. The Jewish Israeli communities in the West Bank are anything but impermanent and transient. No matter where you go in the West Bank, you can't escape the sights of the settlements: dozens of identical, suburban-style houses; large, imposing concrete synagogues, schools, and community centers; modern factories and farms; the fences, walls, and guard towers required to protect the inhabitants of these communities from the people that were displaced in the process of creating them. And they're everywhere, seemingly on every hilltop. The infrastructure alone makes the occupation seem more permanent than I could have ever imagined before seeing it. Which brings me to the next thing they don't tell you about the West Bank...

A hilltop settlement. Sorry for the blur-I took this picture from a moving car.

A hilltop settlement. Sorry for the blur-I took this picture from a moving car.

 

Israel is in the West Bank to stay. In the 50 years since the 1967 war, Israel has become entrenched. There's an Israeli village on every hilltop, the road signs and billboards are in Hebrew, and Egged commuter buses take commuters into Jerusalem as if they're going from Fairfax to Washington. For Israelis and overseas Jews, the process of entering and leaving the West Bank is totally transparent; you drive down a wide, smooth highway,  stop at a toll booth, a bored soldier looks into your car, and you're waved through. The process of driving from New Jersey to New York is more arduous. When driving through the West Bank, you can even see Orthodox Jews in kippot and tzitzit attempting to hitchhike by the side of the road, seemingly without concern for the fact that they're in what most outsiders would perceive as a war zone. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews live some semblance of a normal life there. It's hard to distinguish life here from life in Israel, and it's imagine a world in which this can all be uprooted. 

Another thing they don't tell you: the degree of inequality between the settlements and the Palestinian villages is really staggering. I spent time in Susiya and Umm al-Khair, which currently exist as tent cities established by Palestinians whose villages of the same name were demolished for settlement construction. The residents of the villages were given an impossible choice: move away immediately, giving up one's ancestral land with minimal or no compensation, or stay, temporarily, in a tent city lacking access to public services while challenging the eviction process in court. The contrast between the Palestinian villages and the neighboring settlements was unbelievable; the settlements, as I said, looked like American-style suburbs, while the Palestinian villages are like something out of the developing world, even lacking plumbing, running water, and access to the electrical grid. The contrast was especially stark in Umm al-Khair, where the fence literally ran through the village's fields, and the homes of settlers in the Israeli town of Carmel were maybe 100 yards away. I think the pictures speak from themselves, so I'll stop trying to describe it.

In this post, I mostly wanted to give my initial impressions on the West Bank while avoiding politics. I'll say this, though-I wonder about the psychological implications of growing up in a place of such visually obvious political and economic inequality. How does a child in Umm al-Khair, growing up in such material deprivation in proximity to great wealth, become willing to accept any sort of coexistence with the people on the other side of the fence who are, in a meaningful sense, responsible for the material deprivation? How does a child in Carmel, who grows up living in a fortified compound being taught that the people on the other side of the fence have to suffer for your safety, become willing to accept any sort of coexistence with the people on the other side of the fence? The Hand in Hand school, which I've discussed a bit on this blog, is an incredibly inspiring vision for the future of this land, but there are 10 settlement children for every Jewish child at the Hand in Hand school, and there are 10 tent city or refugee camp children for every Palestinian child at the Hand in Hand school. The Hand in Hand kids, who have grown up in a relatively healthy environment of coexistence, will be outnumbered by a generation of kids who have had the opposite experience. Which group will get to set policy on both sides-the small group that grew up in an environment of coexistence, or the large group that grew up in an environment of fear, deprivation, and anger?

Perhaps the most upsetting moment of the day, in a day filled with upsetting moments, came over dinner in Susiya, after we spent a day helping the residents of the village in their fields. By way of background for this story, I went to Susiya that day with a group of about 25 diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews. Over dinner, a small child from Susiya asked his father where we were from. The father explained that we were Jews from around the world who are concerned about the situation in the West Bank, and the kid just could not understand. For him, "Jew" meant the IDF or settlers, and for his entire life, his relationship with Jews had been characterized by violence and fear. He couldn't conceive of the idea that there are Jews in the world who don't think he's a lesser being and who want him to have the same opportunities that they want for their own children. How many kids are like him, on both sides? How many other Palestinian kids can only think of Jews as settlers or occupying soldiers? How many Jewish kids can only think of Palestinians as terrorists? It's a horrifying reality, and I'm not sure how you change it.