The Two Israels
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, NY Times, June 22, 2008
See Also: When Does Hebron’s Story Begin?
HEBRON, West Bank
To travel through the West Bank and Gaza these days feels like traveling through Israeli colonies.
You whiz around the West Bank on new highways that in some cases are reserved for Israeli vehicles, catching glimpses of Palestinian vehicles lined up at checkpoints.
The security system that Israel is steadily establishing is nowhere more stifling than here in Hebron, the largest city in the southern part of the West Bank. In the heart of a city with 160,000 Palestinians, Israel maintains a Jewish settlement with 800 people. To protect them, the Israeli military has established a massive system of guard posts, checkpoints and road closures since 2001.
More than 1,800 Palestinian shops have closed, in some cases the doors welded shut, and several thousand people have been driven from their homes. The once flourishing gold market is now blocked with barbed wire and choked with weeds and garbage.
“For years, Israel has severely oppressed Palestinians living in the center of the city,” notes B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, in a recent report. The authorities, it adds, “have expropriated the city center from its Palestinian residents and destroyed it economically.”
Rima Abu Aisha, a housewife in Hebron, has the misfortune of living in an area near the settlers. When she went into labor, an ambulance could not get the appropriate permissions in time and the baby died, she said.
Even if the Hebron settlement were not illegal in the eyes of much of the world, it is utterly impractical. The financial cost is mind-boggling, and the diplomatic cost is greater.
Perhaps greatest of all is the cost for any hope of a peaceful settlement: the barriers and checkpoints have undermined Palestinian moderates like President Mahmoud Abbas and have empowered Hamas. Polls show that two-thirds of Palestinians now approve of terror attacks against civilians in Israel, up from 40 percent in 2005.
The Palestinians are committing national suicide as well. By turning toward the zealots of Hamas, and toward the short-term thrill of sending rockets into Israel, they are building a tombstone for their state before it is even born.
Americans who haven’t toured the West Bank or Gaza recently may not appreciate how the new security regime of the last few years is suffocating, impoverishing and antagonizing Palestinians.
In the village of Ein Bani Salim, a farmer named Khalifa Danna pointed to his field, separated from his house by a barbed-wire fence that Israel built in 2004. Since then, he has been unable to get to the fields. Mr. Danna shows photos he has taken of Israeli settlers on his land — even using it to throw stones at him.
B’Tselem is giving video cameras to Palestinians to document the attacks and abuses they suffer. Just this month, a Palestinian woman near Hebron used a camera to record a group of four settlers clubbing her family in a field; two settlers were later arrested.
The settlers see the issue very differently, emphasizing the continuing Palestinian attacks on them and noting that the security steps were put in place only in reaction to Palestinian terrorism during the second intifada a half-dozen years ago.
“If people are trying to actively wipe you out and kill your people, then you have to take security measures,” says David Wilder, a spokesman for the settlers in Hebron. “If that antagonizes them, they should stop trying to kill us.”
So the chasm grows wider and peace more distant.
It is here in the Palestinian territories that you see the worst side of Israel: Jewish settlers stealing land from Palestinians (almost one-third of settlement land is actually privately owned by Palestinians); Palestinian women giving birth at checkpoints because Israeli soldiers won’t let them through (four documented cases last year); the diversion of water from Palestinians. (Israelis get almost five times as much water per capita as Palestinians.)
Yet it is also here that you see the very best side of Israel. Israeli human rights groups relentlessly stand up for Palestinians. Israeli women volunteer at checkpoints to help Palestinians through. Israeli courts periodically rule in favor of Palestinians. Israeli scholars have published research that undermines their own nation’s mythologies. Many Israeli journalists have been fair-minded toward Palestinians in a way that Arab journalists have rarely reciprocated.
All told, the most persuasive indictments of Israeli actions come from Israelis themselves. This scrupulous honesty and fairness toward Israel’s historic enemies is a triumph of humanity.
In short, there are many Israels. When American presidential candidates compete this year to be “pro-Israeli,” let’s hope that they clarify that the one they support is not the oppressor that lets settlers steal land and club women but the one that is a paragon of justice, decency, fairness — and peace.