Together with my family, I have lived in Israel for 11 years and served in the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank. I also have taught and written about the history of the state. However, this summer’s visit to the West Bank and the Negev was a real eye-opener.
My wife Malke and I traveled twice to the West Bank. The first trip was organized by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO of former officers and soldiers who have provided written testimony about serving in the Palestinian territories.
We traveled to Hebron, where we walked the “sterile street” of the main market area. It is labeled sterile because it is no longer the bustling and thriving Palestinian marketplace it used to be for generations. The army closed and boarded up the stores and homes of the residents, who are not permitted to drive on the street and must walk behind a painted line on the sidewalk.
In the late 1970s, two small groups of Jewish settlers led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger settled without government permission in Old Hebron. Today, there are 850 settlers who are guarded by 600 Israeli soldiers.
We walked by the grave of Rabbi Meir Kahana, who together with his Kach party was banned from the Knesset because of its racist policies. In Hebron, he is honored. On his gravestone is written: “His hands are clean and his heart is pure.” Another hero in this area is Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims while they were praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
In addition to the army and police who patrol Old Hebron, the settlers have their own guards. Our group was verbally harassed by an armed guard, who filmed us with his video camera and interrupted the tour guide numerous times, calling her a liar. (Old Hebron, where 30,000 Palestinians live, also has 18 checkpoints.)
Our second trip to the West Bank was to the South Hebron Hills and the Negev with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a well-known human rights leader. We traveled over rocky and sandy roads, visiting Susya, Umm Al Khir and Umm Al Hiran. The only paved roads are near the Israeli settlements.
Israel’s civil and military control of Area C of the West Bank includes the South Hebron Hills. There, the village of Umm Al Khir and the other Bedouin villages have never been allowed to present a community building plan to the military government, nor to receive permits to build houses. They constantly see their homes bulldozed. Their fields are destroyed by settlers seeking to exact a “price” for the presence of non-Jews here.
In Israel proper, only 11 of 46 Negev Bedouin villages are recognized. By contrast, 6 percent of the total Jewish Israeli population of 6 million lives in the Negev. That makes the 250,000 Bedouin a full third of the Negev population.
In Umm Al Hiran, residents have been threatened by the government, which seeks to move them from their private farming and grazing lands and transfer them all to the town of Hura. These actions are based on decisions that began in 2003 and on the Begin Plan of 2013. Although the government claimed that the Bedouin were taking over the Negev, in actuality, they claim only 5.4 percent of the land. (A recent survey found that 46 percent of Israelis now believe that the Bedouin claim is fair, while 34 percent do not.)
The Begin Plan determined that Israel would build separate towns for the Bedouin in the Negev, who would receive government-provided water, electricity and job training if they moved voluntarily. Even though the British kept written records of Bedouin land ownership in the 19th and 20th centuries, these have mysteriously disappeared from the state archives.
Towns in the West Bank, such as Yatta, and villages in the hinterlands of Be’er Sheva in the Negev, have been settled by Bedouin since the middle of the 19th century. In 1920, the pre-state Zionist Federation recognized the Bedouin claims. However, the present Israeli government is creating a Bedouin pale of settlement, just as our grandparents were forced to live in the Russian pale of settlement.
We drank coffee with Salim, who is from Umm Al Hiran. He feels so oppressed and humiliated that in anger he told us, “They are teaching us to hate them.” His son, who served in the IDF, now tells other Bedouin youth not to volunteer for military service.
In Umm Al Khir, we met Taliq, a 23-year-old student. His village originally was in the Negev. In the early 1950s, the residents were forced into the South Hebron Hills. Taliq told us that since 2007, up to six houses have been demolished each year. One of those houses belonged to his family. In addition to the destroyed and newly built homes of the residents, we saw the community oven that the army had destroyed.
Still, in Umm Al Khir, the residents keep rebuilding. “This is our passive resistance,” Taliq said.
The West Bank Palestinian village of Susya is emblematic of the Palestinians being forced out of their homes. The original Susya was founded in the Negev in 1917. It has been forced to move twice, and now is located in the South Hebron Hills without the 300 dunam of private lands that it had in Susya I and II. The people live in caves and tents. In Susya III, we sat in Nasser’s family’s cave, where women opened up a cooperative to sell their own textile goods.
The government has claimed that it is clearing out the South Hebron Hills and the Negev for firing ranges. Next to one of the Bedouin villages in the West Bank that we visited, the Jewish National Fund has begun building roads leading to a new Israeli settlement. These additions to the area, which provide infrastructure solely for the settler movement, are just one of many attempts to blur the “Green Line” between Israel and the West Bank. The government recognizes only these settlements, supplying them with water and electricity.
Seeing is really believing in this part of the world. We visited towns and villages, and met with individuals who live there. Both Torah’s great meta-principle and Israel’s Declaration of Independence declare that all people should have basic human rights and be treated justly. But the reality seems far from the ideal. PJC
Ivan C. Frank lives in Squirrel Hill.