Back in the West Bank (part III)

Posted: August 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: media, The Settlements, this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

This is my third and final post regarding my recent army service in the West Bank (here are parts 1 and 2). Next week it’s back to blogging as usual.

A few hundred meters from our base, located north of Jericho, lies the settlements “Mevo’ot Yericho“, home to a couple of dozens families. As far as the army is concerned, Mevo’ot Yericho is not different from Kibbutz Gilgal, Tomer, or any other Jewish settlements in the area. There are soldiers guarding at the gate, an army patrol occasionally drops by to check if everything is OK, and the residents of Mevo’ot Yericho pass daily on our checkpoint, about a mile up the road leading to Jericho city. Nothing can hint that Mevo’ot Yericho is – according to the official minister of justice report – an illegal outpost, part of the much debated list of outposts that are supposed to be evacuated somewhere in the near future.

Mevo’ot Yericho started as a station for agriculture experiments that belonged to Mitzpe Yitav settlement, some 3 milles away. This is common practice in the West Bank. You start with an army post or an excavations project or an agriculture one, and before you know it, there are some mobile homes there (the people working on the station must sleep somewhere, no?) and the families of the so called workers arrive to spent some time with them (with all the house furniture in the back of the car), and from here there is no going back. Nothing – be that a nature reserve or a scientific project – is ever innocent in the West bank. Everything must be seen and understood in the context of the occupation.

This whole process of outpost building wasn’t possible without the active support of the government. The thought that the settlements are the work of some right-wing-ultra-religious-nuts is still rooted in the Israeli public and among Israel’s supporters abroad, but nothing could be further away from the truth. Mevo’ot Yericho, for example, received until 2005 more than 1 million NIS for infrastructure work through the housing minister’s office. And this government aid was given by left and right wing governments alike.

But the most important government agency linked to the settlements project is the army. Every settlement has a person who is in charge of its security. Usually, it’s one of the settlers there. He is paid by the government, and stands in daily contact with the army. Whenever he has some problem or concern, he can take it to the officers in charge of the region with a simple phone call. Furthermore, most settlers are reserve soldiers and officers themselves, and many of them serve in the units that are in charge of the same area where they live (it’s actually army policy to station some of them there).

The ties between the settlers and the army go even deeper. There is another outpost near our base, called Omer Farm. It’s a smaller one, with one family and a few workers, and like Mevo’ot Yericho, it holds some large plantations and the area. There is also a swimming pool in Omer Farm, and every now and than soldiers from our base go there (though they prefer the much larger pool in Tomer). And if the soldiers want to buy something, they usually drive to one of the settlementsw grocery stores. The Palestinians’ shops are much cheaper, but the soldiers are not allowed to buy there, for security reasons.

If the everyday lives of the Palestinians are completely separated from these of the soldiers (thus enabling them not to see the Palestinians as people like themselves, but only as suspects), the case with the settlers is the complete opposite: there are strong personal and even emotional ties between the army and the settlers, both at the generals level and the common soldiers alike. The soldiers see the settlers as common Israelis like themselves, and are almost blind to the political context of their present there.

In our region, Mevo’ot Yerich, Omer Farm, our army base and the checkpoint down the road are creating together a geographical barrier between the city of Jericho and the important village of Auja, some mills to its north. Since both the city and the village are surrounded by the mountains from the west and highway 90 to the east (which is under Israeli control and off-limit to most Palestinians), both Auja and Jericho can’t develop anywhere. Israeli officials are talking all day about the settlers’ natural growth problem, but when it comes to the Palestinians, there is no question about it: they simply have nowhere to go. All this escapes all the soldiers I’ve been talking to. They just don’t give it a thought. The Palestinians’ problems are invisible, as often are the Palestinians themselves.

Recently, the Supreme Court forced the army to allow Palestinians to enter the Dead Sea (the northwestern corner of the lake is in the West bank). For security reasons (naturally), swimming is only allowed in the privately operated official beaches. Entry prices are high, even for Israelis. But still, some Palestinians go. When the people from my unit first saw the Palestinians on the beach, some said something like ‘this is wrong. How come they are allowed here?’. In fact, even I got a strange feeling from going to swim with the same people I was checking for IDs just a few hours ago.
We got so used to seeing Palestinians in different places, and in different context.

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Last week, about two days before our service ended, an ugly incident occurred. The soldiers on the unit adopted a dog, which stayed with them in the checkpoint. This is a very small checkpoint, on a road with not many cars, but occasionally, there is a line of five or six cars. The settlers and the army cars pass the line from the left, while the Palestinians wait. One night, a car from Mevo’ot Yericho, ran over the dog. Morning came, and the body of the dog was still there, near the roadblock. Hours passed. It was getting hot (temperatures get there to more than 110F around noon). My company commander asked HQ to send someone to get rid of the dog, but apparently they took their time. Finally, a soldier at the checkpoint took initiative, and ordered a Palestinian which passed there with his car to take the dead dog with him. We only learned about it hours later, and there was nothing to do, so we let this one go. These kinds of things happen every day somewhere in the West Bank.

Given such incidents as well as my political ideas, I know my next statement might sound strange, but there were times I enjoyed the service. The conditions were poor and the heat was terrible, but I like the people on my unit and it felt like a nice break from my daily routine (I think that’s two reasons many Israelis go on doing the reserve service). And as I wrote in my first post on this issue, this was no “hardcore” occupation. Jericho is not Hebron.

But this is exactly the problem. The reality of the occupation is in the banalities of everyday life in the West Bank, and most notably, in its hidden corners: It is the daily incidents in roadblocks which appear to end with nothing. It’s the guy from Auja who is told to close his small shop because a stone was thrown a mile down the road. It’s the swimming pool in Omer Farm, when many Palestinians around are craving for running water in the August heat.

It’s easy to see the situation through the reports in the media, but this way, we are only exposed to the extremes – the question of the so-called massacre in Jenin, The a-dura affair, operation Cast Lead, and on the other hand, all the talks about the good life in Ramallah and Jenin today (which are, from what I gather, extremely optimistic and exaggerated). Important as these stories are, i think they don’t describe the nature of the problem that well.

I spent many months in the Palestinian territories, even years, and I never shot or beat anyone. At first, there was even a strange satisfaction in “doing the job right” (and with the least possible harm), though I stopped having this feeling with regards to the army service many years ago. I can live with everything I personally did, and so can most of the people I know. But when you sum it all up, the whole situation is inhuman, and consist of so many daily humiliations and cruelties that no one gives much though to – not the peace-wishing-leftists in the suburbs of Tel Aviv who believe in organic food and the two state solution, nor the automatic Israel-bashers around the world who claims all Israelis are Nazis.

Israelis are not Nazis, but they are all responsible for the occupation. Contrary to what many tend to think, this is not some tragedy which occurred to us, Palestinians and Jews alike, but rather a political situation, in which one side enjoys many rights and privileges while the other is reduced to little more than surviving. All the rest – national security, the nature of the solution, the demography and the geography – is secondary. We should keep that in mind.

In that sense, and in that sense only, I am happy I got to do this reserve service.


6 Comments on “Back in the West Bank (part III)”

  1. 1 Guy Balter said at 11:43 pm on August 22nd, 2009:

    I read all the 3 parts of your last experience in the west bank. I was very interested to read it, because I ask myself similar questions about military service. I highly admire your sincerity in writing these posts.
    Your description of the daily life reality, the banality of the occupation, is important, but nothing new – more over, the situation people are dealing with is much more harsh than what was described here. It’s important to be said.
    The most interesting question to me, regarding this very personal post, was not answered in the end – will you serve again in the occupied territories or not?
    I’ll not push you for an answer, but this question was raised by you in the first post…
    Again, it’s only because I highly admire your sincerity here that I express in this way.

    Guy

  2. 2 noam said at 12:08 am on August 23rd, 2009:

    Guy,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the situation is probably harder, but I only wrote what I’ve seen myself. Moreover, I’ve wanted to concentrate on the soldiers’ perspective, because that’s part of the thing that allows the occupation to go on and on.

    As for my next service – I really don’t know. I’d like to think I won’t serve there again.

  3. 3 Arrna said at 6:15 am on August 23rd, 2009:

    I have to appreciate your honesty. I do not want to comment on the whole entry but one point I always find interesting. It is the Nazi analogy. You say the Israelis are not Nazis, but what are the Nazis? Only the SS officers? the people who worked in factories that produced the gas? the people who did not ask questions? the people who knew and did not care (since they were not jews or roma)? or Eichmann (the bureaucrat with Jewish family members and Jewish friends but nevertheless signed the papers)? I usually do not like the Nazi analogy (simply because I think it diverts the whole discussion and I never really met a Nazi from the 30s and 40s). But it always fascinates me how we (humans) now speak about the Nazis as if they came from a different planet, as if they are something super unique.

  4. 4 Tal said at 4:27 pm on August 29th, 2009:

    Hi Noam,
    When I go to reserves, I usually try to remember that the story is more complicated. There are not wealthy people and deprived people. There is a people that brought on themselves their misruble situation by setting themselves always to violence. From the 1921, 1929, 1936-9 and onward, the Palestine resorted to violence, and this is what they got. If their face were headed for true peace, they would have had their lands by now. But they proved in the 1990′s that they will not rest, until they will occupy all Palestine, including Tel-Aviv.

    Therefore, What I try to do when I’m in reserve (I am an officer), is to do our job as humanly as we can, and also to preserve the safety of Israeli citizens. until the politicians will find their way for a solution.

    When I’m back home, I strive for a solution as a member of the Israeli direct democracy movement, Which I think is the solution for the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

  5. 5 noam said at 1:07 pm on August 30th, 2009:

    Tal

    Thanks for your comment. While I appreciate and applaud your desire to “do our job as humanly as we can”, I don’t agree with your basic reading of history, regarding the Palestinians turning to violence whenever peace presented itself. I believe Israelis have their share of responsibility for the situation, especially in the last 40 years.

    But I think our differences go even deeper – I really don’t think you can accuse a whole nation of “deciding” to do something, especially over a whole century. There are circumstances and internal politics, and so on – the same problems we understand so well when it comes to us. I believe this way of thinking leads to unfortunate ideas, such as Yaalon’s hope “to burn [our narrative] in the Palestinian’s consciousness”. Well, we try again and again and they seem not to learn.

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