I mentioned in a previous post that this trip is fulfilling a multicultural credit for me, so I’m supposed to be paying attention to multicultural issues as I travel through the Holy Land. Upon arrival, I eagerly kept my eyes peeled for living witnesses to the understanding I was slowly building through written accounts of the situation in Israel/Palestine. But we were around the Sea of Galilee, which isn’t exactly a hotbed of conflict. The first time I started to get a sense of the magnitude of the pain associated with this conflict was when we ventured into the Golan Heights to see sites north of the Sea of Galilee. Here our tour guide, who had been rather vague on politics before, presented a very sympathetic portrait of the plight of the former Syrians still trying to live in the area. And, too, there were the sights: a tank covered in graffiti that said “Make art, not war.” The overlook encompassing the UN peacekeeping base and the Syrian border. The abandoned Israeli bunker we could walk through at Tel Dan.
The day after that we went to Sepphoris, and one of our paths led through this thicket of cacti. There was a fence meant to hold the cacti off of the innocent tourists, and that stuff grew right up to the fence, and some of it was trying to grow through.
That picture stuck in my head all through the next day, as we passed into the West Bank. I didn’t have a fully developed concept of what exactly the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories were like until we started passing them: neat white suburban homes with red tiled roofs clustered in islands surrounded by Palestinian homes. It was easy to tell them apart. For one, there was the obvious economic disparity. For another, there were the fences that surrounded Israel settlements.
Those fences are part of a barrier, two-thirds of which had been constructed by 2007 when funding ran out. It’s meant to run the entire length of the Israel-Palestine border. In most places it’s an electrified wire or chain link barrier. Around cities, it’s a 25-foot high solid wall. If the magi had tried to get to Bethlehem today, they’d have had to have sought it via an Israeli checkpoint.
Where there are Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the barrier cuts in to form a corridor connecting the settlement to the rest of Israel. The fact that this cuts off some land that Palestinians claim, not only infringing on Palestinian territory but making travel incredibly difficult and breaking up communities, understandably angers and frustrates Palestinians. To them, settlements are proof that Israel hasn’t given up designs of taking over Palestine.
Why are the settlements there in the first place? Some were built right after Israel took over the West Bank and Palestine in 1967, rebuilding Israeli settlements that had been there before 1948, or occupying strategic positions like the Golan Heights. Others were built later, by ideologically driven Jews frustrated by the more moderate Labor government, who felt that it was their religious duty to resettle the land. Still more were built after a new political party, Likkud, came to power in the late seventies and encouraged such settlements. And in the 1980s, the government started subsidizing “bedroom communities” near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, just across the line in the West Bank. Even in the 90s, when the government froze settlement building, the settlements kept growing as people had families. In 2010, in the West Bank alone (not including the settlements around the municipality of Jerusalem), there were 296,000 Jews living in settlements.
Why do Israelis hesitate to negotiate an evacuation, like they did in Gaza in 2005? I don’t know that I fully understand that yet, but there are plenty of theories. Palestinian territories include historically and religiously important sites, including Jerusalem, Hebron, and Bethlehem, and when you found your nation on a religious identity, maintaining access to religious sites is a pretty high priority. Also, the Jewish settlements are already a fact on the ground, and in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, facts on the ground count for a lot. (This explains the Green Line, which is based on 1948 boundaries that everyone agreed at the time they were made wouldn’t be officially real.) Israelis also have a really bad taste in their mouth after the 2005 evacuation from Gaza and the 2000 evacuation from southern Lebanon, both of which preceded a sharp rise in attacks from Hamas and Hizballah.
Getting the Israeli settlements on the right side of the line, possibly in some kind of land swap deal (though some evacuation would be necessary), has been on the agenda every time Palestinians and Israelis have come together to negotiate since the Clinton administration, but no tangible progress has been made. Figuring out what happens with the Israeli settlements going to be a huge and unavoidable stop on the path to peace. Until it’s dealt with, we’re all just sort of stuck in the fence.