Between Jerusalem and Bondi Beach

Richard Fernandez on the Sheridan Israel trip:

Greg Sheridan has an interesting road story in the Australian where he describes his trip to Israel. Three of his observations struck an immediate chord with me. The smallness of Israel; the daily intermingling of Jewish and Islamic life — with the Islamic life protected; and the casual and universal possession of arms. The miniature size of Israel is almost laughable to those accustomed to the vast, often vacant Australian landscape.

For an Australian it is almost impossible to imagine the smallness of the distances involved. Gilot was routinely fired on by snipers in Bethlehem several years ago, and so, well before the security fence was put up, Gilot had its own system of walls and shields, especially for children’s playgrounds. For Gilot to be fired on from Bethlehem is like Sydney’s Surry Hills being fired on from Redfern, or Richmond being fired on from the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The distance from Redfern to Surry Hills is so short you’d walk between them to buy a sandwich. Sheridan was also struck by the sight of Bedouins encamped in Israel. Bedouins! Some of them probably serve in the IDF, too, along with other Israeli Muslims. One of the more interesting sounds of early morning Jerusalem is the sound of the call to prayer from the Al-Aqsa mosque that floats over the capital of Israel. Finally, Sheridan describes the omnipresence of firearms. “On the day I visit, a group of American Jewish teenagers are there as part of a program to acquaint diaspora Jewish youth with their cultural heritage. They are the normal loud-mouthed, good natured, overbearing American kids. The only odd thing about them is that they are accompanied by two security guards, in this case Israeli girls who look barely older than the teenagers they are guarding and carry rifles as tall as themselves.”

<more from Richard Fernandez>

And I wanted to highlight more of Greg’s insights — starting with an explanation for the horribly one-side media coverage of Israel:

Alongside the territories is a much under-reported but fascinating and unique country. It’s called Israel.

The world media makes a mistake by using the same reporters to cover the Palestinian territories as well as Israel. They can’t do both, and most don’t try to.

They cover the territories and they only cover Israel as a brooding and malign presence in the territories.

Naturally the reporting is one-sided. But it is worse than that. It omits from the equation Israel and the Israelis, and all the countless enthralling and diverse aspects of Israeli politics and society.

It is ever the fate of stable, democratic countries, even those involved in a conflict, to be under-reported. Israel was more reported a few years ago, when terrorists were murdering 1500 of its citizens a year. Now, with the security barrier, wrongly labelled a wall when it is mostly a fence, terrorist infiltration is much more difficult and perhaps a dozen or so Israelis are killed a year by terrorists.


And the settlements:

…But I also sought out the controversial images of Israel, in particular those of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A word on definitions. After the 1967 war, when Israel was attacked by a coalition of its Arab neighbours, Israel took territory in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Some of this, Israelis argue, is necessary for security.

It has since left Gaza. Israel is constantly urged to go back to its 1967 borders, but the two places where it has done that, in southern Lebanon and Gaza, the result has been disastrous. It was subject to thousands of rocket attacks from southern Lebanon until it went to war with Hezbollah and now every day Qassam rockets are fired from Gaza at nearby Israeli civilian towns, especially Sderot.

The final borders between Israel and a putative Palestinian state have yet to be worked out. Every inch of territory with a Jewish inhabitant beyond the 1967 borders is commonly referred to as a Jewish settlement. I spent days driving up and down the West Bank and visited as many Jewish settlements as I could. These included suburbs of Jerusalem such as Gilot and Har Homa, big settlements just outside Jerusalem such as Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumin, and the biggest, distant settlement, the town of Ariel.

Although I think Israel will be prepared to give up numerous settlements in the West Bank, I don’t think any of those named above will be given up under any circumstances. The stereotype of the Jewish settler, as columnist and author Hillel Halkin has written, is of “a belligerently bearded Jew with a knit skullcap on his head, a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other”. It’s a stereotype I didn’t meet at all in any of these settlements, and not for want of trying, although of course I met only a fraction of the nearly 400,000 Jews who live beyond the 1967 lines.

There are certainly ideologically militant and intolerant settlers, but they are a minority. While committed to Israel like virtually all its citizens, the settlers I met lived where they did for a variety of reasons, mainly the lower cost of housing, the communal lifestyle and educational opportunities, and sometimes because of a desire to be connected to biblical lands.

The status of the different communities routinely lumped into the single category of settlements varies enormously. Israel officially annexed some parts of East Jerusalem straight after 1967. Although there may one day be a compromise on Jerusalem, no Israeli government will give up central suburbs such as Har Homa and Gilot.

And the future:

…Of course the settlements and their future are endlessly debated in Israel, as is everything else. I left Israel profoundly optimistic about the morale of the society and the resolve of the people, but profoundly pessimistic about the peace process. If there were peace, any compromise on borders might be possible. But too many Arab leaders, and too many Palestinian leaders, are playing for the very long term and still believe that in time they will wipe Israel off the map.

Apart from the overwhelming experience of visiting the Yad Vashem museum recalling the Holocaust, the most powerful image I saw in Israel was in a small office in the Knesset (parliament) building in Jerusalem. I had gone to see Ephraim Sneh, a white-haired veteran Labour Party politician and soldier, a former cabinet minister and a former general.

He points to a picture on the back wall of his office. It is of two Israeli F-15 fighters flying over Auschwitz. “When we didn’t have F-15s, we had Auschwitz,” he says.

His grandparents, he tells me, were killed by the Polish farmers they had paid to shelter them. You learn the lessons of trusting other people with your security.

Israel will certainly make compromises. But it will not commit suicide.

Highly recommended…