Monday, August 3, 2009

The Wild, Wild West Bank: Where Settlers Roam and Know No Law

The traffic from East to West Jerusalem, as it is every day, was bad. I sat at a standstill with my cabbie, Ahmed, as the clock struck noon. The phone rang, and of course, who else would be calling but Jonah Michael Seligman. “We’ll come meet you. Get off near the YMCA.” Ahmed made a Village People joke in response to my directions, and we parted ways. My next step was hopping into the wobbly, white pick-up truck of Noa, our guide for the day.

Noa is an employee for the Jerusalem Peace Now office, and had offered to take Jonah and me along with her as she went to investigate a rumor of new, illegal caravan construction in a northern settlement called Kohav Ya’kov. As far as I know, a “caravan” is a new settlement or an addition to an older settlement built beyond specified boundaries. This specific caravan, according to Noa, also was illegal due to its negligence of the process of submitting plans and waiting for approval from the Defense Minister.

We entered Kohav Ya’kov and scaled the mountain on which it is built. After a few minutes of driving, we encountered a construction site located beyond a previously installed fence. “They build so fast,” declared Noa. Apparently an aerial view of Kohav Ya’kov the week prior indicated no such construction. From afar, the three of us counted over 10 housing units.

My telephoto lens caught the construction from a distance.

Noa put her car into “audacious” gear, and approached the construction site. At first, she didn’t want to get out of the car. “I get scared, sometimes.” I don’t blame her. With the car running, Noa and I left Jonah to guard the vehicle as we came within several meters of the new, illegal housing units. A pipe-smoking elder manning a table near the site allowed us to approach with some reservations. He was clearly suspicious. Noa said we wanted to look at the view, but when she pulled out her camera, the man stood up and began to shout. “He was expecting me,” said Noa.

In a harsh tone of Hebrew, the settler man insisted on us leaving and followed us all the way back to the car. Noa expressed some concern that the security gate would not allow us out of the compound until the police came and dealt with the situation. It’s not illegal for us to be there, or for us to take pictures, but like in many cases, the police and government play the settler game too. After all, Avigdor Lieberman, a prominent Israeli politician currently serving as Foreign Affairs Minister under Bibi, has his own settler road bearing his name.

I employed my telephoto lens and took some shots from a more remote location, and we were on our way with no problems from the gate security. Along our path down the mountain, we encountered the “Obama Tent.” A new outpost designed to host a children’s summer camp, the tent gained its name as a gift to Obama after his insistence on the freezing of settlements. I don’t know if Obama would think the title so funny, nor flattering.

The Obama Tent (Ha'tzarif Shel Obama)

We returned through the Hizma Checkpoint through Jerusalem, requiring us to drive through a settlement called Pizgat Ze’ev. We made our way down to the southern part of the city and left the municipal border of Jerusalem. Noa wanted to show Jonah and me an instance of land confiscation in the name of settlement. She took us to a place called Har Homa.

Built around the year 2000, Har Homa, as explained by Noa, was the brainchild of Bibi Netanyahu after his first go at the office of prime minister. Har Homa was built outside of the municipal boundary of Jerusalem (well beyond both the Green Line, and the 1967 Line). It’s a rapidly growing place with construction in every corner. I’m sure the construction is legal, although Condi Rice, during her time as Secretary of State, demanded that Israel halt construction in Har Homa. They didn’t seem to hear her.

Noa pulled around to an isolated corner of Har Homa, and pointed to a hillside. “This area,” she described, “was confiscated by the Israeli government for the purpose of building the separation barrier.” It was no small tract of land, especially for a country the size of New Jersey (ew, New Jersey).

Illegally confiscated land for the purpose of building the Separation Barrier.

Noa had a wedding to get to, so she dropped Jonah and me off near his apartment in Baka’a. I got on a bus headed back to the East side of the city, and we said farewell. This bus ride, however, was interrupted as we approached the Old City. We stopped near Jaffa Gate, and two Israeli police officers entered the bus requiring each passenger to produce their identification. The Palestinians held up their blue Jerusalem identification cards, or their green West Bank cards (with proper permission to be in Israel, of course). I felt very self conscious, as I was the only foreigner on-board, and nonetheless, I pulled out my American passport. Although it’s a blessing to have an American document in this part of the world (or anywhere for that matter), I still felt very self conscious as these Palestinian men and women were being subjected to random searches while I skated by on that eagle of freedom.

The police pulled a few men off the bus and kept them for questioning. I got off the bus as well. I was close enough to Damascus Gate where I could simply walk to catch my next bus, and avoid the wait. Instead of ditching the bus situation, however, I stood and took some pictures of this interrogation. It was pretty benign. It was just a few Palestinian men standing in front of two Israeli police officers answering questions. I left.

The bus situation.

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