2011
05.27

SYNOPSIS:

This is the continuation of blog 116 and should be read in that order: 116 first, this second.

A Jewish settlement and a ride home.  Another very long blog; it took me all day to write these two,  Therefore no other news.

Leaving the Tent of Nations (TON) was hard.  There was an air of peace and humanity at the farm that was rare and there was a lovely shady spot overlooking the valley and the settlements.  But I did not want to overstay my welcome.  When I hiked towards the main road I decided that it was time to pay a visit to one of the settlements to see for myself what it was like.  Everyone seemed afraid of settlers.  Stories of armed and violent settlers abound.  Are they really like that?

It helps that I am neither Palestinian nor Israeli and that I am by myself.  I pose no threat.  I was not bound by any legal restrictions to enter the settlement, only by personal reservations.  The biggest obstacle would be the mood of the guards.  There is no reason why they should let me in, but there is also no obvious reason why they should prevent me from entering after inspecting me.  Ever since Iraq I have been wearing a headdress which I absolutely love.  For the first time, I found a head cover that can go on and off in a second.  It does not slip, it looks decent, it protects me from the sun and the wind, and best of all in this part of the world:  it turns me into a chameleon.  I have worn it in Jewish households and synagogues and I blend in right with the conservative Jewish women.  I have worn it into mosques and have been asked if I am a Muslim.  I look like whatever the onlooker wants to see.  I have not seen any other woman wear this kind of headdress, but I finally found this particular style also in the souq of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and stocked up in various colors.

With my backpack and my big camera dangling around my shoulders, I made no secret of my intentions to photograph and approached the settlement check point.  I put on a big smile, called out a friendly “Shalom” and walked right in.  That was easy!  That guard should be fired.  What if I had explosives in my backpack?  No settler walks into the settlement.  You either arrive in the Jewish bus or in your private car.  There is nothing but wilderness around – where did he think I was coming from?!  Good for me.

For the next 1.5 hours, I roamed the settlement.  Gorgeous flower gardens and groomed sidewalks flanked beautiful one-family mansions.  That was the old part of the settlement.  In the second and third phase of construction multifamily units were built and finally apartment houses.  No shortages of water or electricity here.  This was definitely an upscale settlement.  The one I look at from my balcony in Beit Sahour is not half as fancy.

In a nutshell:  Settlers traditionally come in two groups:  Economic settlers and ideological ones.  The economic settlers are usually “harmless”, to put it that way.  They are immigrants who are offered cheap subsidized housing in the settlements of the Beit Sahour type – apartments in high-rises.  They are often struggling to make a living as newcomers.  The ideological settlers are the ones who are making a political point.  They believe in the right to settle in disputed territory just like for example Germans settled in Alsace-Lorraine after they conquered it from France in 1871.  They come in all stripes of religious convictions from conservative to fanatic to ultra-fanatic and violent.  You would not find liberal Jews in these neighborhoods or political activists who oppose the encroachment into the Palestinian West Bank.

The most striking feature of the settlement was how lonely it felt.  The heat of the day had finally broken and it was a gorgeous summer evening.  I passed three playgrounds – deserted.  I walked through dozens of streets – deserted.  I entered the beautiful city synagogue – one man was praying in it.  Even the supermarket which I finally came across – it seemed to be the only store in town – had only a handful of shoppers in it.  A pizzeria was the only place of activity, were two families had gathered for dinner.  One kid was on his bike riding up and down the block.  One young man stood at the bus stop and a few people arrived in their cars immediately being absorbed into their homes.  It felt like walking through a ghost town.  I finally came across a woman who was pruning her shrubs.  I sent a friendly “Shalom” her way, but had no response.  I thought she did not hear me.  I repeated my “Shalom” and she answered:  “I don’t know you”.  I don’t know you either, I said.  But I am saying hello anyhow.  “Oh…”

In the supermarket and at the pizza place the only language I heard was American English.  The pruning lady was an American as well.  Don’t we say hello in America?  Why not here?  Don’t we walk around in small towns on a gorgeous, lukewarm evening like this in America?  Why not here?  Aren’t our kids out playing before dinner?  Why not here?

I circled the entire hill of the settlement and was on my way to the main road to catch the Arab bus back to Bethlehem, when in the distance I heard laughter.  There were people!  A most unusual building was ahead and people were coming and going.  Ah, the Community Center, I thought.  Or could it be a public swimming pool?  The architecture reminded me of a space ship, but it also had some maritime qualities to it.  I was going to find out.  I climbed the stairs to the entrance and approached some of the people standing outside:   Who is the architect of this building, I asked?  I had to ask for something, but I also was genuinely interested in this.  “He is right here” was the answer and I was pulled into what I now realized was clearly somebody’s private party and a private home.  Oy veh…

The architect was a friendly French man in his sixties.  His daughter got engaged today and this was the engagement party.  People had come from all the different settlements and even from Jerusalem.  He offered me food and beer and we chatted about his home.  He is used to people inquiring about his home and he is proud to share it with whoever is interested.  Finally, the conversation turned a bit more personal.  He was a convert to Judaism who after that discovered that his ancestors had hidden their Jewish identity for several generations.  When I admitted to my German heritage, I could sense him freezing up a bit.  When he realized that I had come from Bethlehem, an area off limits for Jews, he definitely was no longer comfortable with me, but he pretended for a few more minutes.   When he started a conversation with a new arrival, a woman approached me.  We talked for a while.  When she realized that I knew nobody in the family but had just walked into the door, she almost instantly shut down.

Can I blame them?  Only recently, in March, one of most bloody assaults of a settler family occurred in the West Bank.  In their sleep, five members, including a three months old baby of the Vogel family were killed.  Who could trust that backpack, which I was carrying?  It even looked suspicious to me now.  There was an assembly of over 50 Jewish settlers, probably of the political type, intellectuals for the most part, all gathered nicely.  What a target for a terrorist!  Who can trust anyone these days?!  Who can believe that I am who I say I am?  In any case, I was an outsider and an intruder and I was looked at with the utmost suspicion.

That’s ultimately what I took away from the experience of walking through the settlement:  There is an air of closing in on your own space, of distrust and fear that I have not seen quite like this in any affluent, small-town neighborhood and not anywhere else in the Middle East.  And there is behavior which is completely contrary to cultural traditions towards a stranger in this area, especially a harmless single woman like me.  In the Middle East hospitality and openness towards strangers is one of the key values.  But it was gone here.  The people seemed nice and to me confirmed the fact that we are all carrying a bit of Mr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in us.  These settlers are people like you and me.  And they can turn into people who take up arms and show up at the TON where they uproot 250 olive trees, throw rocks and threaten an unarmed Christian family until the Israeli army has to force them back – all of which happened…

What a way to live!  Settlers never step out of their settlements.  Israeli buses take them directly back into Israel proper through Israeli controlled roads for work and social life.  I talked to one more person in more detail at the party: An African-American Jew from a mixed marriage.  He too, seemed quite reluctant to engage in a conversation, but finally did so stating what I had heard from three other people before:  “Well, if you are here, there must be a reason for it after all.”   Word had gotten around that a German was in the house.  I heard the murmurs.  But ultimately, they put my presence in God’s hands and ultimately, I excused myself even though I would have really enjoyed talking to people in more depth about their lives, their reasons for living in a settlement, and their knowledge of their neighbors at the TON, just one mountain away and their ideas about Israel’s future.  But it was not to be.   Almer at the TON said that she never has had a visit from a settler.  When I walked up to her, she first mistook me for a Jewish woman (because of that headdress I am wearing) thinking that finally one had found the courage to come.  But no, not yet; it was just me.

By the time I left the party it was pitch dark.  The green and white Jewish shuttle bus passed me and slowed down to pick me up.  No thanks.  The bus driver must have wondered where I was going.  Across the valley I could see the TON hill and another settlement.  TON remained dark.  There were no volunteers there, today.  I think they were conserving energy.

As I approached the checkpoint to exit, it occurred to me that now I would surely be questioned.   Where was I going?  The Jewish bus stopped inside – out there was wilderness and Arab territory.  If I was a Palestinian I should not have been there in the first place, if I was a Jewish settler I should not be going anywhere.  But the guard was on the phone, blissfully occupied and I walked into the darkness without incident.

After a kilometer walk in the darkness I reached the main road again and the place where Samer had dropped me off in the afternoon.  It occurred to me how odd this place really was.  The Arab bus station was right at the bottom of the hill.  But it was completely barricaded with road blocks indicating that it was not in use.  Obviously – there was nobody around here who would go on this bus as it was going into Area A off limits to Israeli Jews by Israeli law.  But just as I was about to photograph this odd and Kafkaesque scene the blue and white Arab bus came around the corner.  I flagged it down.  Bethlehem?  Yes, but not me, was the gesture of the bus driver.  Yes, me!  Bethlehem and then Beit Sahour.  The driver shook his head in confusion.  I looked Jewish to him.  What else in this neighborhood?  But I insisted on going and so he took me.  He finally put the pieces together that I was a foreign visitor.

Two drunken young guys were in the bus!  That is unusual for this area.  They came from Hebron.  No alcohol there.  How did they get drunk?  They were quite interested in me and now I was really uncomfortable.  I positioned my backpack firmly between them and me and started praying to Ganesh:  I passed the check point twice, please don’t get me into trouble with these two guys.  I need some help here!  Ganesh must have listened.  But I got some punishment from him as a reminder not to take too many chances like this:  The bus driver offered to take me to Beit Sahour for the price of a taxi ride.  As I refused to pay this, he dropped me off way away from the city center and I had to walk for another hour before I got home and had time to ponder the day.

Walking at night in an Arab town has never been a problem.  Families were out strolling, kids were playing, and old guys were hanging out talking or playing cards.  Curious “hellos” and friendly “you are welcome” were called out toward me and some store keepers tried to lure me into their shops.

That’s what I am used to from a town in the Middle East.

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. Carl, most of Alsace Lorraine was conquered by France in 1639. That makes the analogy work.

  2. “The ideological settlers are the ones who are making a political point. They believe in the right to settle in disputed territory just like for example Germans settled in Alsace-Lorraine after they conquered it from France in 1871.” Are you really sure you want to make this analogy? The “settlers” are on ancient Jewish land, Judea and Samaria, not on foreign land. This is territory which the Israelis captured from Jordan in 1967. Jordan had captured it in 1949 — and then expelled all the Jews who had been living there. According to the League of Nations mandate of 1922, Jews have every right to settle there — and, yes, the League of Nations mandate is still valid according to Article 80 of the United Nations Charter, just like the other League of Nations mandates are valid.
    If the Jews in the towns in those areas are uptight, you know they have perfectly good reason to be.

  3. Your story is very telling about the mindset of the settlers…
    How can there be understanding of the life of the people beyond their protecting walls and possible change in the future? It sounds like a very lonely and isolated place. I would prefer TON anytime, even with out water and electricity!