The final installment of Jane Harries’ blog series concerning her recent visit to Israel and Palestine.
Friday 14th July. On the face of it we had a very easy journey to make. Firstly we would visit R., an Israeli (originally from the US) living in the Gush Etzion settlement and an Alternatives to Violence Project(AVP) facilitator to discuss how she might like to develop AVP workshops in the future. We would then cross over the Israeli-controlled Route 60 to visit the Palestinian grassroots leader Ali Abu Awad in his compound before returning to Bethlehem. All these places are within a few kilometres of one another. The difficulties we had getting from one place to another highlights the complexities of negotiating human encounters in a land characterised by segregation and military occupation.
Our journey began when we picked up a taxi from Manger Square in Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories. When we told our driver that we wanted to go to the Gush Etzion settlement, he was already nervous, and explained to us that he could only take us to the Junction, but wasn’t allowed into the settlement itself. We explained that we knew this, and that we would be met by a friend from the settlement. As we set off our driver told us that there had been army incursions into Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem that night, and that a resident had been killed. This was causing a lot of delays at checkpoints. Armed with this knowledge, he did what Palestinians are used to doing all the time: he found a way round that avoided the checkpoints. So much for security, we mused…..
We were dropped off near to the Gush Etzion Junction on Route 60, not far from a settler-only bus stop. Here there was a group of armed soldiers, who were initially wary of our group: five Westerners – strangers – all with ruck-sacks. (The Gush Etzion Junction has seen a number of violent incidents over the years, including as recently as November 2015). We soon got into conversation, however, even if this was at quite a superficial level, and one of them showed interest in what we were doing on the West Bank and Israel, supporting people to deal with conflict better.
We were picked up by R. and taken to her house. Gush Etzion has an interesting if controversial history. It is in truth a cluster of settlements comprising at least 70,000 people. The core of the settlement block is the site of what were four agricultural villages, established between 1940 and 1947 on land purchased in the 1920s and 30s. These villages were destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and then left outside of Israel at the 1949 Armistice. After the 1967 Six-day War and the occupation of the West Bank, the villages were rebuilt and reclaimed by Israeli settlers. The extent of the present settlement, however, far exceeds the original site, taking in swathes of privately-owned Palestinian land. Israeli settlements on the West Bank are regarded as illegal under International Humanitarian Law (Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) and by most of the international community.
I was surprised by how small R’s house is, and found myself wondering how it must feel to live in this gated community, constantly guarded by soldiers and with the knowledge that the legality of one’s existence in this place is disputed by international law. How could one feel comfortable in one’s skin? We didn’t go into this, although the elephant in the room remained (for me) during the whole of our conversation. We sat at the table in their small kitchen drinking coffee whilst preparations were taking place for Shabbat – a lot of chopping and putting things into large cooking pots and the preparation of dough, which R’s small son delighted in and tried to share with us in small balls. R. shared with us that she had been involved in the organisation Kids4Peace which aims to promote integration and understanding between Palestinian and Israeli children through summer camps, but that she had left because she didn’t feel that the interests and concerns of Israeli Jews and Palestinians were treated equally. She also expressed interest in developing AVP work in hospitals.
I have no doubt that R. is sincere and really wants to use her knowledge and experience of AVP in some way that will be beneficial to society. At the same time, this visit raised many dilemmas for me. How can we resolve conflict without looking honestly at its root causes? R. and her small family – like many others in Gush Etzion I presume – have now put down roots in this place and feel that they belong, but at what cost to others? If injustice and inequality aren’t addressed, what hope is there for a real and lasting peace? How can this happen if the two communities never come together, ready to really hear one another’s experiences, deepest feelings and aspirations? How can it happen without a political solution? As we re-crossed the busy Route 60 and headed towards Ali Abu Awad’s compound on the other side, all these questions were rankling in my head.
I assure him that it’s perfectly safe, but how can I convince him? The whole of his upbringing and training as a soldier tells him differently.
Ali isn’t at home. After a phone call we find that he has gone to a family wedding, so we now face the journey back to Bethlehem in the midday heat. Back out on Route 60 we come across another settler bus stop on the other side of the road. We know there is no point waiting there to get back to Bethlehem – so close and yet on the other side of the political divide. A soldier approaches us and asks where we want to get to. We explain that we want to return to our hotel in Bethlehem. ‘I wouldn’t go there’, he says ironically, his gun poised ready for potential use: ‘it’s not safe’. I assure him that it’s perfectly safe, but how can I convince him? The whole of his upbringing and training as a soldier tells him differently.
We trudge on a little up the slope and start hitch-hiking, looking out for the cars with green Palestinian number plates. We have only been there a short time when a rather rickety car pulls up. When we explain where we want to go, we are immediately invited in. We pile in and – squashed up together – feel relieved to be in a welcoming space. During the journey the driver tells us of some of his experiences – familiar stories of hardship and injustice. He drops us not just anywhere, but right on Manger Square, yards from our hotel. True, it may not be safe on the West Bank: one might just suffer from too much generosity.
Jane’s own blog can be accessed here.