16 June, 2016

Homes that don't belong

The Walled City is at the core of the Israel-Palestine tussle. Even if Jerusalem is divided, the government will face greater opposition to the resolution from Jewish settlements in the territory of the West Bank that the Palestinian authority claims.

(This is the second part of a series that takes a look at the conflict and faultlines in Israel. Read the first part, Israel's many flashpoints?)

If you ask most Israelis what is the most contentious part of the Israel-Palestine conflict, they will say: Jerusalem. It seems inconceivable to most how any government would be allowed to accede any part of the city, coveted and conquered for 4,000 years, and finally under control of the people of Israel. The first Prime Minister Ben-Gurion had reportedly said, when Israel only controlled West Jerusalem, that he could imagine “Jerusalem without Israel but not Israel without Jerusalem”.

On the other hand, most will admit that Jerusalem today is a city divided, and East Jerusalem is considered off-limits to Israelis because of security concerns.

^ The Jewish shrine, Dome of the Rock, located on Temple Mount in Central Jerusalem, is a contentious site. It is barred to Jews, as it is controlled by the Waqf Trust. | Suhasini Haidar

^ A sign tells Jewish worshippers not to pray at Temple Mount's Al Aqsa. | Suhasini Haidar

Even inside the walled city, the Muslim quarter sees few Jewish people, except the very orthodox ones who have taken residence there, who always move under armed escort. At the heart of the heart of contention is the Al-Aqsa complex, which includes the Dome of the Rock or Temple Mount that is revered by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but is administered by the Waqf trust. Only Muslims may enter the mosque and the shrine, and Jews are banned from praying inside the complex as part of the status quo agreed to. As a result, the tension at the site is palpable, as armed Israeli guards and Waqf officials scrutinise every visitor.

As we stand outside the entry to the complex at Zion gate, we see the tension build as a group of young Jewish men get into a loud argument with Israeli police, as they demand to go in. This is a build up to ‘Jerusalem Day’, we are told, when Jewish groups mark the day Israel won control of all of Jerusalem from Jordan. Each year, they walk around the city waving Israeli flags, squeezing through the narrow Damascus gate entry to the walled city, and walk around the Muslim quarter. Like always, this year too sees tensions and tempers flare, until the Israeli court allows the march to go ahead on the condition that it end early. With about 2,000 Israeli soldiers lining the way, the marchers complete the day with only a few incidents. The object of the march is also to insist that the government doesn’t agree to the international community’s demand that Jerusalem be divided eventually, with the muslim quarter and East Jerusalem given to the Palestinian authority. And weeks in advance, we see stickers calling for a “united Jerusalem” across the city.

^ A Jewish group, forbidden from entering the premises, confronts Israeli police at the entrance of Al-Aqsa, which houses the Jewish-revered Dome of the Rock shrine. | Suhasini Haidar

My own sense is that even if Jerusalem is divided, the government will face greater opposition to the resolution from Jewish settlements that are in the territory of the West Bank that the Palestinian authority claims. Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982, and then from Gaza in 2005 has left its settlers with deep scars. Each time they have been forced to withdraw from their homes and move to new ones. We drive to the settlement of ‘Ariel’, one of the most famous and prosperous settlements in the West Bank, to meet some of them.

Avi Zimerman, who shows us around, moved here from New Jersey, U.S., when he was 14, taking ‘Aliyah’, or Jewish repatriation to Israel. He lives with his wife and their four children in what looks like a prosperous American suburb, complete with markets, factories, schools, and even its own university. This is far from the original concept of settlements as temporary, and not only the Palestinian authorities, but the international community frowns on the permanent constructions and robust economic activity in the settlements.

In 2005, several Palestinian NGOs began a boycott of all Israeli businesses that operate from settlements and areas that Israel controls that aren’t recognised by the UN, including the Golan heights, called the ‘BDS movement’ (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction). The BDS movement has grown since then, with several international parties proferring support, and many companies inside the settlements feeling the pinch. In 2015, the EU okayed the process of labeling all Israeli products made in these settlements, and international pressure has already forced a few businesses like the SodaStream factory in Ma’ale Adumim outside Jerusalem, to move out.

^ The Achva Halva factory in the Ariel settlement in the Central West Bank. Based on sesame and nuts, the Israeli Halva represents a commonality with India's Halwa. | Suhasini Haidar

In another part of the Central West Bank lies the Achva Halva factory inside the Ariel settlement. Halva is a middle-eastern version of Indian Halwa, made with a sesame sauce base and mixed with sugar and nuts. The factory is impressive, employing 250 people, 65% of whom are from nearby Palestinian villages. At the factory, managers tell us there is no discrimination, and senior positions are held by both Arabs and Israelis as they oversee the production of this sweet, which is packaged and sold around the world. On the shop floor, the atmosphere is happy. And as we introduce ourselves as Indians, workers shout out names of Bollywood stars; Amitabh Bachchan, Amjad Khan, Zeenat Aman, Shahrukh Khan and Raj Kapoor seem most popular here.

But the bonhomie at the sweets factory can’t detract from the bitter tensions just outside. In March this year, a 20-year old Israeli soldier was stabbed by two Palestinian men at the Ariel junction when she got off a bus. The attackers were shot dead by IDF personnel on the spot, and security has been stepped up at Ariel. The attack, part of a series of stabbings in the West Bank that have left more than 30 Israelis dead, more than 400 wounded, has left the Ariel community shaken.

^ The Ariel Settlement, part of the Israeli territory of the Central West Bank, was created after Israeli Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon proposed a ring of Jewish neighbourhoods around the city's eastern edges in 1978. Today, this fourth-largest Jewish settlement in West Bank is populated by around 18,000. | Suhasini Haidar

“Coexistence doesn’t necessarily mean peace,” Avi shrugs when he is asked about the fear of further violence here, “We need mutual interests instead, like the Halva factory, to secure that.” But Ariel products now face a boycott in many parts of the world, and even in Israel, where some NGOs and civil rights activists support the BDS movement. I ask the factory manager Yuri Smrin, a former school principal in Russia who migrated to Israel in the 1980s what would happen if the Achva factory had to shut down like the SodaStream factory did.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he says, “And what about the Palestinians who will lose their jobs?” Regardless of what happens to businesses on the settlement, Avi Zimmerman says shutting down the Ariel settlement is impossible and “non-negotiable”. I ask him if he worries about a counter-reaction from Jewish settlers if the Israeli government makes a peace deal with Palestinian authorities, as it did in 2005 in Gaza, and agrees to evacuate the settlement. “I don’t think they will turn violent, if that’s what you mean” he says with only a hint of irony, “But Ariel is their home. You never know what people will do if they are pushed out of their homes.” In those words lie the embittered past and a key to the future of this prosperous but far from peaceful ‘Promised Land’.

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