By Tal Harris
On January 22, OneVoice Israel brought 15 of its members from Tel Aviv to meet with 30 settlers in the illegal settlement of Negohot, situated in the hills south of Hebron. Organizations in Israel seeking an end to the conflict tend to operate in the Tel Aviv area alone, but the OneVoice Movement prides itself on going to the hardest to reach communities and discussing with them the toughest issues.
The idea was conceived on November 7, 2009, at the Memorial Day Rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, held to commemorate the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I was handing out OneVoice Israel leaflets when I was approached by a young girl named Hodaya, who asked me to stop. She told me that I and other nongovernmental organizations and political parties carrying out similar activities were politicizing the event, alienating large segments of Israeli society.
Hodaya came from Susya settlement in the southern part of Mount Hebron, an area holding some of the most remote and isolated settlements.
I asked Hodaya where she thought it would be legitimate to discuss politics if not during Rabin’s Memorial Day event. She told me anywhere else would be better than here, to which I replied that my job was to conduct political discussions addressing all core issues of the conflict, and that I didn’t consider any Israeli – settler or not – to be exempt from the responsibility of finding a solution to the conflict. She surprised me by agreeing with me, and offered to connect me to people in her settlement.
It is one thing, I thought, to conduct a town hall meeting in Ariel in the midst of the moratorium on settlement construction and expansion. Ariel and similar settlement blocks may well remain intact in exchange for similar lands in any future agreement with the Palestinians (at least, that’s what most Israelis assume). It’s a completely different challenge, and a far more difficult one, to address settlers who’ve built a life in a disputed area and tell them that being a Zionist and a patriot gives them no choice but to leave this place.
I ended up finalizing details with Rabbi Nehemiah from the neighboring Negohot settlement. The rabbi believed that the truth must come out through pluralism and open debate, and welcomed OneVoice Israel. I was surprised by his openness, and accepted his offer after making sure he understood what he was getting his settlement into.
Fifteen OneVoice Israel student activists with a wide range of political views joined us from Tel Aviv.
The rabbi gave us a historical tour of the settlement before we settled into a nearly three-hour long political discussion.
Negohot is a beautiful place with an amazing view that, on a good day, encompasses the industrial chimneys of Hadera to the north and the outskirts of Be’er Sheba to the south. The closest town to Negohot is the Arab village of Beit Awa. In peaceful times, the settlers paid the Arabs to harvest their fields for them.
The Oslo Accords stipulated that Negohot should be evacuated, but the rabbi takes pride in the fact that the settlers prevented this measure from being implemented and thus forced the Israeli Defense Forces to continue monitoring the entire area. Negohot is situated on an old Roman road and life in the settlement used to be vibrant because of its location on the road to Jerusalem. There are about 20 soldiers guarding 42 families who make their living mostly from agriculture and even high-tech industries.
“[Negohot residents are] extremely rooted to the ground and have a profound connection to it,” explained Rabbi Nehemiah.
The settlers there distinguish their settlement from the “illegal outposts” because they say they’ve gone through a (partial) political process of authorization. Since the Sason Report, Negohot has not received direct government funding. A 120 square meter house in Negohot costs 700,000 NIS ($187,000), but due to the current moratorium on settlement construction and expansion, any purchase made today would be frozen.
The main focus of our visit to Negohot was to find out what can be done about the four million Palestinians living in what some refer to as Greater Israel. This demographic fact is threatening to destroy the Jewish character of Israel unless there is a division of the land and the creation of two sovereign states.
Our conversation with 30 of Negohot’s settlers set history aside and focused on the politics of the situation. Any future agreement with the Palestinians would certainly demand the dismantlement of their homes. It should be noted that all Negohot settlers identify themselves as Zionists.
The first person to speak started by challenging how Israel could remain a democratic and Jewish state if it controlled all the territories occupied in 1967. In order to do both, Israel would have to grant millions of Palestinians voting rights, which would end the Jewish majority in the state of Israel. Another took the opposite stance, arguing that the transfer of the Arab population should be the only option.
Maor, a settler from Negohot, agreed and stated that since he was banished from the Gaza Strip (Gush Katif settlement), he believed anyone can be banished and now it was just a matter of who had a right to this land and who didn’t.
The settlers presented a wide variety of opinions and possible solutions. Zurit asserted that she had no problem living side by side with Palestinians. She’d even done so in the Gaza Strip, which implied that co-existence was possible. Her fellow settler, Efram, claimed that any extreme solution like banishing people on a large scale should be excluded from the discourse.
Nehemiah objected to the OneVoice theme of a moderate majority that wishes to live in peace and quiet. “That means we can all just move to Europe or some other quiet place,” he said. “Having a Jewish state means being in Israel.”
He suggested solutions other than a transfer, such as encouraging more Jews to make Aliyah (immigration of Jews into Israel) and promoting more births in Israel.
I explained to the participants that politics was all about compromising. A Jewish state cannot be something total and extreme; otherwise, it won’t be democratic anymore. It had to be somewhat Jewish, and it must ensure that we, as Jews, were safe, independent and can carry our tradition on a national level, even if the land was smaller.
Ethan from Tel Aviv added his opinion that, “the pragmatic consideration of OneVoice means that the value of life in a fairly democratic and Jewish state is favored instead of any venture that tries to create the impossible, and keep it democratic, Jewish and without clearly defined borders.”
After three hours of discussion, it was time to wrap up the debate.
I’d been surprised by the diverse range of opinions of a group of settlers who live in one of the most remote and controversial outposts in the West Bank. It showed me that even amongst the settler movement there were those who were open to debate and pragmatic arguments.
Our event in Negohot proved an important forum for people to be engaged in the real challenges of what a two state solution means and the compromises that it may involve.
Tal Harris started as a youth leader with the OneVoice Movement and became the coordinator of its town hall meetings in Israel.
By Dalia Labadi
Walking down the street of a refugee camp is a trip that can rupture your heart. Each house holds a story within, a story that is carried through generations, a story that tells of an old life that our ancestors lived and a new life that the younger generation is fighting to achieve.
I was sitting in the car with my colleagues when we reached an area with ugly buildings, dirty streets due to sewage and broken water pipes, and narrow passages only the width of one car. Welcome to Askar refugee camp!
The camp, established in 1950, lies outside the West Bank city of Nablus and houses 15,887 refugees in a tightly packed area, according to UNRWA. More than 44 percent live in poverty.
I’d been to refugee camps before to visit family friends, but never in my role as town hall meeting coordinator for OneVoice Palestine. It was a vastly different experience entering as an outsider giving a talk about the hard issues of the conflict, many of which are considered taboo in Palestinian society and especially among refugees.
People were waiting for us at the front door of the hall where we were holding out event to help us carry equipment. Everyone was welcoming. Despite this positive energy from the crowd, I couldn’t help but feel disturbed and filled with burning emotions, as I witnessed the miserable conditions residents of Askar were living under.
Sitting aside and watching one of OneVoice Palestine’s youth leaders conduct a session on border issues, I carefully observed the audience. At that moment, I felt that I was able to see through their eyes their stories, misery, questions, and skepticism.
The residents of Askar refugee camp know that the only way to end the occupation and achieve a permanent peace with Israel is by adopting the two-state solution. But, they find it hard to accept because they’d have to abandon their ideals and retire the image of the map of Palestine they knew their whole lives.
The session was very difficult to conduct, but its rewards greater than our other events. The audience was honest and expressed themselves clearly. Our team felt comfortable sharing ideas and thoughts about the future of Palestine.
In such an open forum for dialogue, we were able to sense the confusion the refugees live in. They don’t know how to get out of their quagmire while preserving the needs and wants. They are full of hope and expectation, but it’s a constant struggle in the face of their daily lives.
Discussing taboo topics with them yields complicated response and conflicting ideas. You can sense the internal battle each is going through in trying to balance the need for pragmatism with holding on to cherished ideals. Despite this, I can say with confidence that I walked away that day convinced of their will to end the conflict through non-violent actions.
At the end of a long two-hour discussion, I stood by the entrance, wondering how can a nation that has been under occupation for more than four decades, facing incursions, assassinations, arrests, and curfews have such a big heart and willingness to change the current situation.
It challenging, intellectually and emotionally, to persevere in the work we do. It’s easy sometimes to feel like I’m running on empty, but meeting people like the Askar refugees gives me all the fuel I need to deal head-on with the different kinds of obstacles we face daily.
Every meeting and activity we organize in such places as Askar refugee camp renews my commitment to end the occupation and the conflict in order to establish a sustainable Palestinian state for the people of Palestine.
Dalia Labadi is the Program Coordinator of OneVoice Palestine’s Town Hall Meetings.