I wanted to see for myself. Day and night we are bombarded with news, views and opinions about what is happening in the ‘Territories,’ whether defined as ‘occupied’ or by their ancient geographical designation, ‘Judea and Samaria.’ So a few weeks ago, when things seemed relatively quiet, I joined a tour of the area around Qalqiliya and Alfei Menashe that was organized by Machsom Watch.
Showing us where we were on the map that had been distributed, Daniela, our English-speaking guide, escorted our group, consisting of both Israelis and tourists, along the highways and byways of the region. Although I had been warned by well-meaning relatives that the route might be dangerous (and was told not to sit next to a window in the bus), at no time in the several hours that we drove to and through villages and towns did we feel that we were in any danger. In fact, in the village of Hawara, where we stopped to buy falafel, we mingled with the local population and did not seem to arouse anyone’s resentment or even attention.
One of the purposes of the tour was to see how the division of the region into areas A (Palestinian controlled), B (both Palestinian and Israeli controlled) and C (Israeli-controlled) works on the ground. The essential point here is that moving from one area to the other is a simple matter for Israelis and rather more complicated for Palestinians. The wall and separation fence that have been built along some 700 kilometers of the border between areas A and C include checkpoints at various sites. Some of these are open all day, and Palestinians and their vehicles have to be checked thoroughly in order to go through them. Obviously, the task of the IDF soldiers who do the work of policing these checkpoints is to ensure that Israel’s security is not threatened. This inevitably places a heavy responsibility on their young shoulders. I’m thinking of my own grandsons now serving in the IDF as I write this, and it makes me shudder.
Just outside Qalqiliya (a stone’s throw from Kfar Saba) we were taken to a large nursery where plants and flowers were on sale, arranged aesthetically in serried rows, with labels in Hebrew. The clientele consists of Israelis, mainly from nearby Alfei Menashe, we were told by Omar, the friendly owner of the nursery. As we sat in the shade, drinking coffee and enjoying the ambience, he told us about his daily routine. The land on which the nursery stands has been owned, and registered as such, by his family for generations. It is agricultural land which lies just beyond the town of Qalqiliya, where he and his family live. This requires going through the checkpoint at least twice a day, each time involving lengthy delays and checks, especially of his vehicle. At one of the checkpoints, which is managed by a civilian company rather than the IDF, sniffer dogs are used, which the local population finds particularly offensive.
At the village of Nebi Elias we met a member of the village council, who took us up to the roof of the municipality building to show us how the road leading out of the village has been blocked, preventing the villagers from gaining access to their land, and obliging them to make a long detour in order to do so. From the roof we had a good view of the open sewage from nearby Alfei Menashe, which courses down the hill to where the outlying houses of the village are situated.
‘Agricultural gates’ have been set into the separation fence, enabling farmers and others to go through more freely. Some of these are opened two or three times a day at specified times for quarter of an hour. Others are open only once or twice a year, at a defined season (e.g., the time of the olive harvest), and access to farmland is possible only then. We stood on a hill and watched as a cart drawn by a donkey raced to get to the gate just before it closed.
According to an Ottoman law that is still in effect, land that is not cultivated for three years reverts to become state property. Hence the importance for the local farmers of being able to gain access to their land. We were told that in most areas the relations between the Israeli settlers and the local inhabitants are peaceful, if not amicable. In some cases, however, the more radical settlers engage in harassing the Palestinians who come to tend their olive groves, and have even been known to cause damage to the trees themselves. More recently individual Palestinians have conducted ‘lone terrorist’ attacks on Israelis.
At the edge of Elkana we observed a solitary Palestinian house that is entirely surrounded by the separation fence. A special gate has been made in it, enabling the members of the family living there to go in and out freely, but only they are allowed to do so. Cameras and soldiers at the nearby checkpoint ensure that no one else takes advantage of this arrangement.
At the end of the tour, using the term ‘occupation’ for the first time, our guide pointed out the evils and injustices inherent in the situation. The question that remains is, are the settlers the true Zionists, akin to those pioneers who established the first settlements of what is now Israel proper, or are they oppressors who have expropriated land that by rights belongs to others?
One thing is certain, there is no simple solution to the problem, and the intransigence displayed by the leaders on both sides means that any solution is inevitably slipping ever further away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if the age-old Hebrew prayer ‘May he who makes peace in his high places, make peace for us and for all Israel,’ is going to be fulfilled any time soon.