Hearing and understanding the Israeli perspective

By EA Peter, Jordan Valley

I have been in Palestine for just over two months and the situation continues to be complex. As I collect stories, I gain a greater insight into the lives of Palestinians and can see how the occupation affects individuals in different ways.

The nature of my work means it has been hard to meet with Israelis and to hear their thoughts on the conflict. This has made it easy to make generalisations. For this reason I went to speak with some Israelis to understand their perspective of the situation and all the varied opinions and experiences that shape the view of Israeli citizens.

Run up to independence day celebrations, Tel Aviv. EA Hughes

Experiencing the run-up to the Independence Day celebrations while spending time in Tel Aviv [Photo: EAPPI/P.Hughes]

UKI EAs meet with Leo Baeck Synagogue members, Haifa. EA Hughes

Meeting members of the Leo Baeck Synagogue during a visit to Haifa [Photo: EAPPI]

Below are a few of the thoughts some of the Israelis I met shared on the issues of settlements and security.

Settlements

In the West Bank there are 150 Settlements and about 100 outposts. When I was in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I spoke to people about what I was doing and places I had been in the West Bank. Every time I mentioned a different settlement (as a point of geographical reference), the reaction of my Israeli friends varied. This was something I had forgotten. To me, settlements and settlers were all the same. They were there for the same religious Zionist ideology and wanted all Palestinians removed from the land. I had been branding them all with the same label. Generalising. In the same way that some brand Palestinians as terrorists.

Whilst visiting fellow EAs in Hebron, I spoke to an Israeli peace activist. His reaction was one of distaste when I mentioned the settlement of Itamar, proving in this instance that I was correct in my assumption. The settlers there are extremists, violent and do not represent mainstream Israeli thinking.

What about those settlers in Qiryat Arba near Hebron? My Israeli friend responded that although there are extremist settlers, the ones who spray “gas the Arabs” graffiti on walls, were in the minority.

Many of the other settlers in Qiryat Arba were there for economic reasons. These people were at the lower end of the social economic scale in Israel and in the settlement the housing was highly subsidised. Many of them were more recent arrivals to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Yemen. They had been dumped here, like in all developed states, out of sight from the clean streets of the cities and suburbs just because they were poor. Unemployment is high. There is nowhere to work, no industrial parks and no tech hubs to attract the highly educated. They most certainly cannot find work in the rest of Hebron, the Palestinian city of a million which surrounds the settlement.

To my Israeli friend, these people too are the victims of Israeli occupation. Qiryat Arba has been designed to grab as much land as possible, it was poorly designed and cheap to build. This means there are few amenities – a handful of shops, a falafel stand and a Lotto kiosk. All are so far apart that a bus is needed to get from one to the other.

Settler tour of the old city, Hebron. EA Hughes

A settler tour of the old city in Hebron [Photo: EAPPI/P.Hughes]

The international community has stated on numerous occasions that it does not recognise Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But for many settlers, the idea that their homes and livelihoods are in fact against international humanitarian law is completely incomprehensible.

The 40,000 residents of the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim live 20 minutes outside of Jerusalem. The well-kept lawns and recycling bins painted by school children gives the sense of desirable family friendly suburbia. A lifestyle so distant from those militant religious Zionists living in tents with guns, waiting to intimidate Palestinian farmers. But under international law, both of these groups are living in illegal settlements.

To access Jericho (where I am staying) from Jerusalem, I travel past Ma’ale Adumim by bus. I must change buses from an Israeli registered car (with a yellow number plate) to a Palestinian registered one (with a green number plate). This is because the Palestinian bus is forbidden to enter Jerusalem (which was annexed by Israel in 1967).

I change buses in Azariya, an Area B town on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Given its special status as Area B, it has many issues. It is under joint Palestinian and Israeli control yet neither side is willing to keep their part of the agreement. The rubbish collection rarely happens so it is burned out in the open, drug dealing and abuse is rife, and poverty is high.

Views of Ma'ale Adummim/ Azariya roundabout. EA Hughes

Views of the Ma’ale Adumim/Azariya roundabout [Photo: EAPPI/P.Hughes]

Although difficult to judge, the population is about the same as Ma’ale Adumim but the land mass is half the size. The town of Azariya lies exactly opposite Ma’ale Adumim. Both Israeli and Palestinian commuters use the same road into Jerusalem yet they part at the roundabout. The only time they enter each other’s areas is if a Palestinian works on the settlement, normally as a road sweeper or gardener. As for the Israelis, they can be seen in Azariya, buying cheap car parts. The settlers may not see their way of life as a breach of international law, but it must be hard not to see or deny that they have the better deal.

Security and Fear

Fear plays a central role in this occupation. It is on everyone’s mind, no matter whether Israeli or Palestinian. It is an effective divisive method.

You hear the stories about Arab and Israeli friends having to choose sides. Whilst sharing a Shabbat dinner with members of a synagogue in Haifa, someone told me the story of a Palestinian man who shot his best (Israeli) friend in the head due to his frustration of continual police and military intimidation for being Palestinian.

A Palestinian once told me the story of a Palestinian woman found weeping outside her house in the middle of the night. The Israeli army had stormed her house, breaking down the door in the middle of the night to arrest her son. For her, as goes the account, the biggest anguish was during the chaos of the evening, she caught a glimpse of one of the soldiers who turned out to be the Israeli boy her son had played during his childhood. These urban legends are everywhere. Every Palestinian and Israeli knows someone who…

Stories like these may be exchanged in coffee shops and at dining tables but there is no denying that the authorities use fear and intimidation to stop most people from meeting one another.

For many Palestinians, travelling through the West Bank, let alone into Israel, is made difficult by the occupation and the 101 different permits needed to cross checkpoints.

For Israelis travelling through the West Bank is a lot simpler; there are no checkpoints and no permits. However many do not. Many are too scared to go into the West Bank. They say they are scared of being kidnapped or even killed. During conversations I had with Israelis who describe themselves as on the left, and who were utterly disappointed with their recent election results and call for an end to the occupation, many admitted to never going to Palestinian cities.

The Israeli authorities try and keep things this way. Red signs line the roads throughout the West Bank warning that to enter a Palestinian city for Israeli citizens is illegal and can endanger their lives. Even during military service, which is compulsory for school leavers, less than half undertake their military service in the West Bank meaning many Israelis never come face to face with the “enemy”. In the words of one Israeli activist:

“When Israeli citizens of 18 join the military, they believe they will do all the exciting things the army do: responding to natural disasters, learning how to diffuse explosives, driving tanks. In fact, many spend hours and hours at checkpoints and watch towers which fuels boredom and frustration. Throughout their whole training period, they are only given a few hours training on how to deal with civilians. They are not prepared to deal with pregnant women who need to cross a checkpoint to seek medical assistance despite these 18 year olds being in absolute control in these moments.”

Area A warning signs in the West Bank. EA Hughes

Area A warning signs in the West Bank [Photo: EAPPI/P.Hughes]

Some who do serve in the West Bank or even Gaza feel compelled to join organisations like Breaking the Silence who attempt to tell the truth about life in the Israeli military and the human right violations they witness, carried out by the Israeli military in occupied Palestine.

Other organisations like New Profile call for the demilitarisation of Israeli society. For them, the central role the military plays in Israeli society is damaging. The military is glorified in state funded schools, conscientious objectors commonly face social marginalisation and many people carry the burden of post-traumatic stress from serving in the armed forces. A fellow EA was alarmed to discover that the Dead Sea resort in which he was staying did not sell alcohol as it was a family friendly place, yet many of the Israeli guests in the restaurant carried automatic rifles.

For Israelis, security is a huge concern. For Israeli mothers with children stationed at military checkpoints and those Israelis who have been affected to varying degrees by suicide bombs in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, they see no need to go to Palestinian cities. The safety of their families is paramount so there is no option but the status quo of the occupation. The effect of the occupation on the Palestinian population for Israelis is out of sight and highly likely out of mind. The occupation, soon to be 50 years old, is older than many Israelis (Israel will be 70 in 2018). It is able to exist in the background, behind the wall, while many Israelis worry instead about the rising costs of living and shrinking job prospects.