A haredi boy refuses to serve in the Israeli army and hundreds come out on the streets to support his decision. A secular boy refuses to go to the army and who cares?

Mandela dies and its a headline in the press around the world, I go to the West Bank and wish that I could be blind and dumb.

Its a wet and windy day at last winter is here.

I climb on a bus  at the old El Al terminal in Tel Aviv, the popular pick up point for tours. I encounter a  assorted number of people, none of whom I know personally. There are two guys with filming equipment one of whom speaks hebrew. Also a couple of journalists from New Zealand.

I must have been to the West Bank three or more times this  past year.

My experiences have been different with each visit,not including the the ones during which I spent time with members of a family, whom I love.

During the spring I went with a travel guide who happens to be my neighbour and a group of pensioners, to visit the Shomranim who live on Mount Grizim near to Nablus. It was a fascinating visit and although I am not going into details here, would recommend it.

The trip was well organised and enjoyable, with the exception of the brainwashing we received during our stops  at  Rami Levy in Rosh Hayin, Shaarei Tikva and Ariel.

Naively, I did not expect that the tour would indeed be political.

The guide constantly gave examples of how good life is for the Arabs in the area. “See they work and shop at our commercial centres and they have a higher standard of living than they ever had before.” I did not feel that I should take her to task on this subject since most of the other members of the group were either agreeing or totally ignorant on the subject.

On the ride down from Mount Grizim I looked below and saw a parallel road full of cars, our road was almost empty and there were no security roadblocks.

“Where are these cars from I asked. “Oh they are the Arab workers going home from Barkan, Ariel and so on. I already told you that they never had it so good” said the guide.

On Friday I joined Combatants for Peace for a tour to Gush Etzion and the Bethlehem area. During the ride to collect others from a Jerusalem pick up point we were told that we should come to our own conclusions, about what we are going to be shown.

I chatted to the guy in the seat next to me about South Africa. He had been born there. Of course Mandela and Apartheid came into the conversation after we both sought out mutual friends whom we might know from South Africa.

He had never been on a trip of this kind before. I am not sure if he had ever been to the West Bank.

I, having worked on presenting Israel’s image to visiting journalists during the years 1982-95, had been there many times, up until the second intifada.

I will not go into the nitty gritty details about the experience.I would ask readers to go to see for themselves and come to their own conclusions as to how they see our future in this wonderful place known to us and to the Palestinians as”the land”.

However you must know, that when I went there a few months ago there were 33,000 haredim living in blocks of flats next to Nachlin, an Arab village of a few thousand. Today there are 40,000. As with many Arab villages where people have lived and toiled the land for generations, Nachlin has been totally surrounded. People hardly have access to their lands. Travel is circumvented to such a degree, that we ended up helping a local who had tried to cut across fields to get to Walajei, another village in which the security wall is gradually creeping round to strangle them, when his car  got stuck in a field.

On the way back we drove through Har Homa. I gasped at the increase in high rise luxury buildings since my last visit. Although some of the residents are secular and live there for economic reasons, a large proportion are also Haredi.

So should that haredi boy be going to the army or not?

Fifty percent of all  Jewish schoolchildren in the West Bank are haredim!

At the Everest Hotel five minutes driving time from Jerusalem’s boundaries the so called “Oasis of Peace” Arabs, Jews, Christian pilgrims and tourists rub shoulders.

We enter a room where  30 people including our group, sit around a table.  It has become extremely cold and wet outside and we eagerly grab a cup of hot coffee or tea and dig into the still warm knaffe someone has kindly brought in.

We start the discussion, ask questions of our Palestinian hosts.We talk about our leaders,Kerry,peace talks and so on.We had passed Nokdim where Minister of Foreign Affairs,Avigdor Liberman lives,so I asked them”Have any of you met him?”We could of stayed for hours but needed to get back before Shabbat.

Before we left Jamil one of their leaders, told his story:

“I am first of all a human being”

In 1948 my family lived in a village which is now part of Lachish.All of my family with the exception of my grandfather fled to Hebron in 1948.From there they went to Jordan where I was born.My parents with my brother and me returned to the land .We thought that we would be able to return to our village,but it did not exist. We ended up in Dehaishe,where I still live.

In 1982 my uncle went to join Hamas in Lebanon and was killed.The kids in the camp hearing the news of Sabra and Shatilla, started to become violent throwing stones and burning tyres. I was known as the”greatest stone thrower”!We were systematically punished,  I spent time in detention and then prison.

I was 16 at the time of the first intifada.They put a nine metre fence around the camp.There were demonstrations and funerals. Coming home with my brother from a funeral a group of settlers attacked us. They shot at him,I thought it was dum dum bullets  dragged him to the side of the road, until an ambulance arrived and took him away. I finally found him in El Mokassed hospital where they had tried to save him from real bullets, which had penetrated his body,they failed.I took by brother’s body home in a taxi.The journey was intolerable.What will ,how will,I tell my mother? He was 14 years old.

Everyone came to his funeral,soon after that my father died and my mother went into permanent mourning,filled with hatred.

I had started to learn but I left my studies and looked for work. I didnt want to work in Israel but there was no choice. I found a job. The boss asked me about myself and when he heard my story he said “OK young man we will employ you,you will be fine with us”.

I found  out  that Israelis were not what I had expected,not threatening soldiers,policemen,settlers,but kind and funny,loved football and food, they were human beings,like me.

I told my mother that there are good people on both sides,she didnt want to know. Then came the suicide bombings,my mother cried at the images on the television,she did not dance on any roof. She said this killing cannot go on,its women and children,they are innocent.

Eight years ago I joined the FORUM for bereaved families.Then I heard about Combatants for Peace which I related to, because all of our members, have been involved in violent acts against each other and have lost family members. This cannot go on.There must be another way.I pray that we will find that way to live together or at least side by side in this land.”  

The man sitting to the left of Jamil,a member of our group then said “I lost my father in the Jaffa riots,I always hated arabs,I grew up in a revisionist home.Here I am today,for the same reason as you.”They found a way in South Africa,why cant we?