Monday, January 21, 2008

Another Point of View - of Greg Sheridan

But I also sought out the controversial images of Israel, in particular those of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A word on definitions. After the 1967 war, when Israel was attacked by a coalition of its Arab neighbours, Israel took territory in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Some of this, Israelis argue, is necessary for security.

It has since left Gaza. Israel is constantly urged to go back to its 1967 borders, but the two places where it has done that, in southern Lebanon and Gaza, the result has been disastrous. It was subject to thousands of rocket attacks from southern Lebanon until it went to war with Hezbollah and now every day Qassam rockets are fired from Gaza at nearby Israeli civilian towns, especially Sderot.

The final borders between Israel and a putative Palestinian state have yet to be worked out. Every inch of territory with a Jewish inhabitant beyond the 1967 borders is commonly referred to as a Jewish settlement. I spent days driving up and down the West Bank and visited as many Jewish settlements as I could. These included suburbs of Jerusalem such as Gilot and Har Homa, big settlements just outside Jerusalem such as Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Adumin, and the biggest, distant settlement, the town of Ariel.

Although I think Israel will be prepared to give up numerous settlements in the West Bank, I don't think any of those named above will be given up under any circumstances. The stereotype of the Jewish settler, as columnist and author Hillel Halkin has written, is of "a belligerently bearded Jew with a knit skullcap on his head, a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other". It's a stereotype I didn't meet at all in any of these settlements, and not for want of trying, although of course I met only a fraction of the nearly 400,000 Jews who live beyond the 1967 lines.

There are certainly ideologically militant and intolerant settlers, but they are a minority. While committed to Israel like virtually all its citizens, the settlers I met lived where they did for a variety of reasons, mainly the lower cost of housing, the communal lifestyle and educational opportunities, and sometimes because of a desire to be connected to biblical lands.

The status of the different communities routinely lumped into the single category of settlements varies enormously. Israel officially annexed some parts of East Jerusalem straight after 1967. Although there may one day be a compromise on Jerusalem, no Israeli government will give up central suburbs such as Har Homa and Gilot.

For an Australian it is almost impossible to imagine the smallness of the distances involved. Gilot was routinely fired on by snipers in Bethlehem several years ago, and so, well before the security fence was put up, Gilot had its own system of walls and shields, especially for children's playgrounds. For Gilot to be fired on from Bethlehem is like Sydney's Surry Hills being fired on from Redfern, or Richmond being fired on from the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Jerusalem, in the view of many Israelis, becomes indefensible without its Jewish suburbs developed since 1967.

The status of Gush Etzion, a little distance to the southwest of Jerusalem, is also intriguing. It was a Jewish area before 1948, when the UN divided the land of Israel into Jewish and Palestinian states, which the Palestinians and their surrounding Arab neighbours declined to accept, so that several Arab nations launched a war on Israel. The Jordanian army took control of Gush Etzion at that time.

After 1967 it was re-established as a Jewish settlement. Gush Etzion as a Jewish settlement has a 20th-century history long pre-dating 1967. Before the intifada, to get to Gush Etzion you would drive through Bethlehem. Israelis in those days commonly went to dentists in Ramallah, because it was cheaper. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians earned a good living working in Israel.

The need to prevent terrorism has compromised everyone's quality of life. Now, to get to Gush Etzion from Jerusalem, you drive through a tunnel road. When you emerge from the tunnel, a good deal of the subsequent road is behind walls. The road is Israeli, the land on either side is Palestinian territory, and of course there are checkpoints to get back into Jerusalem as well as armed guards at the entrance to Gush Etzion.

And yet life in Gush Etzion is normal. Behind the gates people hitchhike routinely (as they do in much of Israel) because they all trust each other. On the day I visit, a group of American Jewish teenagers are there as part of a program to acquaint diaspora Jewish youth with their cultural heritage. They are the normal loud-mouthed, good natured, overbearing American kids.

The only odd thing about them is that they are accompanied by two security guards, in this case Israeli girls who look barely older than the teenagers they are guarding and carry rifles as tall as themselves.

The mayor of Gush Etzion, Shaul Goldstein, tells me that many people live there because of the availability of quality housing. They can buy a good apartment for $US200,000 ($228,000) and for a little more, a house with a garden. That's impossible in Jerusalem proper. And the settlement has renowned schools. Says Goldstein: "We thought during the intifada that people would leave. But people didn't leave. Instead they kept coming, even from Australia, even from Bondi Beach.

"One reason is the community lifestyle. People's children can walk safely from house to house. People also feel they are part of history. I'm driving to work through the path of King David. It's important to me as a religious man."

The most emphatic settlement I visited was Ariel. It's a Jewish town of about 30,000 people, deep in the West Bank. Ariel University College has about 10,000 students, 3000 of them doing pre-undergraduate courses. The student population is racially diverse, as is Israel. The Ethiopian presence is noticeable. But Ariel officials tell me some local Palestinians attend as well, although of course they are under pressure not to.

Ariel is a small but substantial city. It is a beautiful place, full of public gardens and garden homes, and it has a distinctly European air and style. People don't like to use the back road to Jerusalem because even in these relatively calm days there is the danger of attacks. Just a few days before I visit, a Jewish settler, not from Ariel but from nearby, was killed on the road, as it turns out by two Palestinian Authority policemen who simply waited for a victim to come along.

I attend a seminar at Ariel on the international media's treatment of Israel. Leonard Asper, the Canadian part-owner of Network Ten in Australia, delivers an alternately witty and fiery denunciation of the media's bias and hostility against Israel. Later Asper, former Israeli defence minister Moshe Arens and I tour the university. It is doing remarkable, cutting-edge work on laser technology. It is able to do this because of the one million Russian Jewish immigrants who have come to Israel in the past 15 years.

Among them were many brilliant scientists and intellectuals. Some Israeli universities were cautious about hiring them, unsure whether their budgets could sustain rapid academic expansion. Ariel went ahead and hired the best Russians it could get, and the research funds have followed.

I comment to Arens that it is a good time, a calm time, in Israel. He replies: "It is calm only because of the efforts of the Israeli Defence Forces, not for any other reason."

Of course the settlements and their future are endlessly debated in Israel, as is everything else. I left Israel profoundly optimistic about the morale of the society and the resolve of the people, but profoundly pessimistic about the peace process. If there were peace, any compromise on borders might be possible. But too many Arab leaders, and too many Palestinian leaders, are playing for the very long term and still believe that in time they will wipe Israel off the map.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While it's a nice article, I think someone should make clear to him that Gilo & Har Homa are part of Jerusalem proper (At least in Israel's eyes), rather than suberbs.