Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Israeli Settler Violence

In January, a man carrying an automatic rifle entered a market in Jerusalem’s Old City, cursed the local merchants, assaulted a young man, and began shooting. Israeli soldiers arrived and protected Jewish citizens, and arrested a Palestinian man. The soldiers then created roadblocks at the gates to the City and interrogated many young Palestinian men.

If you assumed that the shooter was a Palestinian, however, you would be wrong. The violent man was an Israeli settler terrorizing Palestinians. Israeli forces responded by attacking Palestinians.

This is not the usual news we hear about Middle East violence. Not because it is unusual. An Israeli newspaper reported last year that there have been thousands of Jewish settler attacks on Palestinians in recent years, with more than one per day in 2013. Another count by an American organization puts the total at 3 per day since 2011. We hear little about them.

What we learn about the Middle East is too general, too simplistic, and too loaded with presuppositions. We keep getting stories of states and politicians and worldwide organizations, full of pomposity and certainty. It’s worth hearing much smaller stories. It takes a lot of small stories to reach any understanding. But if the truth lies anywhere, it’s in hundreds of stories about people we can imagine in places we can envision.

Every story begins in the middle, and every West Bank story begins thousands of years ago. Here’s one story I couldn’t find anywhere, so I had to piece it together myself. We’ll start with the establishment of the Jewish settlement of Shvut Rachel in 1991, in the middle of the West Bank, closer to Jordan than to Jerusalem. The Israeli government in the 1980s had declared Palestinian land on the West Bank to be “public” if it had only been partially cultivated over the past 10 years. A group of settlers took some of this land to create Shvut Rachel, which the Israeli government considered illegal, until recently; it’s been legal since 2012. One of the Shvut Rachel settlers, Jack Teitel from Florida, began a reign of terror against local Palestinians after he arrived in 1999. Teitel was convicted by an Israeli court in 2013 of murdering two Palestinians. Other Shvut Rachel settlers pushed further out in 2000, occupying a nearby hilltop which they called Esh Kodesh, without any permission from the Israeli government, a mile beyond any Jewish settlement, on some private Palestinian land that had been declared “public” by Israel and some Palestinian land that was still private. Picture a dozen trailers on a rocky hill, called an “outpost”.

Settlers create so many of these illegal outposts on the West Bank that the Israeli government has had to dismantle dozens which were not even inhabited. But not nearly all: a road was paved to Esh Kodesh and precious water lines were run back through Shvut Rachel.

Almost immediately there were confrontations between Esh Kodesh settlers and the local Palestinians. The settlers built a fence around “their land”, and then demanded that the local farmers stay out of fields just outside of their fence, to which the government agreed. They began ploughing land outside of the fence, which is fertile enough to support vineyards, unusual in that rocky landscape.

Violent incidents piled up. In March 2011, settlers invaded Qusra village, provoking a gunfight there. In July 2011 settlers attacked some herdsmen and butchered sheep. The army arrived and “dispersed” the Palestinians. Then the army set up a base in September 2011 near Esh Kodesh. In 2012 Palestinians’ olive trees were vandalized.

A United Nations report in fall 2012 noted two consecutive weeks when “settlers from Esh Kodesh have attacked Palestinian civilians from Qusra village.” 126 Palestinians and 32 settlers had been injured that year on the West Bank. Another report counted 10,000 Palestinian trees damaged or destroyed in 2011.

Finally at the end of 2012, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that Palestinians could no longer be barred from working their own land around Esh Kodesh. Israeli soldiers had to physically remove settlers who protested that decision. In December, Jews uprooted olive trees and stoned Qusra homes. In January 2013, Palestinians attacked settler vineyards outside of Esh Kodesh. In February, settlers with guns attacked Qusra and wounded 6 Palestinians. More uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, but also planting of trees on Palestinian land that Esh Kodesh wanted. Israeli officials arrived to uproot those illegal trees in January 2014. Esh Kodesh settlers again went out to Qusra, but this time they were captured by hastily arranged security details of villagers, assaulted, and turned over to Israeli soldiers called by the Palestinians.

There is no reason to believe that the outward push of Esh Kodesh settlers, and whole settler movement, will stop. Since Shvut Rachel was founded in 1991, the number of settlers has tripled. In 2012, the Israeli general in charge of the West Bank characterized settler violence as “terrorism”. The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, the Justice Minister and the Public Security Minister argued in 2013 for using that label for violent settlers, but nothing happened.

I think there is no history, recent or far in the past, which justifies the economic dispossession of West Bank Palestinians. But that’s not what settlers think. At the Tomb of the Patriarch in Hebron, on the Jewish side, I met a young man, who was explaining to tourists what they were looking at and to me what he believed about the West Bank. He told me, “God gave it to us.” Meaning him, an American Jew, whose lineage is probably more than a thousand years removed from this land, if it actually connects at all. Excluding the people who have lived there all that time, constructing terraces and planting trees and finding water and building roads.

With great patience protesting illegal actions by Israeli settlers and government, with self-defense squads to protect their homes and fields, with occasional attention from Western media, the residents of the West Bank will gradually lose their lands and livelihoods. Unless something is done to reverse decades of Israeli policy.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 17, 2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Gentlemen, Grow Your Beards!

I guess it’s official. The sparse trimmed beard has become the go-to look for young men, at least young white men. Male magazine models have it. My students have it. Athletes have it. Guys on sitcoms have it.

Nobody alive in the US has experienced this before – a moment when beards are standard wear. During the postwar decades, any beards were a rare find. Maynard G. Krebs on “Dobie Gillis” personified the weirdness and lack of responsibility associated with beards in the early 1960s: he wore a little goatee and fainted when the word “work” was spoken.

With protests in the later 1960s came beards. But many political protesters kept shaving. The students who knocked on doors for Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy in 1968 thought that being “clean” might help them connect with average American voters.

Beards were still “dirty”, as in the frequent and mostly wrong-headed phrase, “dirty hippies”. Those who wanted to separate themselves from conventional culture wore sandals, jeans, colorful fabrics, long flowing hair, simple jewelry, and for many men, beards. Not cutting facial hair was somehow sticking it to the Man.

Since the 1970s, beards have waxed and waned among the fashionable, but they became popular in rural northern America, when their obvious advantages in winter were rediscovered. When I lived in Maine, the greatest concentration of beards I ever saw gathered once a year at the Common Ground Fair, the nexus for the hardiest of back-to-the-land pioneers, environmental proselytizers, handicraft artists, and everyone else who was “alternative”. Few of those beards were trimmed.

The Common Ground Fair still attracts the faithful to Unity, Maine, but beards have gone mainstream. I think it’s funny. The preferred male facial hair style requires even more equipment and care than shaving did. Portions of the face are kept clean, in rigid patterns that barely differ among millions. Other regions must be trimmed, often requiring a separate expensive tool. Some (lucky?) fellows have such thin facial hair that they don’t even need to trim.

I suppose that young men today have some good associations with this style. I remember the hullabaloo when Don Johnson tried it out on “Miami Vice” in the 1980s. “Miami Vice made stubble cool,” said Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ magazine. I don’t think that most young men have heard of Don Johnson. Whom are they thinking about?

I don’t know, because I am afraid of asking. I probably couldn’t keep my surprise at this sartorial choice out of my voice. My association of 3-day growth is the look of camping trips, bad hangovers, and sleeping on park benches. Why imitate that?

I have no idea. Somehow “5 o’clock shadow” has become “designer stubble”. As in many things, I live in a different world than young people, a world full of images they have not imagined.

Some biologists claim that human females generally find men with beards more attractive. I find that hard to believe. But women who do like men with beards can go to Bristlr, a dating site for those who love beards. Certain religions mandate that adult men grow beards. The freedom of growing facial hair is lost when it is commanded.

But I won’t complain if beards are in. I appreciate that men, rather than their employers, can now select their own grooming style. There are endless possible beards, as the men who enter the yearly World Beard Championships demonstrate in outrageous variety.

Beards, especially white ones, have centuries of good associations behind them. They can stand for the kindliness of Santa or the wisdom that comes with age. Deciding not to shave everything opens up a world of possibilities for self-expression.

Long live beards!

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 10, 2015

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Rocky Separation

I have never seen such a rocky place as the West Bank. Among undulating hills and valleys, patches of dirt are scattered among rocks of all sizes. A small field of plowed soil is a rarity. For thousands of years, people have moved rocks so they could grow plants. The steep hills have been cut horizontally with terraces dug by hand and animal power. The terraces are supported by stone walls, some looking relatively recent, some stretching back thousands of years. Some of the olive orchards which line the layered earth look as old. These ancient walls blend into the landscape and support an agricultural economy, a way of life sustained by the people of this rocky land for thousands of years.

Recently a new type of wall has appeared in the West Bank. Twenty feet high, sunk deep into the ground, topped with barbed wire, the Israeli walls of separation prevent movement, separate people and interrupt that very life.

The official political separator between Israel and the occupied West Bank is the Green Line, drawn on maps in 1949 to separate Israel from its neighbors at the end of a year’s warfare. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel occupied Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Nearly 50 years later, the conflict over this land continues.

The major separation wall generally follows the Green Line, but small and significant deviations reveal a long-term Israeli population policy of separating themselves from Palestinians and expanding their borders. The wall bulges out to encompass less inhabited hills and valleys. It bulges in to exclude Palestinian villages and urban settlements from the rest of Israel. Walls extend deep into the West Bank to surround the many Israeli settlements that have been created there.

Every Israeli wall separates Palestinians from their families, their friends, their customers, and their culture. Shepherds are separated from grazing lands and water supply. Villages are separated from one another. People are prevented from access to stores, hospitals, government buildings, and each other.

Walls keep people out and people in. From the Great Wall of China to more modern walls in Berlin and on our border with Mexico, if walls are long enough, they can control entire populations. Walls become security measures when the enemy is defined as everyone on the other side.

Walls mean control and control varies by the category of people. In 1977, I could negotiate the annoying checkpoints in Berlin, cross the wall, and wander around a city that no longer exists. East Berliners could only watch. Except the privileged ones, whose greatest privilege was that they could go anywhere.

The new walls of Palestine funnel all people through a network of gates, where privilege is doled out by religion and nationality. We passed all the checkpoints with ease. Once a young soldier bent over to talk to us in the back seat. Our role was to identify ourselves as Americans, and she waved us on. Israelis, identified by their license plates, drive through, barely slowing down. Cars with Palestinian plates, and the much more numerous Palestinian walkers, are stopped. Some walls are impenetrable: many roads in the West Bank have been built only for Israeli settlers, connecting isolated enclaves back to Israel. Other walls are just difficult. A delay of hours, plus humiliating treatment, must be part of every Palestinian’s plan for negotiating a checkpoint.

These walls are part of a larger scheme to shape the population of Jerusalem and the West Bank in Israeli interests. The walls operate in conjunction with colored identification cards to segregate Palestinians into exclusive categories. Those with blue cards are considered to be residents of Jerusalem, and can move more freely than those with green cards, “West Bankers”. Green card holders can enter Jerusalem, which they have considered their capital for centuries, only with special permits. The entire system of walls, identification cards and checkpoints makes travel by Palestinians in the West Bank difficult and time-consuming.

The Israeli government is worried about the demographic future. What does a state that proclaims itself Jewish do with a Palestinian minority that threatens to grow? The wall is one answer – exclude some, prevent others from entering, encourage them all to leave.

Israel uses wall-building to promote ethnic exclusion. Other more coercive methods are also being used to reconstruct the population of the West Bank. In September 2014, new plans were revealed which would move thousands of Bedouins away from their villages just east of Jerusalem into one new “Bedouin township” miles north and east, near the border with Jordan. That expulsion would clear a large area for future Israeli settlements. Protests by Palestinians and some Israelis have interfered with these plans, which appear to violate the Geneva Convention about treatment of an occupied population.

Even the privileged have to submit to the power of the wall. We started on the ancient route from Jerusalem to Jericho, just over 20 miles, cut thousands of years ago into a rolling landscape of rocky slopes. But just outside of East Jerusalem, we ran into a wall, towering over us, turning the road into a parking lot. Go away, the wall said.

Walls are bad for both sides. These walls will eventually fall, too, but not until they have harmed the lives of all the people of Palestine.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 3, 2015