08 July 2007 - A visit to Efrat
I spent this past weekend in the settlement of Efrat, one of several settlements in the Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank. The Etzion Bloc had been settled prior to 1948, but was destroyed (and many of its inhabitants slaughtered) in the 1948 war. The first settlers returned to the area shortly after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967.
Today Efrat is a thriving bedroom community, strung out along the brows of seven hills in the rocky Judean countryside. It is largely a religious community, and is home to many families that have immigrated from the Anglo countries, including many South Africans. My own relatives in Efrat are sabra Israelis, so much so that only one of them speaks English—and she has only just started to learn.
Driving to Efrat, one used to see the white towers of Bethlehem in the valley to the east. No longer—now the road is hidden behind a protective wall that protects motorists from snipers. Like most settlements, Efrat has a security gate at its entrance; alone on its perch, separated from nearby settlements and Arab towns, Eftrat seems conscious of the anomaly—some would say illegality—of its presence.
Yet life inside Efrat is quite tranquil. The Israelis I met there were down-to-earth, humble, and self-assured to a degree that few Israelis or Jews within the Green Line seem to equal. In ordinary conversations with residents, I met many who said they had regular dealings with Arabs in the surrounding area. They did not see any solution to the conflict they are so close to, but did not seem to think one urgent.
I found it tough to explain to people what I do. “Human rights?” they would respond, instantly suspicious. “For whom?” “For everyone,” I would answer. “Oh, human rights are all right,” said one woman. “The problem is that you lot think only the Arabs have them.” “If they know you live in a settlement, they caricature you—they imagine that you shoot Arabs for sport,” said another.
Walking around the settlement, I had two thoughts. The first was that it was crazy to have built the thing in the first place—even today, it still seems to project insecurity, when viewed from the outside. The second thought was that it can never be dismantled or abandoned—there’s too much invested there, aside from which it is a successful, happy and healthy community, when viewed from the inside.
Several years ago, someone from Efrat told me he didn’t worry about the Oslo peace process because Efrat would be one of the areas Israel held onto, trading land in the Negev or elsewhere to make up the difference. Today, Oslo has fallen apart but Efrat now sits on the right—that is, the western—side of the security barrier, which reinforces the view that Israel is not likely to give up the Etzion Bloc again.
I thought about my suggestion, several days ago, of a Northern Ireland solution for the West Bank. It seemed clear to me that Jewish settlers would not be particularly attracted to the idea—not just because they would fear sharing power with Palestinians in the area, and not just because they would be a small minority, but because the occupation is really not a problem that they feel they have to solve.
And they’re not wrong. Israel has largely won the war against Palestinian terror in the West Bank. In Gaza, a Palestinian state has been established by default—though Hamas won’t declare it, because it wants all of Israel, and no one else would recognize it if they did. The barrier in the West Bank may become the new border if the conflict continues, and Israel will simply continue to police what lies beyond.
It’s a costly arrangement for both sides, but it is a situation that may persist for a while, until Palestinians can build a functioning proto-state and perhaps until the broader geopolitical conflict with Iran can be resolved. The most immediate problem that the Palestinians face vis-à-vis Israel is the system of checkpoints and closures, which is what the two sides should start negotiating about in the short term.
There are other, perhaps secondary, problems, such as Israeli violations of Palestinian private property rights—illegal not only under international law but Israeli law as well. If there is any role for public pressure to play at all, it can only be to get Israel to enforce its own laws against its own citizens, and itself. There should also be mechanisms to protect the property of Palestinian citizens, as well.
What about the so-called demographic threat? The exclusion of Gaza has, for now, brought a temporary respite. But it’s no long-term solution—and, as Golda Meir once said, Israel doesn’t want to count Jewish and Arab babies every day. Absent a Palestinian partner, Israel may have to withdraw to the barrier—incorrectly described by its critics as a “land grab”; “people grab” might be more appropriate.
Meanwhile, the best that can probably be done is to build Israeli-Palestinian institutional ties by creating institutions built around shared areas of common interest—environment, health, education, security. The rest is really up to the Palestinians. There’s not much reason for hope there—but the West Bank might offer opportunities for progress, politically and economically, that Gaza did not.
Ultimately, the fate of the Palestinian state might be that of Lesotho in South Africa—a kingdom on the high ground, starting out as a source of migrant labor but gradually building itself up through foreign direct investment and free trade agreements; a state that depends for its stability on the country it is surrounded by but which nonetheless retains its own identity, political traditions, and culture.
As for Gaza—it may continue as a separate entity for a while, unless it threatens Israel more openly. For now, reunification with the West Bank is just a dream—a nightmare, for some Palestinians. This is not an ideal fate we are talking about here—but it is better than the alternatives. And for Palestinians, at least, it offers a way past the status quo, which Efrat, at least, seems prepared to live with for now.