Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Settling off

Boarding the bus at Jerusalem’s tahanat merkazit felt much like the start of any journey through Israel. A typical mix of childlike soldiers, scholarly datim and swaggering hilonim jostled for space as they approached the steps to the coach that was to take us to the Israeli settlement of Ariel - deep inside the West Bank. The first thing that struck me as we took our seats towards the front of the bus was that the windows were reinforced with bullet proof glass, a pertinent reminder that the number 480 bus might be a standard route, but this was to be far from a routine journey.

Warnings from secular Israelis inside the Green Line had been forthcoming and frequent, upon hearing of the purpose of our trip – to travel extensively throughout Israeli settlements on lands captured during the Six Day War, to discover what life is really like behind the headlines. “Are you crazy?!” They exclaim, “You don’t understand how dangerous it is to go to these places. They are not safe. People are killed there all the time.” One of Israeli society’s many stark divides also tends to surface at this point, when our hiloni (secular) advisors rail against the datim (religious people) that are famous for living beyond the Green Line. “They are crazy too. They are all religious there. Extremely. They believe they are fighting God’s battles.”

In fact, according to the anti-settlement movement Peace Now, just over half of all West Bank settlers identify themselves to be religious, a statistic born out by the variety of people seated with us en route to the predominantly secular West Bank city of Ariel.

Nevertheless, the point still stood: the Israeli hiloni majority feel that the West Bank settlers are a different people from themselves - a zealous, isolated minority, holding the country to ransom over ancient landscapes and archaic battles. This journey was mired in politics and vitriol before it had begun. Ours, then, was an attempt to demystify the rumours; to debunk the myths and uncover a sense of day-to-day life in these most contentious of lands. Our aim was to add colour to the black and white dichotomy that sits at the epicentre of Israel’s political quagmire. Because no problem can be solved, before it is truly understood.

The battle scars of the hiloni/ dati divide were immediately apparent as the bus drew away from the dark shelter at the rear of the station and into the dazzling Jerusalem sunshine. To our left sat a young religious man, dressed in the standard garb – not the black hats and coats of the Haredi Jews, but a subtly different uniform – that of the National Religious movement, the body at the heart of Israel’s West Bank settlement programme. Like his haredi counterparts, he sported a long beard, but his clothing was rather more relaxed. Loose-fitting navy trousers unsuited to the grubby pale blue shirt above them were set off by a notably unfashionable combination of socks and sandals covering his feet. Where his shirt spilled out over his waist, long, knotted tzitzit streamed out over the seat and became entangled in anything they touched. Atop his head sat the familiar large, knitted kippah as worn by all those of his tribe, and in his hands he held the siddur from which he prayed intently, silently poring over every word, his thoughts a world away from the two hilonim English cousins that sat to his right, examining him so attentively.

And there on his bag were the marks of the battle that had scarred the country almost two years previously. Colour meant everything in the summer of 2005 when Sharon ploughed on with his proposed evacuation of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Those in support of the evacuation of Israel’s settlers tied blue ribbons to everything, whilst those who opposed the move with all their pious might wore orange – and flocks of orange clad demonstrators streamed through the streets of the Holy Land. Sharon won that battle but then lost the fight, leaving the country in a confused limbo. As a result, the issue is far from concluded and protestors regularly march to Homesh – one of the West Bank settlements dismantled two years ago – to demand its reconstruction.

The blue brigade might feel they have won the battle of ’05 (though many confess to feeling uncertain as to whether it was the right thing, given Gaza’s ceaseless barrage of qassam rockets into Israel) but the orange fire still burns fiercely in the hearts of the settlers. There, knotted tightly to the man’s bag, was an orange ribbon, grubby with age and somewhat lacklustre – though its very presence confirmed the divide that has only become further entrenched in the period following the hitnatkut (withdrawal). This orange ribbon was the most familiar and potent symbol of the place we were now preparing to enter. It was also one we wanted to move beyond, in order to transcend the division of blue and orange, black and white, and discover just who these notorious settlers are.

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