I've heard the stories a thousand times. Palestinian families cut off from their land, "hilltop youth" descending from their settlements to frighten and hurt Palestinian farmers, the Israeli military standing idly by: reminders that in these parts, "justice" is just for Jews.
In college in the States, I studied Middle Eastern politics. I’ve read dozens of books on the history of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. I read the news regularly. I have spoken to many Israeli and Palestinian peace activists about their experiences. I've heard the stories a thousand times- but until last week, I had never set foot inside the West Bank.
Last Sunday, I began my first week of work at an Israeli human rights organization. On my way in, I ran into Quamar, the Palestinian director of the organization's legal division, and Amiel a man with a dignified mustache and a bright smile who I recognized from a demonstration in East Jerusalem the week before.
After greeting one another, Quamar told me they were headed to the area around the settlement of Karmei Tzur, in Area C, to look into cases of Palestinian farmers being denied access to their land.
Following the 1994 Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C. Area C, approximately 60% of the territory, is home to both the majority of non-urban Palestinians and all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to Btselem in 2010, settlers control 42.8% of the land in the West Bank, or approximately 71% of Area C. The rest of Area C is under complete Israeli civil and military control. This arrangement was slated to change as the peace process progressed. The lack of progress in the peace process meant stagnation in the facts-on-the-ground as well. To this day, Area C remains under complete Israeli rule.
"Can I come?" I asked.
Quamar and Amiel looked at each other and shrugged, "Why not?"
I hopped in the car, and before I could say "Palestinian Declaration of Independence at the United Nations," we were in the West Bank.
"Wait, that's it?" I asked, "No checkpoint-ing, no border-crossing, no nothing?"
Rationally, I knew that riding in a car with yellow plates and light-skinned occupants was synonymous to a free pass, but it still felt strange. If I had looked down for a second as we sped through what looked a lot like a toll-booth in the States (if toll-booths were manned by heavily armed guards), I would not have known that we had entered the West Bank at all. Israeli flags and soldiers were everywhere, along with shopping malls and Levi Jeans Trucks and Egged Buses: in other words, the West Bank looked just like any suburb of Jerusalem.
We arrived in the village of Beit Umar, right below the settlement of Karmei Tzur (Karmei Tzur, like most settlements, is on a hilltop, and was built in the middle of Palestinian farmland). We were greeted by a number of Palestinian farmers, who began in quick, rural-accented Arabic to explain their situation.
"This fence you see? This is a Shab"am," we were told by Issa, the unofficial spokesman for the six or so farmers, "Shetah Bithoni Miuhad (A Special Security Area)." This Shab"am, designated by a fence which partially barbed-wire, partially electronic, was created along with a number of other Shab”amim throughout Area C during the early parts of the Second Intifada. It extends much farther than the actual borders of Karmei Tzur. As a result, sections of many Palestinian fields are now located behind the fence. In 2006 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Palestinian farmers must be allowed access to their land within the Shab"am. However, despite the court's ruling, villagers are still routinely prevented from accessing their land during the necessary times for proper agricultural practice, and are instead granted access, as Quamar put it, "according to the mood of the army."
"This, where we are standing," Quamar explained to me, "is what we call 'De Facto Shab"am.'" In other words, in the area outside of the Shab"am itself, the army and settlers often behave as if it too were part of the Shab"am, although it is not "legally" declared a Special Security Area.
In the middle of the conversation about the Shab"am, another farmer, Ahmad, began to speak:
"Here, in 2002, one of the settlers beat me, as I was working in my field. And the soldiers? The soldiers they sat and laughed…"
He started to cry.
Surprised at our conversation's spike in emotion, I swallowed and looked down at my feet. I felt acutely aware that I, in all likelihood, looked quite similar to the person who beat Ahmad: blue eyes, light skin, dark hair, bearded. A knit yarmulke.
Everyone stood silently for a moment, and then we followed Ahmad down to his field. There I realized that Ahmad had told us of the event in 2002 as context, as a backdrop for his latest round of suffering.
"They cut all of them," he told us, between sobs, and gestured to his grape vines, which clung to their metal cages, brown and withered. The bottoms of all of Ahmad's vines had been cut by a settler one week ago.
"The army stopped him, the settler, and found grapes in his car. They know who it was, but they won't do anything…"
As if on cue, we saw two Israeli soldiers striding down the hill towards us. One was Russian, and the other Ethiopian. Both Russians and Ethiopians have struggled to assimilate in Israel. Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data, but it did strike me as interesting that two representatives from the most marginalized groups in Israeli society (besides Arabs) were those who had been tasked with guarding this settlement.
The soldiers were just kids. I looked at their guns, guns which had once inspired a feeling of awe and admiration in a younger me, and I was afraid for a moment. The fear was jarring, but it passed quickly. I knew that arrests were unlikely and violence was nearly impossible: not just because we weren't doing anything wrong, but mostly because some of us were Israeli citizens.
Indeed, the soldiers didn't say anything at first. They simply stood and listened to our conversation. But after a few minutes, the Russian-Israeli soldier told us we had to leave a certain area of the field.
"Do you have a written injunction saying that?" Amiel asked.
"No, but…" the soldier began to reply.
"OK, so if you don't have an injunction, then it is not forbidden," Amiel said, and motioned to the rest of us to follow him. We climbed over a stone terrace, and walked into the "forbidden" field. The soldiers said nothing.
We were shown another field of grapes. In this one, the settlers had come, two days after slitting Ahmad's vines, to tear down all of the grapes from this second field. Then they stomped on them. The field was littered with squished purple grape skins- the vines were bare.
"What happens… now?" I asked, knowing the answer I would get, but hoping, nonetheless, that this case would be different, that a team of lawyers and activists could somehow bend the rules of occupation.
"We can try to help," Quamar said quietly, "but the deck is stacked against us." According to the Israeli legal organization, Yesh Din, between the years of 2005 and 2010, over 90% of cases filed by Palestinians against Israeli settlers were thrown out because of "an unknown perpetrator" or "lack of evidence."
The settlers of Karmei Tzur have no motivation to reprimand one of their own-- let alone fine or punish him. And the army? "They sat and laughed." Or perhaps, they felt the same mixture of anger and sadness that I felt. But regardless of how individual soldiers felt about the attack on Ahmad’s field felt, it is the upper echelons of the army and government, and not individual soldiers, who make policy. Thus the result will be the same as usual: the army will not help Ahmad or the other farmers receive compensation.
I stood there, in the middle of a field of flattened grape-skins, looking back at the two soldiers, still watching us. Ahmad stood alone by his withered grape vines, rubbing calloused fingers over the corners of his eyes. With his eyes closed, he resembled my grandfather. And the following thought crept into my head: I am witnessing a slow motion nightmare.
The injustices (destroying grape vines and other crops, verbal intimidation, limited access to land, occasional physical abuse) are benign compared to other international cases of human rights violations, and even compared to the levels of violence in other parts of the West Bank. But these injustices are combined with constant fear and humiliation, and colored by a pervading sense of helplessness. Thus calling it a sort of nightmare doesn't seem exaggerated: it feels like the kind of dream where your world crumbles in slow motion, and you stand frozen, unable to move, or act, or even call out.
What I witnessed was not an exception, it was part of the Israeli rule: in Area C, Palestinian farmers are regularly intimidated and bureaucratized off their own land. The lives of Palestinian farmers in Area C are heavy with fear, and contain little hope for justice: in what reads like a cruel joke, the only courts or civil authorities that Palestinians in Area C can turn to are those of the occupying Israeli military.
Before leaving, we asked “I,” one of the farmers, what he thought would happen following the Palestinian Declaration of Independence at the U.N. He responded:
"Nothing will change for us."
I am, like most people, unclear about what the practical implications of the Palestinian Authority’s U.N. bid will be for people like Issa and Ahmad who live in Area C. On Saturday, Al-Quds reported that Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas intimated in a meeting with Tony Blair that if Palestinian efforts at the U.N. fail, the Palestinian Authority may cease to exist. Abbas was quoted in Al-Quds saying that the PA will have to “make a decision about whether the time has come for Israel to fulfill its responsibilities as an occupying power."
In other words, Areas A and B of the West Bank, currently governed by the PA (A) or under “joint” Israeli-Palestinian security control (B), may, in terms of their status, become like Area C is now. It is hard to imagine a peaceful scenario in which Israel is obliged to assume Area C-esque civil and security control over all of the major Palestinian cities.
Whatever happens with the United Nations bid, I can only affirm what I see as the essence of Issa's statement: top-down politics have slim chance of succeeding in ending the occupation on their own. And ending the occupation should be an urgent priority not only for those appalled at its injustice, but also for anyone who cares about Israel’s security and continued democratic existence.
A massive paradigm shift is desperately needed from many angles. One of those angles is American Jewry.
So to my fellow American Jews, many of whom feel, like I do, a deep and powerful connection to the people and the land of Israel, I ask the following: whether you are Left or Right, young or old, religiously observant or secular, next time you are in Israel, take a morning and go to Area C for yourselves. Go to Halhul and Beit Umar, or to other parts of the West Bank. Go with a group, or on a program, or send me an email, and I'll go with you. And if you are unable or unwilling to go yourself, I ask that you read essays like this one, or others detailing the realities of occupation, with an open mind and a vulnerable heart.
Moriel Rothman was born in Jerusalem and raised in Ohio. He recently graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, and is now back in Jerusalem as a New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellow.