Of Bonfires and Biases: Lag BaOmer in the “Territories”

The phrase “Hilltop Outpost in the Territories” may conjure up the following image:  A remote spot, far from “Israel proper,” in mostly, or entirely, Palestinian-occupied area.  A few, far right-wing religious zealots individuals or families flout the law and bring international scorn, consuming widely disproportionate government funds (thanks to disproportionate right-wing political support in the fractious Knesset) and other resources (security, utilities, etc.), in furtherance of what they consider their Biblical mandate.  

We have all seen media sound bites of just such places, usually including interviews with “extremist” rabbis saying “G-d gave us this land; we’ll never leave,” followed by commentators and US government officials calling them “obstacles to peace” and citing Palestinian leaders refusing to negotiate peace until “the provocation” ends.     

Last night, I visited a different kind of “outpost” that demonstrated to me, once again, that generalizations are often wrong and black-and-white opinions hazardous here.   Just a 20-minute drive south of Jerusalem, and less than five minutes from the large and modern Jewish community of Efrat, is a small area called “Eitam Hill.”   Just before the start of the national holiday of Lag B’Omer, I attended a gathering of 75-100 Jews from Efrat and Jerusalem who come here weekly to maintain what presence they can. 

Due to the “building freeze” on this and other “disputed” land, the Israeli government will not permit these people to build anything on this parcel.  But if they do nothing to somehow claim it, the attendees told me, the neighboring Arabs will themselves plant trees or crops, or build.  The Israeli Government will do nothing to stop them.   So, the attendees feel that unless they do whatever they can to “claim” this land, they will lose it. 

They noted that there are tens of thousands of illegal Arab homes and other structures on disputed land, and that no one either talks about that nor does anything about it. *  But if a Jew builds a home on the very same disputed land, it garners international attention and condemnation, and the Israeli army will come in the middle of the night and evict the residents.   

My hosts were disgusted and embittered at what they regard as this blatant double standard and international bias/hypocrisy.   This land was Jewish, they said: we have not only the Bible but land titles from before 1948.   The Arabs had even put up signs saying” “This land belongs to the Zionist enemy!” The Arabs attacked the fledgling Israel in 1948, conquered this land, and “occupied” it for 19 years.  Did anyone condemn them then as “illegal occupiers?” No. Did the international community move to have the land returned to its Jewish owners? No.  The Arabs then started another war in 1967, and the Jews won this land back with blood.  That war ended with only an armistice, in which both sides agreed to negotiate a permanent resolution.  The Arabs have had several opportunities to agree to such a negotiated peace, but have always rejected it.  They cannot and will not make peace with Israel.   Instead, they have flouted the armistice and built on disputed land, and neither the international community, nor Israel due to American pressure, complains. 

I heard all this in snippets of “friendly” discussion.

As is clearly visible from the short movie clip I made, the site has a panoramic view of Bethlehem below, but is also completely exposed.  I asked a man standing near me, in a mostly (but not entirely) joking tone, “Are we beyond rifle range of all those homes?”   He did not smile, and instead gestured to a non-descript (albeit with two large radio antenna) Israeli army jeep with four soldiers inside parked about 75 yards away.  I hadn’t noticed it.   “If they (referring to the Arabs) try anything, they’ll be in big trouble.” 

In the far distance I could see an unusually shaped flat-topped outcropping/promontory, higher than any of the surrounding hills.  When I pointed it out to my friend, he told me that it was Herodion – the site of King Herod’s palace and fortress.  Shortly thereafter, the rabbi among the attendees gave a talk during which, although I couldn’t understand most of the rapid Hebrew, he clearly pointed to surrounding areas and explained their historical/biblical significance, as well as the plans for eventual development of the site on which we stood.    

The attendees – I don’t want to use the politically loaded word “settlers,” -- ranged in age from infants to a few elderly men and women walking with help.  They did not look to me to be fanatics, just determined to, literally, “hold their ground.”  

I helped blow up balloons, which my friend twisted into crowns, flowers, animals, and swords for the children.  A bonfire in honor of Lag B’Ome was lit (even though it wasn’t yet dark – it would be too dangerous to be here then, as the Israeli soldiers would have left),  and potatoes were roasted in foil.  There were songs and a few more speeches, and a spread of pizza, potatoes, pastry, and watermelon was served.  We stood facing Jerusalem and prayed mincha and ma’ariv.  Then everything, including all the Israeli flags, was gathered up, put in Jeeps, and we returned over the rocky path to the paved roads where the minivans were waiting. 

On the way back, we passed red signs at road turnoffs. My friend pointed them out and explained that they were Israeli Government notices ordering all Jews to stay out of these neighborhoods.   Here again, my minibus companions were bitter.  What was this, Russia? Poland? Imagine, in this, the Jewish state, we Jews are ordered to keep out because the locals are hostile! 

I asked: But, if we keep building in disputed territory, how can there be peace?   They responded: Of course, we want peace.  We could co-exist, do business, and raise our children without worry.  But peace is only possible if the Arabs accept Israel’s existence.  They never have and, based on what the Arab media says and Arab schools teach, never will.  It is therefore for us to be strong, to resist our own imbecilic government and the hypocritical, anti-Semitic, delusional international community, and to claim and keep our land -- or else be killed or pushed out, just as Jews have always been. 

To say that this a complicated place is a vast understatement. 

*  [This reminded me that during the 1948 War of Independence, many more Jews then living in Arab lands were forced out than were Arabs then living in Palestine.  But since Israel accepted these Jewish refugees, they and their descendants did not become permanent refugees, whose “status” would eventually cause intractable problems and international protests.]

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb