The settlers willing to vacate the West Bank for a Kerry-brokered two-state solution

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Scenic overlook at Alfei Menashe, a West Bank settlement near the Green Line on the Israeli side of the separation wall. (Photo: Allison Deger)

As sundown approaches on Saturdays, Erez Ashkenazi, 29, speeds from Tel Aviv to the astroturf patio of his mini-mart café. Post-Shabbat business is usually ripe at his espresso bar. He can drive the 35 kilometers northwest of Tel Aviv in just under a half an hour. He makes good time because he flies over smooth expressways. Then it’s past the nurseries and a few Bedouin encampments, until finally central Israel’s highway 55 dumps him at the security gate for Alfei Menashe. His bustling drink counter—with bottled beer and hard liquor, lottery tickets, and three kinds of slushies—has got it all, except ice. Because Alfei Menashe is a settlement and even though this bedroom city is only two kilometers over the Green Line, as far as ice delivery companies are concerned, it may as well be Mars.

“From my side, there is less competitiveness. In Tel Aviv there is no room left,” said Ashkenazi, explaining that his shop outsold the few competitors because his stream of regulars. The town’s population is just over 7,000, but Ashkenazi’s success is running a monopoly. Alfei Menashe’s smokers, school kids, and day commuters flock to him to buy candy, beer and coffee drinks as much as they do to gossip and unwind after a workday.

Ashkenazi used to own a café in coastal Netanya, but it was hard to make a living. So last year when his now-partner approached the young entrepreneur to invest in the occupied territories in a place where there were no other coffee shops to cut into business, he jumped. But Ashkenazi didn’t give up his Tel Aviv life and secular, laissez-faire attitude. He is a business owner, not a resident in Alfei Menashe, an upscale, suburban settlement, or what is called an “economic settlement” opposed to an “ideological settlement,” based on the notion of claiming territory by establishing localities for Jews only.

Israelis began moving into Alfei Menashe in 1983. There is no high school in the town, because the residents want their children to be integrated into the larger Israeli society. They value the quality of life and quality of community. When the separation wall was under construction, they petitioned to be on the Israeli side of the barrier. They don’t want to cross a checkpoint or see fences. For nearby Palestinians, though, the wall’s route nearly encircles these localities in order to accommodate Alfei Menashe. 

Ashkenazi and the residents generally do not see themselves as the vanguard of the Jewish state, building a civilian buffer zone between themselves and the June ’67 lines (the 1949 armistice line).  After Ashkenazi closes the kiosk, he goes home and doesn’t think twice about politics.

“Me, personally I don’t want anything,” he said explaining that the Kerry backed negotiations, will they fail or will they succeed, do not interest him, continuing, “It doesn’t concern me.” When I asked him if he understands that his store is considered illegal by international law and most countries in the world he said, “so what.” Excluding the lack of ice, there isn’t much else to differentiate Alfei Menashe from the rest of Israel.

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Givat Ismat lookout point, Alfei Menashe.

Outside of Ashkenazi’s kiosk there is one other fraternization spot. For those who are too young to drink at a counter, a lookout point called Givat Ismat functions as the town’s teenager “make out spot.” When I visited there was even a mattress on the ground, a few lingering cigarette butts.

Givat Ismat takes its name from Ismat Abu-Radi, a Palestinian who is said to have sold his land to the settlers before the first Intifada. The story is murky. There is an old Palestinian cement house still at the edge of the settlement, but now chained closed with an antenna on the roof. The residents of Alfei Menashe say the Palestinian owner lived there until his death. Nearby are elephant trunk olive trees, their width indicating they must have been planted a century ago. The dirt road to the look out passes a fenced in olive grove that is still owned by Palestinians who come every fall to harvest their fruits. With special permits, they access their field through a barbed-wire metal gate that stays locked throughout most of the year.

Today there are no violent confrontations between Alfei Menashe and the Palestinians who work their fields inside of the settlement. Indeed most of the residents stated harassment is an affront to their values. However during the first Intifada, once relatively integrated relations between Alfei Menashe and the nearby Palestinian villages, the largest is Qalqilyia, disintegrated due to mob attacks. In 1987 Alfei Menashe’s Ofra Moses, then 35, was killed by a firebomb while driving on a settler highway. It was gruesome. Her surviving daughter and husband watched as the pregnant mother of two burned to death. After that 600 settlers from Alfei Menashe and other settlements went on a rampage in Qalqilya. They threw stones at the Palestinian mayor’s residence, burned groves of Palestinian orange trees and set fire to homes and shops. The death was thought to have been caused by Palestinians from Qalqilya and in the aftermath, Israeli soldiers took over the streets of the village, kicking out the settlers.

Yet disputes with Palestinians are not entirely a thing of the past. Earlier this year a Palestinian land sale to Alfei Menashe was challenged in an Israeli court. The plot in question is small, less than one square kilometer. The petitioners, heirs to the original owners, proved that a settler real estate company forged deeds. The settler company falsified signatures of the then three Palestinian land holders. The heirs showed the court proof that the owners were dead at the time the documents were created. The judges ruled the land should be returned to the Palestinians.

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Alfei Menashe.

Alfei Menashe is not home to the wildcat hilltop youth, the type that scares Americans and Israelis with their perverse revelry and declarations that Arabs are dogs and they will smash faces to prove it. Rather, Alfei Menashe’s residents are proud of their relations with Palestinians. They speak with delight about the Palestinians who enter their community every day. The grocery store employs Bedouins from a nearby village, and Palestinian construction workers zip to job sites in golf-type vehicles.

And inside of this asymmetrical dynamic, the affection is returned.

A Palestinian woman hitchhiking off of the settlement told me the Israelis of Alfei Menashe are “very kind.” She has no problem with them. They are nice, she reinforced. “Really?” I pressed, “Yes, yes, very nice” she continued, with an expression of confusion that suggested: but of course the relations are positive between the two communities.

Similarly, at lunch with the head of the religious community and his family, the rabbi scolded one of his daughter after she made a racist joke about Arabs blowing themselves up. Because it was a day of rest I didn’t take notes, but he told her something mantra-like. “Always give an Arab a ride if he is waiting for one, a job if he is seeking one.” It was a private parental moment and not a show for me, a visiting journalist. He is known around town for his kindness and humor. Inside the home, the affection between husband and wife, father and children, was thick.

Still the reprimand was also a revelation of the paternalistic nature that hinges the  congenial Israeli-Palestinian relationships in the West Bank. It is positive-racism, and to an outsider an absurdly normalized expression of the conflict. The greetings and checkout lines exchanges about holidays in the others’ culture has the texture of a denial of reality. Yet, perhaps I am the reality-denier, for expecting that deep anger to persist between the two communities, instead of the human will to carry on life despite political disasters.

This is not to say that I did not hear explicit racism, and expressions of the desire to live in an Arab-free zone from Alfei Menashe’s residents, including Ashkenazi, the  corner store owner. “If we don’t live here, then they will take over this area, and this area is for us,” said Ashkenazi. “Even if we go back to exact ’67 lands, I promise you, they want more,” he continued, explaining that Kerry is doomed because the Palestinians want to make a state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

I told Ashkenazi that as far as the negotiations go, that’s false. Days before, the PLO released a statement calling for two-states based on the June 1967 lines, roughly 22 percent of historic Palestine. Ashkenazi said that he thought that the PLO was lying, and Abbas’s interview last year on Israeli television about giving up his refugee claim to his birthplace in Safed, which is inside of Israel proper, was a lie too.

“They lie all the time, it’s a cultural thing,” he said, conceding, “I know it sounds racist.”

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House of “Ismat Abu-Radi,” a Palestinian who is said to have sold land to the settlement of Alfei Menashe before the Intifada.
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Gate for Palestinians to enter agricultural fields inside of Alfei Menashe.

Alfei Menashe shows that even with the best one-on-one interactions between employer and employee, Israeli and Palestinian, inter-personal professionalism is not going to change the deadlock on the ground. Palestinian leaders still want settlement construction to stop, the occupation to end, East Jerusalem as their capital, and a just resolution for the refugees based on the concept of both return and compensation. The Israeli leaders however, refuse to curtail expanding their colonies over the Green Line, refuse to give back occupied East Jerusalem, and now are insisting Palestinian leaders recognize Israel as a Jewish state—something that was not historically a requirement of any previous agreement.

This paradigm of friendly settler-Palestinian relationships set against ever increasing Israeli land grabs and a two-tiered system of rule under military code– that is the norm. Antagonism and violence are the outliers. The contradiction reads like a love letter against dialogue groups, or programs meant to have Israelis and Palestinians “know each other.” Because if settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank sometimes get along amicably, yet the conflict remains, it is obvious that these apolitical associations have done nothing to build a better future for a people under occupation.

It also ironic that the obstacles to peace within a two-state framework—the only framework pursed by the Israeli leadership, the PLO and the American keepers of the process—are places like Alfei Menashe, with their model Jewish-Arab relations. What’s more, the settlers in Alfei Menashe do not see their settlement as a problem.

“What is a settlement really?” said Amnon Carmi, a member of the Moatzah, Alfei Menashe’s town council. Carmi is one of the original founders of the community. Like many settlements Alfei Menashe was built in stages over the past two decades. When new construction is approved, it’s for an entire subdivision, not one house at a time. Carmi and the other founders all paid out of pocket $2,300 of seed money to start a community rec center, reflecting the importance of communal facilities in Alfei Menashe.

I spoke to Carmi and his wife in their living room, my first interview inside Alfei Menashe. Initially they were emphatic about their belief that Kerry will be able to achieve a lasting peace. Also, they lamented the degradation of their ties with Palestinians. Before the first Intifada, they said, the two peoples were more intimately connected. Palestinians friends from nearby villages would give them olives during the harvest season.

As the conversation progressed Carmi raised skepticism about the prospects for peace. “The mistake,” he said, “is not including Hamas.” Recognizing Hamas’s exclusion at the negotiations table is rather unheard of inside the Israeli camp.

Carmi also understood that Alfei Menashe is in contradiction to international law, and understood that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel are allies who work in coordination– two positions that are not associated with settlers. Typically the Left claims such nuances.

“There is a very strong collaboration between the PA and the army,” he continued. “I say this carefully, the interest of the PA, the ‘black work’ is done by the Israeli army.” Carmi is well informed on Palestinian politics. He knows Fatah has crushed its political opposition in the West Bank and that the parties have renounced violent resistance.

Yet like Ashkenazi, the café owner, Carmi fears a return to suicide bombings. Throughout our two-hour interview he kept referring to what he called the “Palestinian Mandate,” which he said is the unspoken political consensus of building a Palestinian-only state “from the river to the sea.” For him, a negotiated two-state solution is the logical end to the conflict; it’s just a question of when the conflict will end. But the delay is: “until Palestinians understand that there is a Jewish state between the river and the sea, there will not be peace.”

Yet in spite of this political distrust, the councilman, just like the town rabbi and town barman, has a fondness for Palestinians and good personal relationships with some of them.

Then something remarkable happened. By the end of my weekend stay in Alfei Menashe, in my survey of settler opinion on the Kerry peace process, I found that everyone I spoke to agreed: If the Kerry peace plan works, and Alfei Menashe is designated as part of a Palestinian state, the residents will move back inside of Israel. They would do their part for the cause of peace. In that regard Alfei Menashe could be called, a settlement against settlements. And its voting record proves it. In the last national election Alfei Menashe voted center-left. Meretz, an anti-occupation party, got more ballots than Shas, a very pro-settler party.

There are more Palestinians in Alfei Menashe than in downtown Tel Aviv. Though wholly divided under the law, with Israelis living under civil code, and Palestinians under draconian military code where even being a researcher at a prisoner rights law firm is illegal, the two groups manage to get along there. Israeli officials are not willing to stop settlement expansion; but if the settlers of Alfei Menashe themselves agreed to it, that is a jumping off point that should be nourished.

But of course, it’s not nourished.

Like 75 percent of West Bank settlements, Alfei Menashe receives a plethora of benefits through a government program for “National Priority Areas,” which encourages construction over the Green Line. The incentives come from six government ministries, spanning housing, education, industry and national taxes. Specifically home purchasers can get [PDF] a 60,000 NIS loan that is converted to a grant after 15 years, a 69 percent discount on land leases from the state, and an average of a seven percent discount on income tax. Teachers receive 75 percent student loan forgiveness, a higher salary and benefits.

Back in 1998 the map of communities to receive additional compensation from the state was developed under former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. His committee said the purpose of the program was to funnel Israelis into these towns, rather than provide support on an at-need basis. National Priority Areas are “to encourage the generation remaining in theses areas, to encourage initial settling by new immigrants, and to encourage the migration of veterans to the priority area,” said the committee.

Of the 553 towns selected for the program, only four were Palestinian-Israeli, prompting a lawsuit from Adalah, an Arab minority rights firm. In the end the court pressed for changes and finally in 2009 the National Priority Area law was re-written to include more Palestinian-Israelis. However the guidelines were vague on how benefits would be distributed, and Palestinian-Israelis continued to be denied support, Adalah argues, because of this. The reworked law approved “regions” for benefits, but did not guarantee that every town in that region would receive the subsidies. The law also granted discretion on matters such as “security” to determine, which localities can continue to reap compensation, and often distance from the Green Line played a factor.

And so in the end it was Knesset, Israel’s parliament that reaffirmed a law that bolsters funding to the settlements, a law that the high court already declared discriminatory. And this path of financial support to the settlements continues to date.

In the wake of the return to direct peace negotiations, at the beginning of this month the Israel added nine new settlement regions to the government subsidies list.

All photographs are by the author.

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