Unless one takes a personal, honest, up-close look at Samaria, it will remain an occupied territory; the haven of fringe settlers trying to displace Palestinians and stymie the peace process. That is unless you actually go there and see the region up close, talk to the people who live there and understand the size, demography and conditions the people live with. Is it a perfect situation? By no means; but is it the obstacle to peace and the bane of the Palestinian existence? Hardly!
Deciding that the issue was too important to leave to the narratives presented by Rachel Madow, Wolf Blitzer, J-street, Peace Now, or the myriad of people and advocacy groups that insist on presenting Israel as an oppressive regime, I arranged a visit to the Shomron for me, my 14 year old son and my 15 year old nephew. With the help of a friend, Knesset Member Danny Danon, who arranged this for us during the week of Israel's elections, we took a trip that none of us will soon forget.
The day began in the cabin of a bulletproof van driven by Uzi, a patient and accommodating man who spoke no English at all. I found the armored vehicle to be a little disconcerting, as there have been so few incidents in a while that would render this vehicle crucial, but sadly, it is a necessary precaution taken. While trying to see the Shomron for its life and vibrancy, the vehicle was a reminder of the tinderbox it can be. The van is actually used as a school bus for children of special needs, and it was being lent to us for the day.
We drove deep into Samaria along Highway 60, "Way of the Patriarchs" (דרך האבות); it follows the watershed ridge line of the Samarian and Judean Mountains, running from Megiddo and Hazor south to Be'ersheva by way of Shechem, Bethel, Jerusalem, Ephrat and Chevron, and which prominently figures into the travels of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as outlined in the Bible. We stopped at Tapuach Junction to pick up our guide for the day, David Ha'ivri, the Executive Director of the Shomron Liaison Office who knows everyone and everything about the region and its history.
We were taken to meet Gershon Mesika, the mayor of the Shomron Regional Council located in The Barkan Industrial Park. Mesika explained that it was his goal to show people, one by one if necessary, that the cities, villages and people in the areas were not the obstacles to peace as they are portrayed. They bring diplomats and dignitaries to the area and show them their way of life, and they travel to foreign countries and parliaments to make their case. The case is that the people there are not all zealots seeking a perpetual fight, but many who have been moving there are, in fact, secular Zionists seeking suburban life away from the cities, and at a price that is easier to reach than much of the densely populated cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Mesika passionately spoke of the region and emphatically believes that the real problem facing Israel today is the infighting between the sects, the secular and religious communities; among Jews themselves. "If we banned together and approached the world as one people, none of these distractions would be obstacles to peace and to life." For all of the talk of displaced people, the entire area called Samaria is populated by both Arabs and Israelis who dwell in just 30% of the region. The rest is vast, unused, uncultivated and untouched land. There is no evident sprawl that is displacing anyone; most of the area has never been used. Not to say that land has to be used to be considered national territory, but to the argument that Israel is squeezing people, it has little merit.
In hearing of the opinions of those who would yield Samaria and Judea to Palestine, what I discovered is an argument much like the one my father had made to me some time ago. It is less about what is spiritually Israel, less about what is right or wrong, but more about having the world see Israel people taking the "high road," for the sake of being loved. Yet there was another element to the arguments I heard this week from ardent Zionists who chose to make Israel their home for very much the same reasons I am passionately supportive of the Jewish state.
My own family living in Modi'in; my bother, his wife and children, who live the life while I only write about it, see the building in the West Bank as hindrances to a normal life for them. No one truly believes that there is a partner for peace or that a real possibility for mutual love is coming anytime soon, but they do know that they live every day not knowing when another war will change their lives, and that the economical realties of security and defense, as well as the economic reality of a large unemployed population living on social programs are weighing them down.
Many Israelis just want to be beyond battle and be able to pursue "regular" lives, and they hope that any move made to appease will be a move toward that normalcy. Then there is the added factor that is much harder to quantify; that there is something special about the Jewish soul, and that there are those among Israelis who do not treat Palestinians well, and it is often highlighted more in the activity on the West Bank. The fence for our security hold a whole people hostage for the deadly actions of few. The barriers that have to be crossed and the limitations placed on travel and work for Palestinians all serve to dehumanize even though it is not the intention. Jews, who have been persecuted for thousands of years are now seen as overlords in these areas and while arguably necessary for Israel's security, it is hard to watch and understand.
For these reasons, those Jewish opposers of the Shomron just want to yield it and be done with the harsh reality. Those who advocate for this cannot see beyond the monumental decision, and just hope that normalcy can reign, while the consequences of yielding can easily be calls for more yielding, more concessions and more increased attacks on an even smaller Israel. The unholy reality of holding the holy Jewish homeland in a world bent on seeing Israel ultimately disappear.
When we toured a factory that manufactures plastics such as toilet seats and the types of amenities you might find at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, we saw something unexpected. Lipsky Installation and Sanitation Products in the Barkan Industrial Zone, which also makes waste and water pipes for large construction applications employs a few hundred people; half of whom are Palestinians from cities in Samaria and they are paid and promoted equally with the Israelis. Unusual for most companies, even in the United States, Lipsky pays for its staff to take vacations, and since the Palestinians cannot stay overnight in Israel, while the Israelis are sent to Eilat and other resorts, the Palestinians are sent to Egyptian resorts for their vacations.
There is an added pressure to these employees. Palestinian products are readily sold in Israel, but these items, made by the hands of Palestinians which also provides income and benefits to them as well, are not permitted to be sold within Palestinian lands. They are marked for boycotts. The plant has a lunchroom and it provides free meals. All employees are seen dining together, conversing, laughing and sharing working camaraderie that many of us are familiar with where we work. When Peter Beinart talks about boycotting the “Settlements,” he is seeking to displace and unemploy Palestinians from decent jobs as well. Politics prevails and reality takes a backseat. That is the nature of psychological and media warfare.
Our visit took us to The Tura Winery in the village of Rehelim. Its vineyard is on Mt. Bracha and is one of the finest vineyards in Israel. The wines are excellent. We tasted a wine that just won an international award, and I bought a few cases that they arranged to be shipped to my home. The boys enjoyed that stop, too. It was interesting to see - the cellars are made up of the original temporary housing units that were erected by the original residents. The insides were weatherproofed and temperature controlled and it seems to store the wine just perfectly.
At one point we were at Mount Gerizim, one of the two mountains in the immediate vicinity of Nablus. It was one of the highest points where we could see the whole city. Nablus, or Shechem as it is known in the Bible is the site of Joseph’s Tomb, which is inaccessible to Jewish people right now. The lookout post where we stood enabled us to see something amazing – the large city had hundreds of newly constructed apartments and houses that resemble the best of Israeli building styles. There are suburbs, malls and, yes, there are a couple of densely populated areas that the Palestinians and media like to call refugee camps. These neighborhoods are not filled with tents, however, but apartment buildings in the style of projects that we see in many urban U.S. cities. It would appear that the children who grew up in these areas are the ones moving to the nicer neighborhoods, no different from the way many societies progress elsewhere.
The trip consisted of a wonderful lunch in a sweet little restaurant in a smaller town, where we were plied with home cooked chicken, beef and fresh vegetables and rice as we heard the history of the town we were dining in. We ended at the Ariel University, a college that just won its accreditation and can now be called a university. Ron Schleifer, a lecturer and teacher of communications and public relations, showed us the communications school, television studios and radio broadcast center, and walked us through the campus of six thousand students from all over Israel. It was an enlightened place that even many of the more liberal professors they have teaching there find unexpected and fascinating. The key, he kept reiterating, is to get people there to visit. After that, their opinions often change.
There are indeed difficulties living in these areas, and the attention given to the areas by media and Israel’s opposition does not help. If my son, nephew and I learned anything on this visit, was that the story of Samaria is not told in truth to the public. If people saw and knew what was really happening here daily, the narrative of it being the obstacle to any forward movement on peace settlements might change as well.
The next day we toured the Temple Mount. I will have more to say in the coming weeks.
Juda Engelmayer is an executive at the New York PR firm, 5W Public Relations