Loewenstein: Looking for God in a West Bank colony, Jews shoot me death stares

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Antony Loewenstein writes from East Jerusalem:

The occupation hits you from the very beginning. Arriving at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, I caught a shared shuttle to East Jerusalem. I noticed an advertisement mentioning service to a number of settlements. It’s simply a normal part of life. No shame, no hiding, not even brazen. 

Welcome to Israel.

The growing and visible religiosity of the city is apparent. I rode in the car with mostly religious American Jews, their conversation shifting from clipped English to Hebrew. Garbed in traditional black hat, black suit, black shoes and white shirt, they spoke mainly about everything other than Judaism. They were dropped off in various neighbourhoods, but everybody walking the streets there was ultra-Orthodox, from young boys and girls to women all seemingly pushing prams. They’re giving the Palestinians a run for their money over the birth-rate. 

More significantly, however, like any other religious society, diversity of views aren’t welcomed; conformity is. Anti-Arab racism is on the rise, including the defacing of Arabic street signs (). Orthodox Jews attacked a female Australian journalist here last week for simply observing a protest. As a journalist friend of mine asked me today, where are the news stories in the Western media of incendiary comments by Rabbis and Jewish figures during Friday night Sabbath services? We both agreed that it was far easier to attack loopy Muslim clerics.

Despite Israel's claims, it's clear that East Jerusalem is part of the West Bank itself. Few Jews are sighted, and the ones I’ve seen look lost. The Muslim call to prayer echoes across the roof-tops. The beating sun ricochets off the Damascus Gate as aimless men stand and stare. Women hurry. Children play. Jews and Muslims rarely interact, except between Palestinian and IDF officer.

I met an English man in my hotel this morning who told me about his years working as a water consultant. He asked if I’d read the recent World Bank report on the issue. I’d skimmed it, but the message was clear: Palestinians only get a quarter of the water Israelis have access to. “Fuck the Israelis”, was his succinct response. He lost me, though, when he said that, “Jews historically have made two great mistakes. One, to be money-lenders in ancient times and two, allowing themselves to be used as pawns in the region by both the Brits and Americans.” I replied that the Israelis and many Jews didn’t see it that way, as Israel was a relatively thriving state supported by the major powers. 

I spent the afternoon with a foreign correspondent colleague traveling through the West Bank. We visited an illegal outpost near Jerusalem, a motley collection of caravans, shipping containers, barbed-wire fence, green scrubs and electricity. It was hard to tell how many people lived there, but probably no more than 100. I received death stares from the Jews who saw me. 

It all seemed peaceful enough, just Jews making a home in God’s land. But, of course, the tranquility is deeply deceiving. Such outposts would have to be removed if the Palestinians were ever to establish a viable state. Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit asked a few days ago whether President Obama would accept existing settlements if the outposts were evacuated. We have to hope not, though this is probably the most likely short-term reality. 

Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz wrote this week that the settler movement was just like any other, expanding the vision of Zionism, but clearly the world didn’t like this vision. He couldn’t really understand why.   

I last visited the West Bank in 2005 and remember then being struck by the desolate beauty of the landscape. Much of the land remained unoccupied then, and still today, but the strategic hilltops are largely captured by colonies. It’s a harsh beauty, desert-like and unforgiving. The sun is punishing. 

During a lunch in Ramallah over various plates of cooked meat, the foreign correspondent and I discussed reporting of the conflict. He was pessimistic about any prospects for peace, not least because the settlement movement was so pervasive. He said that the Gaza war was a defining moment for him, an “indiscriminate” battle that achieved nothing other than destruction. He was critical of Zionism and Israeli security policies. 

Visiting Arafat’s grave, something I had done in 2005 when rubble surrounded the Muqata compound, was surreal. The Palestinian Authority has clearly received international funding to erect a shrine to their dead former leader. A calming water feature surrounds his grave, as PA soldiers guard the area. Peace and security may not have fully broken out in the West Bank, but Ramallah is Ground Zero for the Israeli and American plan for the territories: “charity, checkpoints and client rulers” ). Updated colonialism for the modern age. 

After lunch we drove to the Ofra settlement, described by Wikipedia as the “flagship of the Israeli settlement project”, containing around 3000 residents. It’s a quasi-legal entity under Israeli law, even if some of the buildings allegedly never received governmental permission. We both commented that it felt and looked like a beach town, something akin to Anaheim in California. Children played in the swimming pool. Palm trees swayed in the light, warm breeze. Streets were clean. Houses looked established. Fruit trees and vineyards were clearly visible; I wondered on whose tables such products ended up. 

The landscape is mountainous and arid, but perfectly green grass sits outside many homes. The idea that such mini-cities would be removed in any peace settlement seems fanciful when you see how rooted the people appear to the town. Their existence is illegal and the Palestinians are paying an awfully high price for a handful of Jews to find God, but drawing a line between a Jewish and Palestinian state is next to impossible with these facts on the ground. Colonies such as Ma’ale Adumin tower on the horizon. 

Perhaps the strangest sight of the day was watching a handful of IDF soldiers helping a Palestinian women change a tyre on a West Bank road. I wonder how much more she must respect the occupation after that kind deed.

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