Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Unsettled Settler


Things are ugly in Qarne Shomron for Beni Raz. He's a solid man in middle age with a deeply lined, expressive face. The day we meet, one of the residents of his West Bank settlement has tried to take down one of Raz's posters calling for compensation for those who want to evacuate.

He also threatens Raz with violence.

Driving back to his home in the settlement, Raz tries to report the threat to a blue-shirted policeman wearing a kippa. He is fobbed off.

As he walks away, exasperated, one of the small group of men who were standing with the policeman – a Russian immigrant – pursues Raz across the street and shouts at him.

The problem is that Raz is out of step with most of the other settlers in Qarne Shomron. Raz wants the government to pass a law to buy out him and the other settlers who would like to leave the occupied West Bank. And he is hated bitterly for it.

"You are living in a community beyond the Green Line. You don't like it? Leave. Go way from here," shouts the Russian angrily. "It's not just me," says Beni, "there are 100,000 others."

"You mean there is someone else apart from you who wants to leave?" counters the Russian sarcastically.

"Yes. And I'll tell you something else. You people are terrorising people. You are scaring them."

I think for a moment the Russian will hit Raz. "You want all of this to be Palestine?"

"To give back the land, sir," says Raz.

"What, return this land? This is my land," spits back the Russian angrily. He calls Raz a fascist. "It's my land," continues the Russian, apoplectic with rage. "I bought it [from the state]."

"The state didn't buy it," says Beni. "The state conquered it."

I am outside the little shopping centre in Qarne Shomron, home to 6,500 people. During the second intifada, in the pink-signposted cafe, a suicide bomber exploded.

Four neighbourhoods are built across these hills, deep into the West Bank. There is a new neighbourhood for English-speaking only religious Jews, a place of huge villas, some still under construction. The oldest district has residents both religious and secular. It is a place of rundown and cramped dwellings.

Visible in Qarne Shomron and on the roads outside are posters for the settlers' National Union party.

They declare "I am orange", one of the slogans of those who opposed the withdrawal of the settlements in Gaza in 2005. These days its meaning has been appropriated for the West Bank settlements, and they are plastered over even the Palestinian bus stops.

The story of those who insist on staying – prolonging the occupation for religious and nationalist reasons – is well known. Less well known is the story of those few who are prepared to stick their heads above the parapet and say that they want to go.

"I'm alone waging a war against stereotypes and I'm alone in this campaign in terms of the settlers, because the settlers are very scared to speak out in case anyone one does bad things to them like they did to me," says Raz.

"But I know that from the little people come big things. I'll give you an example, it was four mothers that got us out of southern Lebanon.

"Five minutes before you arrived a settler came and ran and tore down my posters. I asked him not to and he threatened me and said he would do something very bad. He said to me: 'If it weren't here [by a police checkpoint] I would do something else to you somewhere else.' I know exactly what he means. He's a very aggressive person."

This is not so much an ideological issue for Beni Raz but a pragmatic one. He came to Qarne Shomron – supported by Israeli subsidies – because he was persuaded it would be a good life.

Following the erection of the Israel's separation wall, which left his community on the wall's Palestinian side, separate from Israel, he wants his government to help and compensate those who want to leave with the same largesse that brought many of them here. To bring them back to Israel.

Raz is a complex man. No leftwinger, he supported the war in Gaza.

Yet he also expresses sympathy for the Arab villages around Qarne Shomron whose lands have been appropriated. He says the Jews have forgotten their own history of exile. These days he feels more sympathy with the Arab villagers.

His vocal desire to leave, promoted through his organisation the One House Movement, has seen Raz ostracised in his community.

He used to sing at the local community centre. No one wants him to perform any more.

He says he was thrown out of his job driving a local minibus. So now he works part-time as a security guard in Tel Aviv.

"The Jews call me a fascist, they call me a German. They call me an Arab. They call me a land seller. A traitor.

"Okay. If that's the price I have to pay for the goal towards which I strive then that is what I have to pay."

It has even seen differences within his family. His son Roy, who works for the telecommunications company Yes, cannot agree with Raz's stance.

But he is also furious at the way his father has been treated for speaking out. For holding his own views.

Roy believes it is a growing trend in Israeli society – the suppression of dissent.

Sitting on their sofa in their modest house, Roy and his father launch into an argument I feel they've been through a thousand times before.

But the difference, Roy explains, between this conversation and the earlier row with the Russian is that debate is possible. Outside, Roy, believes "dialogue can't happen".

One thing on which the two do agree is that inevitably the settlements will be evacuated.

The centre of their disagreement is whether the settlers – leaving of their own accord ahead of a final negotiated agreement – will undermine Israel's bargaining position.

The only party to openly endorse the views of those like Beni Raz is the leftwing Meretz. It is faring badly with the voters.

Raz's wife, who is avoiding the political debate between son and father, cooks a stew in the kitchen and hums what sounds like Bob Dylan's Blowing In The Wind while their dog Aziza scampers around the house.

"We are being kept here," explains Raz, "to be a negotiating card for the day the agreement is finally made. I am a bulletproof vest for a future government. They could take the settlers out and leave the army. They don't have to keep me here."

Why doesn't Raz simply leave? It is a question of economics. What he paid for his house in 1992, he could never recoup. The housing market knows what the politicians will not yet accept.

But it is not entirely about self-interest. "I'm just a small citizen, I'm not a meteor. With the small strength I have I want to fight at here, to ensure the bill [to compensate those who wish to leave] will be brought to the Knesset; that the bill will pass, and this country will make peace with the Palestinians so that we can live like we want to live."

When I leave, Raz is singing a famous Hebrew song called You And I at the piano. We listen in Roy's room, red-painted and still adorned with the emblems of the interests of his teenage years: posters of the Beatles and A Clockwork Orange. Lines are painted on the walls from the Doors and Led Zeppelin. I listen as the two men get lost in their voices.

You and I will change the world, you and I.

Then everyone else will come.

It has been said before I said it, but that doesn't matter.

You and I will change the world.

Bad will come upon us. It's no matter. It's all right.

It has been said before I said it, but that doesn't matter.

You and I will change the world

It seems to me a good motto for Beni Raz.

Video with Beni Raz here.


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