As we left the “Occupied Territories” into the “Green Line” and back into familiar Jerusalem scenery, I sighed with relief. After touring the entire day in the most “dangerous areas” we constantly hear of in the news, going in and out of hardcore settlements, near Nablus and through Palestinian villages, I felt “I’m back at home” in Jerusalem, “safe” again. Boaz Haetzni, my courteous host who drove with me everywhere, politely reminded me that just three weeks ago, 800 meters from my Jerusalem flat, there was a devastating terror attack in which four soldiers were murdered.
It struck me at that point that my media-based concepts on where it is dangerous and where it is safe require an evaluation. I realized an entire evaluation of my position on the question of the Settlement enterprise is necessary, especially now as the US enters a new era of its foreign policy and attitudes towards this specific question.
This is not another op-ed on what I think and believe about the Peace Process, Palestinian State, etc., this is an attempt to just describe what I saw and experienced during this study tour. And in case you don’t want to read further, there is one simple conclusion I have: Go visit with Boaz (or anyone else for that matter), take the same visit with local Palestinians, and then form your own opinion on the question, not by the media.
I was invited to this tour by Yossi Dagan, Head of the Samaria Regional Council, the body that organizes these tours aimed at bringing media personalities and opinion-makers to see the region. In 2010 they brought Yair Lapid, then famous television presenter, and today potential candidate to become a prime minister, to see and learn. Yossi and I serve on the Board of KKL (Keren Kayemet Le’Israel known as JNF). Yossi represents the Likud on the Board and I represent the Conservative movement. The fact that I’m a Conservative rabbi did not bother the people I’ve met and they were actually very curious to know more about Conservative Judaism and to meet more rabbis and leaders of the movement. I say this because we often forget we are all members of the same nation and share a mutual destiny. Serving together on the KKL board demonstrates this concept very clearly. It also illustrates the point that a decision made by one side affects the other side, whether we like it or not.
I consider myself a centrist in Israeli politics with a leftward lean, who’s willing, for pragmatic reasons, to give back significant parts of our land to form a Palestinian State. All we ask in return is for real peace to reign in our region and for full recognition of Israel as the State of the Jewish People. Looking around the Middle East of 2017, it is sad but obvious that there is no peace solution in the near future and I don’t put the blame on Israel for that. We have tried several times to come to an agreement, including by dismantling major settlements, but it was rejected time after time and today we face a reality that after 50 years of “occupation” or “liberation” of the “West Bank” or “Samaria and Judea” (depends on what you call it) there is a new reality.
Take the issue of personal security and safety. As I mentioned before, I felt anxious during the visit that we would be attacked, thinking terrorists were just waiting for the opportunity to shoot at us, but that was not the case. During the entire day, we went through populated Palestinian villages and towns, stood in traffic with other drivers, both Palestinian and Israeli, and went through the shops of those places, and the overall feeling of security was relatively high. Boaz said that we are going through a quiet period, and that security is preserved wherever the army is present. In the past 37 years, 97 members of the Shomron municipality settlements have been killed in terrorist attacks. Statistically that is 2.6 casualties a year. Although every life counts as an entire world, and statistics should not be used in these kinds of discussions, it clearly is a relatively low number.
Another surprising issue was geography. Although we all hear of settlements that sit within Palestinian population causing much friction, by and large, I’ve seen that there is clear geographical separation between the populations. The settlements are on the high mountains and the Palestinians are in the valleys. There are also many roads that bypass the Palestinian towns, which were built in the Yitzhak Rabin era after the Oslo agreement in 1993. Contrary to what people think, I’ve seen that Palestinians are free to travel on these roads and the areas of friction are few. There is a terrible phenomenon of uprooting olive trees of Palestinians (but also of Israelis), but that is incidental and condemned by the mainstream leaders and rabbis.
This leads me to another issue, which was very important for me to see: coexistence. No one should think that the settlers are happy that the Palestinians live beside them (which is also true the other way around). But the overwhelming majority of settlers are not actively seeking to hurt them, drive them out, or see them as second-rate human beings. There is a minority of extreme groups that we all hear about in the news, but they have no support from mainstream rabbis and leaders. What disturbed me is that they don’t publicly condemn their despicable actions, which gives the wrong impression in the media that this is how all settlers behave.
In the Barkan industrial zone there are 160 Israeli factories with 7,000 workers. More than 3,500 of them are Palestinians who are getting 3-4 times higher wages than in the Palestinian Authority, and they receive Israeli pensions and social security. If BDS is successful, the ones that will suffer most are these Palestinian workers along with the thousands of family members they provide for.
I can go on and on with more data and observations (how the Bible plays a crucial role in the settlement enterprise, with names like Dotan, Shchem, Yabok, Elon More and more; Archeological sites like Gerizim and Mount Eival; The fact that twelve percent of the Land of Israel is in the Shomron and that it serves as a buffer zone for its security; the cost of living in the Shomron; sizes of the families and the fact that 100,000 Israelis live in the Shomron alone of which 45% are secular; etc.) but you need to get down and see it for yourself. I know many people on the left conduct tours with Palestinian organizations that show them the reality from their point of view, and here is an opportunity to see another view from the other side.
I also have my own criticism on the settlements (settling before getting permits; leading the country into a reality that was never discussed seriously; not condemning racist groups of extreme settlers and more). But after the evacuation of Amona last week, and with strong dogmatic opinions on both sides, I think that the best is just to share these impressions of a one day tour in the Shomron and to tell you: Go and visit and think for yourself!
Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, is the former Executive Director of Masorti Olami & MERCAZ Olami. He serves on the board of JNF Israel as chair of the environment and sustainability committee and he is a fellow in the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, a joint program run by the Shalom Hartman Institute and HaMidrasha at Oranim.