Saturday, September 09, 2006

Rabbit in the Headlights (Seth Freedman)


Sometimes it’s hard to be Israeli. There are those who think the Arab world want to kill us all, there are those who think that Europe unfairly singles us out for harsh criticism, there are those who think that, sans America, we don’t have a single friend out there at all. Then there’re those – like me – who think we deserve all we get. As I sat on the ruins of yet another demolished house in the tragic village of Al-Nueman yesterday, I wondered why we think we merit any kind of sympathy at all.

You reap what you sow. And what we’ve sown in Al-Nueman can only yield a harvest of more anger, more bitterness, more hate. And that’s just from the residents – what the rest of the world will feel for the Zionist machine is another story altogether.


I took a taxi out to the monastery on Derech Hebron – alighting half a mile from the Bethlehem checkpoint where I’d served on my tour of duty. Alex and Franck were already there, waiting in the afternoon sun for our guides. I’d come with no baggage – no agenda, no axe to grind, no fixed ideology to cling to. I was treating this trip as an anthropological safari, an opportunity to add to my already burgeoning file of hands-on experiences in West Bank towns and villages.

On field trips with my history class at school, we were drilled in the art of fact-finding. Always treat first-hand accounts with a degree of scepticism, since your interviewee could well be looking to skew facts to give credence to their personal bias. Always be balanced with your research – if you ask one side, you have to ask the other. Don’t let your own viewpoint cloud the way in which you seek out facts.

With all of this in the back of my mind, I smiled uncertainly at the six people who climbed out of the two cars that pulled up next to us on the dusty road. Efrat, the forty year old Israeli woman in charge of the tour, took no time in getting down to business. She launched into a polished, well worn speech about the village we were to visit, its history, its residents, its current problems.

To put it succinctly, Al-Nueman has been done like the proverbial kipper. Twenty two houses, home to a tight-knit community who have lived in the same hills for generations, it sits on land annexed by Israel during the ’67 war. However, due to the villagers’ clan chief living in a town located deeper in the West Bank, the Al-Nueman residents were registered under his address, and consequently denied Israeli status and IDs. This meant they could not enter Jerusalem – fine, until the plans for the security wall were finalised. Al-Nueman is to be fenced off, like countless other Palestinian hamlets and villages, but they’ll be on the Israeli side of the wall when it’s completed.

West Bank residents who can’t go to the West Bank. People living in Israel proper who can’t go into Israel. Prisoners in their own homes? Spot on. And an utter disgrace.

I’m not going to bang a drum for peace, co-existence, make-love-not-war, and so on. I’ll leave that to the Israeli girls with flowers in their hair, to the long-haired Israeli boys back from Goa with opium-infused fantasies. I don’t reckon I’ll see a lasting peace in the region during my lifetime – and, truth be told, that’s not the reason I go on trips like these. Just like I served in the army to try and understand the Israeli psyche better, so I go to Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, etc to see the other side of the story. And, ninety percent of the time, I come away ashamed of my country in the same way that a child gets embarrassed by a racist or otherwise socially unacceptable parent.

I’m no mug – the fact that there are PFLP members amongst the town’s residents doesn’t exactly make me want to rent a villa there in the summer months; the fact that our host – Yusuf – wore a beatific smile and spoke perfect Ivrit doesn’t convince me that he doesn’t raise his kids to hate Jews, but then this is mere conjecture. Whereas the hard facts are these: Israel has stitched up this village – which is in many ways a microscopic example of the Occupied Territories as a whole – and, furthermore, the whole octopus of Israeli authority is complicit in the crime.

From the upper echelons of government who delay reviewing the residents’ pleas for Israeli citizenship, to the municipality who serve demolition orders on the houses, to the boneheaded Magavniks who hassle the locals on an hourly basis. Magav, or border police, are the dregs of the army – the delinquent kids none of the other units want, those with criminal records and other behavioural issues. Often from poor immigrant families, they have a reputation for dishing out their own style of justice – up alleyways, out of the prying eyes of the media – and I know them only too well.

My favourite incident in the army involved me remonstrating with the head of the Bethlehem Magav, after watching him harass and intimidate a Palestinian woman at the checkpoint. We squared off, pushing and shoving one another in front of a bemused Palestinian audience, confused as to the cause of the battle between the green-uniformed Nahal rookie and the grey-suited Magav commander. I let him know, in no uncertain terms, that I was not scared by his position and that I would take him on every time he overstepped the mark with the locals. Whilst he might have stopped and thought for a while, I doubt it made much of a difference to his long-term strategy – or that of his underlings.

Last December, Magav thugs stopped two Al-Nueman residents, tried to arrest them both, only one of them cooperated and, to cut a long story short, the second was found later tied to his mule and beaten unconscious. The forty three year old never came round – he died, and so too did the chance of his eight children ever forgiving and forgetting Israel for its deeds.


Anyway, after Efrat’s introduction, we all climbed into the cars and set off for the village. We turned right, past the imposing, fortress-like settlement of Har Homa, and down into the low land. Within seconds, the landscape became indistinguishable from the countryside in any of the Middle Eastern states. Dotted on the side of the golden, barren hills were stone houses, and down in the valleys were neatly planted rows of olive trees.

The roads we drove along were in such a state of disrepair that we were reduced to crawling pace – they are meant to be maintained by the Palestinian Authority but, as has been witnessed over the last decade of misrule, the swollen coffers of the PA are rarely put to good use for its people.

Whilst we drove through the neighbouring village of Umm Tuba, I was feeling self-conscious as the locals peered curiously at us from outside their houses. A picturesque image of a young boy and his donkey was tainted as he landed a left hook to its jaw that Lennox would be proud of. Efrat evidently was on first name terms with many of those we passed, and slowed down to chat to the men and women in fluent Arabic.

As we approached the edge of Al-Nueman, up rocked a jeepful of Magav. Their first display of their might was to blare on their horn to attract the attention of two passing youths. They checked their IDs perfunctorily, nothing heavy, and to an outsider their behaviour was perfectly above board. I’m not saying any different but, having spent a month doing exactly the same in Bet Jalla, know that it is this low-level form of assertion of power that keeps the Palestinians constantly resentful of us – just as the black and Irish communities in London felt during the ‘Stop and Search’ years.

We were next up for Magav scrutiny. Efrat maintained that they were coming to hassle us because they don’t like left-wingers, they maintained that they were here for our protection. I reserved judgment – as much as they were winding us up and delaying us unnecessarily, so did Efrat reciprocate, asking for their names, military ID and so on – just a little power battle between two old hands at the game.

They blocked our path for a while with their jeep, before reluctantly pulling over and letting us drive on. We reached the house of Yusuf – a rotund, well-turned out resident and de facto head of the welcoming committee. He ushered us into a beautifully tended garden – lush grass, neat flowerbeds, and rather at odds with the villagers’ assertion that their water was routinely cut off for weeks at a time by the army.

However, splitting hairs was not my aim here – just as listening to the sadly-familiar recounting of IDF abuses by Yusuf was also not my top priority. Anyone can meticulously detail the complaints of the Palestinians, the rebuttals by the Israelis, and go mad trying to see the wood for the trees. You don’t need to be an oleh ex-soldier to do that – and it would be a waste of space me doing it here.

Instead, I prefer to focus on my emotional reaction to the visit. Of the seven of us touring, two of the group were non-Jewish Europeans – Franck, a human rights worker from Paris, and Daniela, a film-maker from Bosnia. Their presence sharpened my feeling of guilt and shame at what we were witnessing – had we been a homogenous group, all Israeli and all Jewish, then perhaps I wouldn’t have felt that our dirty laundry was being aired in public. And this is one of my main concerns with Israel’s policy toward its Palestinian neighbours.

I don’t claim to be a military expert, and I am sure that there are strategists who have an explanation for every little incident carried out by the army in the interests of national security (road blocks, ID checks, house demolitions), but this is not the point. To the outsider, the treatment of the West Bank residents is nothing short of brutal and oppressive, and it is no wonder that organisations such as the BBC treat Israel with such disdain when the likes of Daniela are exposed to situations like that of Al-Nueman. (I considered her as a budding Orla Guerin). We can decry Hamas’ policies all we like, we can use suicide bombings as justification for the security wall, but – until our own house is put in order – we’ll never win over world opinion. Or be able to hold our heads up high.

Because Al-Nueman is a tragedy, plain and simple. There can be no possible humane explanation for the complete cutting off of this unassuming cluster of houses from the outside world. It is nothing short of pure malice – and it’s being done in my name. The government continues with the expansion of settlements, continues to fight terror with Draconian measures, continues to rule the roost with an iron fist.

And almost no one cares enough about the plight of Al-Nueman to do a thing about it. The futility and hopelessness of this particular village is overwhelming – the area has been earmarked for the extension of Har Homa, and the government are doing their level best to bully the residents into upping sticks and leaving. Do the settlers know, or care, what their cheap housing means in terms of Palestinian distress and disruption? Does anyone in Magav realise the enormity of killing a father of eight and leaving him tied to his donkey yards from his family home? Does anyone in Israeli officialdom give a damn that we are displacing and dispossessing these people in exactly the same way as our enemies have been doing to us since Bible times?

I doubt it. And, much as the shame should be felt more by the main protagonists than the man on the street, we’re all complicit in the crime by our ostrich-like refusal to acknowledge what’s happening in our own back yard.

In the Book of Samuel, the prophet Nathan tells King David a parable, during his rebuking of the king for his underhand pursuit of Bathsheva. He speaks of two neighbours – one man very rich, with a flock of a thousand sheep, the other dirt poor, with just one lamb in his possession which he loves as though it were his own child. When a guest comes to visit the rich man, the wealthy farmer goes next door and steals the other man’s only sheep, which he slaughters and serves to his friend for a meal. A totally unnecessary theft, a totally heartless and selfish act – and, I’m sorry to say, Israel is that rich farmer.

We appear to be pursuing a policy of making the Palestinians’ lives a misery just because we can. Leaving aside that overbearing anti-terror measures are actually counterproductive (after all, how many of the dead man’s eight children will grow up to be peaceniks?), what has happened to the collective Israeli sense of right and wrong? Where did all the good guys go?

We all condemn a rampaging mob of settler zealots setting fire to olive groves, just as we all wring our hands in despair when a soldier is found guilty of killing a foreign peace protestor. But when it comes to the bigger, daily picture of how callously we treat the Palestinians going about their everyday lives, the silence is deafening. Think about it – if you needed help because your lights had fused, and the army refused to let the electrician enter your village because he didn’t have the right papers, how despairing at your lot you would become. If you had to learn, from an early age, the correct way to appease some thuggish border policeman just so he wouldn’t impede your journey to school or work, how despondent you’d become. If your dad came home with a black eye and broken nose inflicted by a sergeant showing off to his peers, how ashamed you’d be that you couldn’t fight back and defend your family’s honour.


As we left the village, heading back for Jerusalem, Har Homa loomed above us, underneath thick evening clouds, atop its perch on the hill. For an instant, it appeared like a juggernaut thundering towards the West Bank – ready to crush anything in its way. Which is why I see Al-Nueman as the rabbit, frozen in the headlights – unable to run, unable to avoid its inevitable crushing under the wheels of the eighteen-wheeled settlement lorry. Only we, the voters and citizens of Israel, can put the handbrake on. And, until we do, we only have ourselves to blame when the world points its finger at us.


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