Traveling in the West Bank (Part 2)
As I related on Sunday, my recent trip to Israel, and specifically to the West Bank, provided a vivid contrast to the international diplomatic frenzy over an area that few Americans ever see for themselves.
Late in the afternoon on my day on the West Bank, my guide, Naftali Bennett, and I continued on to Ariel. This is literally the center of Israel, the point midway on both the north-south axis and the east-west axis. The town is home to a university and 20,000 other residents, including a group of those uprooted from Gaza when Israel withdrew. They live there in makeshift trailers, but, with the settlement freeze lifted, work can continue on their homes. However, the trailer encampment has been a political eyesore -- a reminder that promises of "relocating" settlers are less than meets the eye. The university has approximately 9,000 undergraduate students; it also has 1,000 candidates for master of science degrees, and about 100 are pursuing PhDs. The head of the university, like many faculty members, is a Russian émigré. He arrived in 1992 when there were 200 students. We stood on the balcony overlooking another Biblical scene. Between the Mount Bra'cha (blessing) and the Mount of Grizzim (curse) is the city of Nabulus, where Joshua gathered the Israelites and told them they had a choice: between the curse and the blessing. Modern and Biblical Israel are never entirely separate.
The university houses a free electron laser that generates energy waves between the frequency of radio and optical waves. The waves generated can penetrate solid objects and also create an image. For homeland security it holds the promise of weapons detection and surveillance without intrusive security searches. Lacking the harmful effects of radiation it may also have medical applications. Students huddled over computers worked to sharpen the images' resolution. Despite the worldwide political antipathy to the West Bank, this university is part of the worldwide scientific community and will hold a symposium with scientists from Russia and the University of California at Berkeley.
As we continued on the trip, we passed Joseph's tomb, which, under the Oslo accords, was assigned to the Israelis. In the First Intifada it was overrun by Palestinians. A Christian Druze soldier, also named Joseph (Yosef) was killed defending it and is now a celebrated figure. Once again past and present merge.
We traveled on to Barkan, an industrial center. Within a large, gated facility there are manufacturing plants for everything from bagels to plastic. The owner of the plastics factory took us around an airy factory. He employs 80 people, half Jews and half Palestinians, and produces plastic items for the Israel and foreign markets. Once the PA boycott hit, he lost the Palestinian market. One of his customers who continued to purchase from him was jailed and the items burned. The PA's aim, Bennett said, is to halt the co-existence that is being fostered on the West Bank.
But the factory owner is in this for more that the money. He told me, "This is a real bridge," pointing to two workers, one Palestinian and one Israeli, squatting next to a large machine in rapt conversation. He showed me a new mold for making toilet seats and exclaimed with a smile, "THIS is peace. Toilet seats are peace."
On an economic level the factory is a success. Palestinian workers with the benefit of Israeli labor laws make 5000-6000 sheckles a month; the average Palestinian wage is 1300-1500. Outside we talked to two Palestinian brothers. They said they have the nicest homes in their neighborhoods and are sending their children to college. But what do they want to do about the political conflict? The owner translated: "Have elections just like in Gaza. Gaza and here are the same." But what if Hamas wins just like there? One brother sniffed, waved his hand and said, "Won't happen here." (Condi Rice got spun on that very point in the 2006 election.) I pressed on. What if the PA wins but Hamas moves in, just like Gaza, shoots the PA officials in the knee caps and drops them off buildings? He retreated to the Palestinian line. "How do you know such things?" he asked. I told him, "I saw it on TV." He replied, "I see this on TV but I don't believe my eyes. I don't know what happened." There was a moment of awkward silence as I exchanged a look of incredulity with my hosts. At least for now, economic cooperation has not inspired political realism.
Our final stop was a small religious community overlooking Tel Aviv. Orthodox girls in ankle length dresses walk around a neighborhood that would otherwise fit seamlessly into a Sun Belt housing development in the U.S. We stood on the steps of a small Yeshiva with a clear view of Tel Aviv (nine miles away) and Ben Gurion airport (only three miles away). Even the most aggressive proponents of peace deal image that this community would not be ceded to the Palestinians.
There have been multiple schemes to divide up the West Bank (the most recent suggestion by David Makovsky of the Washington Institute) that would retain predominantly Jewish areas, but none has managed to lure the Palestinians to make peace.
Many Israelis have no patience for the settlers. A high-tech magnate attending the Herzliya conference was candid about his negative views of the religious settlers (not unlike a Manhattanite might scornfully refer to "Bible Belters") and told me, "Just because something is mine, doesn't mean I have to exercise that right." For him, Palestinians and the land they occupy must be separated from Israel so that Palestinians are not "ruled" by Israel. He insisted no autonomy arrangement would suffice and that if Israel gives them the West Bank the world will leave Israel alone, even though not all of the West Bank will go back. But would the "international community" really relent?
And I wonder if Israel have the will to forcibly evict tens of thousands of settlers, maybe more, in order to comply with a "peace" agreement. Well, a properly drawn map should keep the number of displaced Jewish settlers down, argue the settlers' antagonists. They imagine that financial incentives would be sufficient to induce the settlers to leave or, perhaps, they'll be forced to flee when a pull out date is announced. After what I've seen I'm doubtful bribery will work.
For Bennett, plans to sever the West Bank are unrealistic and ignore the shifting demographics. Four years ago, Arabs in the West Bank were having 8 children per couple, the Jews only 2.5. Now the gap has narrowed: 3.5 vs. 2.9. . Bennett anticipates that should Israel pull out, Palestinians who live, but are not considered residents in Arab countries, will immigrate to the West Bank, terror will increase and Israel will need to reoccupy the land for its defense.
Even the Obama administration now recognizes an extended military presence in the West Bank by Israel would be needed in the event a peace deal could ever be negotiated. Settlement critics like the Herzilya magnate insist the Israel military can simply go back into the West Bank whenever needed to "clean out" the terrorists. However, the Gaza operation hardly gives one confidence that Israel will be able to endure the international alarm raised whenever Israel acts in its own defense. How many attacks on neighborhoods in Tel Aviv would be sufficient, in the eyes of the world, for Israel to take action?
Demography, geography, faith and security interlock on the West Bank, reinforcing each side's perspective. The same set of facts compels the settlers to demand retention of the West Bank and the anti-settlement Israelis (not to mention the U.S. and European governments) to demand it be excised from Israel. But even a short time on the West Bank leaves one suspecting that for all the talk that the present situation is "unsustainable," the alternatives are as well.
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