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Peaceful construction?

Until an agreement is achieved, building -- even in areas expected to remain Israeli -- only defers peace

“The construction decided upon today in Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs is in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible future peace agreement. This in no way changes the final map of peace. It changes nothing.” This was the astonishing response by Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev to the anger on the part of the Palestinians and most of the world over Israel’s announced plans to construct nearly 1200 new housing units in contested, occupied territory. Just as the peace talks are supposed to be proceeding in Washington. And Regev’s statement was echoed by the housing minister, Uri Ariel, of the Jewish Home party, who authorized the construction.

It is true that many of the new units are planned for settlements — Gilo, Pisgat Zeev, Har Homa — which most mainstream Israelis don’t even perceive as West Bank. But they are exactly that, until a peace agreement is signed; building more now only defers peace, as well as the legitimacy of these neighborhoods. Before peace, Regev’s claim is absurd. Make peace, and these settlements and neighborhoods will achieve “within Israel” status. And we will be able to live in peace not only with our Palestinian neighbors, but with ourselves.

I will welcome that day. I have friends and family who live in settlements such as Efrat, and I truly hope that in the context of a broad peace plan, they will be able to stay in Efrat and enjoy the setting and lifestyle. But I am not the only one here who has an instinctive reaction to other Israelis based on where they live. And I don’t like feeling that way. Without peace, many of us feel hostility or suspicion towards all settlers, not just the fringe fanatics who vandalize Palestinian olive trees and livestock, or who roam free on the streets in Hebron where Palestinians are forbidden to step foot. Without peace, we look at labels on wines and organic goat yogurts to check where they were produced, even though we realize that everyone needs to earn a living and the entrepreneurial spirit of many of these West Bank ventures should be applauded. Within the context of a peace agreement, I truly hope that such ventures flourish, because many such ventures will now gain new official legitimacy.

It is only via a peace agreement, presumably based on withdrawal from lands as well as assorted land swaps, that will legitimize the lifestyle and place of residence of so many Jews living in the West Bank and, unfortunately, require some to move. I personally believe that in the context of a final agreement, Jews should be permitted to remain in some towns that become part of the new Palestinian state, as Palestinian citizens who choose to remain in the Biblical lands rather than move to the Jewish state. But all that remains to be worked out, by mutual agreement.

I know we have a long road ahead. I confess to a lack of optimism regarding the current renewal of peace negotiations, but I refuse to lose hope. I am aware of the anti-Israel rhetoric dominating the Palestinian media and schools. I also hear daily how disparagingly Jewish Israelis speak about Arabs. But given how long this occupation has been going on, the family and friends of many who have suffered abuses by Israel and those Israelis who have suffered awful losses from terrorism, everyone will gain by necessary compromise.

I want peace, not just because I want to see an end to the occupation and freedom of movement and rights for the Palestinians and a thriving Palestinian state, and even the liberation of our soldiers from enforcing the occupation — but because I personally want to be a better person. What does this mean? It means that I want to break this syndrome in Israeli society and be able to relate to people for who they are, and not because of where they live.

About the Author
Naomi Schacter is Director of International Relations in the National Library of Israel. The views expressed herein reflect her personal opinions.
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