Unsettled in the West Bank

There are settlements and there are settlements. Before I traveled to Israel and the West Bank, I pictured Israeli settlers as fringe Israelis who have set up temporary structures on a hilltop (of the type that international media-savvy Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kindly demolished for the cameras in July 2009). Those do exist. What I wasn’t prepared for was the concrete and asphalt, the well-maintained streets, schools, shopping centers and synagogues. They are full-fledged towns. At the same time, Netanyahu has made it clear that he’s not about to get serious about dismantling anything anytime soon, either, despite President Obama’s repeated demands that he do just that. This attitude is in apparent opposition to Israeli law which prohibits Israelis from entering certain areas of the West Bank entirely: areas like Hebron, where a large red sign at the city limits spelled out, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, that Israelis were barred from entry except to visit the synagogue.

Unsurprisingly, the settlers don’t like this, and they’re not afraid to show it. Near the entrance to one of the main settlements we noticed a poster that depicted Obama in a keffiyeh and proclaimed him an “Anti-Semitic Jew Hater”.

There is enough such distrust and nastiness on all sides to make logical people simply walk away, and it permeates at all levels. When I arrived in Tel Aviv, a three year old Algerian stamp in my passport meant that I was detained and questioned for fifteen minutes by Israeli authorities. My colleague, Michele, who had collected stamps from old favorites like Lebanon, Libya and Afghanistan, spent four hours in their care.

Even in the West Bank we ran into trouble. We’d heard that a major Israeli checkpoint had been removed outside the town of Jericho, and went to have a look. The checkpoint was indeed gone, replaced by Palestinian soldiers, who demanded to see Michele’s passport and know what she was up to: her looks had apparently convinced them she was Israeli. Her New York driver’s license didn’t seem to help.

Eventually we made it to Jericho and took refuge from the heat in a breezy coffee shop. Over cups of thick, cardamom laced coffee, we reflected that the bulk of the money to build the settlements has come from private donations, and most of these donors are Jewish organizations based in – wait for it – New York City. For example, the Hebron Fund is located about eight miles from Film@11’s Brooklyn office.

As I reviewed footage I shot of trash-strewn nets hung above Hebron’s market streets to protect them from the settlers, and of a Palestinian house burned by settlers who wanted the residents gone, I had to wonder, what kind of people are these?

- Ned Thorne

Where's the peace, Barack?
Where's the peace, Barack?