Dirty couches, dogs without water, synagogue seats, and teenage boys with light mustaches (Loewenstein visits an outpost)
My following article was recently published on Mondoweiss:
Antony Loewenstein writes:
Dining at a hamburger joint on the weekend in Jerusalem with a few members of Israeli peace group Ta’ayush,including Joseph Dana, we were struck by the people eating around us. They were mostly young, American Jews laughing and enjoying the atmosphere. They were living the dream. A short stay in Israel for them is a blast. Parties, some history, Zionist indoctrination and mission accomplished. Palestine and Palestinians don’t exist. The occupation is invisible. The West Bank is “dangerous”, their parents and guides tell them. It is a false Israel, an illusion that is carefully crafted and maintained. Without it, the Zionist entity would collapse but there’s no evidence that’s happening any time soon.
A day with Ta’ayush activists on Saturday was a necessary counter-point to this other Israel. We met in central Jerusalem at 7 am and soon around 15 Israeli Jews and a few internationals arrived. One Ta’ayush member, Daniel, born in Russia but now an Israeli citizen, told me that he had no hope that Israeli society would change without outside pressure. Some others gathered, ranging in age from 20s to 50s and from students to academics, and they thought similarly. Sadly, the Israeli Left is dead. Now only a handful of groups actively pursue human rights in Palestine and challenge Israeli military policies. They feel utterly alone in this pursuit.
Dana has written about the difficulties experienced by our mini-bus at a checkpoint near Jerusalem. Our IDs were taken – humorously, the soldiers were unable to find the number on my passport, despite it being clearly marked – and we were unable to leave for over an hour. It was simply a case of ritual humiliation. The IDF had no right to hold us or refuse entry into the West Bank, but arbitrary rules are the name of the game under occupation. The soldiers were young, under 20 like most of them, and clearly bored. They wanted to show who was boss and what better way than annoying a handful of mouthy Israelis? We eventually turned back, found another checkpoint and sailed past. So much for being a security threat.
It’s hard to convey the sparseness of the West Bank. Palestinian villages are scattered here and there with groaning settlements sitting above or near them, often shadowing their daily rituals. The first action of the day was eating a picnic at an illegal outpost next to the settlement of Susya in the southern West Bank.
There has been a great deal of discussion in the Western press recently about the nature of outposts and the apparent clash over them between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz a few days ago that this debate is a convenient distraction:
“The outposts are a continuation of the settlements by other means. The sharp distinction Israel makes between them is artificial. Every outpost is established with a direct connection to a mother settlement, with the clear aim of expanding the takeover of the territory and ensuring an Israeli hold on a wider tract of land. Construction in the outposts is integrated into the overall plan of the settlement project and is carried out in parallel to the seizure of lands within and close to the settlements.”
The reality of outposts is deception on a mammoth scale, a price paid principally by Palestinians whose private land is being stolen. Ta’ayush activist Jesse Hochheiser visited the same outpost near Susya in June and blogged about his experiences. The photographs on the post clearly show the early stages of a concrete house. On Saturday, that house had progressed and looked nearly finished. A makeshift synagogue was erected nearby, a collection of branches and sticks. The outpost is illegal under both Israeli and international law.
We were invited by the Palestinian owner of the land to ascent “Flag Hill” and have the picnic. We had passed through a few Palestinian villages on the way, quiet baking in the hot, morning sun. A few children stood and stared while the men looked happy to have company. Women were largely absent.
The groups of activists, from Ta’ayush and the International Solidarity Movement, spread out and began walking up the small, rocky hill. A number of IDF soldiers saw and approached us but had no authority to stop our journey. We continued, a hot breeze blowing, and many of us carried frozen drinks and food for the picnic.
It was a surreal sight. Around 25 Israelis and internationals walking on Palestinian land, accompanied by IDF soldiers, simply wanted to enjoy a meal on a hilltop. It was a provocation, of course, but a legal one. I was constantly told during the day that it was important to bear witness and document the insidious ways in which the IDF protects the religious settlers and refuses to offer the same courtesy to the Palestinians. The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that Palestinians should not be blocked from accessing their agricultural lands but this is rarely, if ever, enforced. American tax-dollars at work.
We reached the summit, plastic sheets were unfolded and watermelon, hummus and pita bread were laid on the ground. People began eating and singing. One of the activists was Ezra Nawi, currently facing prison for lawfully protesting. The Palestinian owner of the land explained in Arabic his right to be there and farm the area. A Ta’ayush activist said in English that they the IDF had no right to remove them.
But within a few minutes, many more soldiers arrived and a commander announced that we had five minutes to disperse or we would be arrested. It was a “closed military zone”, an oft-used term to suggest an emergency situation when, in fact, there is no emergency. There were no settlers to be seen, so the IDF’s motives were clear. The goal was to protect the nascent outpost and allow it to flourish. From little things, big things grow.
Nawi was soon dragged away, as were a few others (though released soon after, Nawi was hit some time later by soldiers.) Watermelon and pita bread lay strewn across the dirt. Many activists filmed the proceedings, including a German documentary maker who captured soldiers physically abusing one of the detained. An IDF soldier sprinted after him, clearly trying to obtain or blank the tape of evidence. He failed, not least because activists rushed to protect his camera.
Looking around from the hilltop, it was hard to imagine the religious significance of the place. Fundamentalist Jews regard all of the West Bank as granted by God, but what of many in the Diaspora? At the moment the IDF soldiers were dragging away non-violent activists, in clear breach of Israeli law, I wanted my Zionist colleagues to watch with their own eyes and tell me this was a Judaism of which they could be proud. Protecting settlers ensures a never-ending occupation. I was astounded to hear that the Israelis often used obscure British and Ottoman colonial laws to restrict access to particular West Bank areas.
Joseph Dana told me later in the day that, “Israel is a country directed by the military. A dictatorship with relative freedom of speech, but virtually no debate about the behaviour of the IDF.” Most Israelis either don’t want to know or know and don’t care.
The next visit of the day was Hilltop 26, a tiny outpost near the major settlement of Kiryat Arba (Dana and his partner Mairav Zonszein wrote about the saga for Haaretz recently and documented the IDF’s consistent protection of the settlers). The outpost itself has been destroyed a number of times by the Israeli state but magically re-appeared soon after. It’s political theatre of the most serious kind.
The outpost reminded me of a shantytown. Rubbish littered the area around the makeshift house. Tin, plastic and synagogue seats were seemingly thrown together to please God. A handful of teenage boys with light moustaches paced the hilltop, one videoing the activists who had arrived unannounced. A small bookshelf, dirty couches, a battered van, dogs without water tied in the beating sun and a sign of progress; electricity. When a Ta’ayush activist accused one of the religious fundamentalists of this fact, he accused her of being a “liar”. A light bulb gave the game away.
The IDF soon arrived. The activists were simply making their presence known to the settlers and letting them know that they were being watched. The outpost was illegal under Israeli and international law. Soon more soldiers appeared in trucks. Around 20 IDF officers for 30 activists. Some heated words were exchanged between the settler kids and activists in Hebrew. It was a standoff that legally should have ended only one way; the settlers would be removed and refused entry back to the land. Alas, the state’s response was predictable.
We were soon told that the area was a closed military zone and we would have to leave. A couple of Ta’ayush activists had decided to try and get arrested to keep their colleague Ezra company; they believed in never leaving anyone alone in custody. We stood our ground then pulled back. More IDF soldiers arrived. The settlers growled like rabid animals. One even remained seated in a crusty couch for most of the encounter, such was his confidence in remaining put. We moved forward, tried to engage some of the Ethiopian IDF officers, then withdraw. It was a highly co-ordinated dance.
Soon some of the officers approached the settlers and presented them with an order to leave. An intense discussion ensued, with squinted eyes checking out the court order. We were again ordered to leave the area. The settlers hesitated and complained. During this entire time, a dusty breeze and mosquitoes created an uncomfortable atmosphere.
Word had clearly emerged that the settlers were under watch. Some female friends of theirs arrived, and although I’d been warned that they often spat in the direction of the activists, this time they merely shot daggers in our direction. I wondered how God felt about extremist kids robbing other’s land in his name.
The theatre performance progressed. The activists were directed to move down the hill and the settlers followed soon after. We saw them joking with the soldiers, so we knew that their removal would be temporary, probably no more than 10-15 minutes.
Later in the day, Ta’ayush activist Mairav Zonszein told me that she wondered how Palestinians cope with their reality day in, day out. Human rights workers monitor, film, document and disseminate the reality of the occupation, but most of them live in relatively comfortable Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.