Magazine article The Christian Century

In the West Bank

Magazine article The Christian Century

In the West Bank

Article excerpt

THE DRIVE FROM AFULA in Israel south to Jalame in the West Bank takes only minutes, but these two towns are worlds apart. Afula is a relatively affluent suburb with ATMs, tree-lined streets and pleasant neighborhoods. Jalame is a town of degrading poverty, which is evident in the pot-holed roads (when they're paved at all), storefront vegetable stands and shells of buildings--memorials to the wars that never end.

We know this drive well because it takes us through an Israeli checkpoint on our way to Zababdeh, the Palestinian village where we live. Zababdeh is one of a handful of villages in the Holy Land where a majority of the residents are Christian, and it's the only such village in the northern West Bank. We have been teaching English and religion classes in the village's Roman Catholic school.

The Jalame checkpoint's lookout towers, severe walls topped with barbed wire and sandbagged gun turrets let us know we have reached the Green Line, the international armistice line that separates Israel from the West Bank, land that Israel has held under military occupation for the past 34 years. Depending on which soldier is standing guard, we are subject either to a few minutes of questions (Where are you from? Can I see your passport?) or--on the basis of our Israeli license plates--to a simple wave of the hand motioning us through.

Recently, while waiting for visitors to arrive, we spent the better part of an hour talking to an Israeli soldier eager to practice his English. He spoke about his time in Hebron. "I'm not allowed to say this, but the problem there is 100 percent the settlers," he told us. "They even hate us soldiers who are there to protect them." He has spend the past couple of months at Jalame's checkpoint--a particularly fiery time to be assigned there. While we talked to him, two Israeli police vans pulled up and deposited their cargo of Palestinians who had been caught illegally entering Israel to work. They blinked as the van doors opened. In their hands were papers telling them about the fine they had just incurred.

This checkpoint is also the beginning of the road settlers take to two nearby settlements, Kadim and Ganim. Housing about 80 people between them, these settlements are hardly the home of religious ideologues or rogue gunmen--or so our soldier friend told us. Rather, the settlers came seeking a standard of living that is out of their reach in places like Haifa, Upper Nazareth or even Afula. They drive from Kadim or Ganim to jobs in northern Israel. They are sub-urban commuters who just happen to live in illegal housing--housing outlawed by UN Security Council resolutions

Once we are through the checkpoint, we put a kaffiye (Palestinian checkered headscarf) on the dashboard--a signal to the Palestinians that we are not settlers, despite our license plate and Western appearance. In Jalame discount shops haphazardly line the street. Their bilingual signs (Arabic and Hebrew) attest to the thriving business they once did, when Israelis used to cross the border to take advantage of low prices. Now, in the midst of the current intifada, the shops are deserted.

WE REACH THE TURNOFF for the settlers' road, which bypasses the Palestinian city of Jenin. Huge warning signs in Hebrew mark the way, as does an Israeli military jeep and a large, metal arm which blocks the road into Jenin. Without our Israeli license plates, we would be unable to take the settlers' road.

We drive past plastic greenhouses full of tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce. From here to Zababdeh, all roads connecting to or crossing the bypass road have been closed. When the intifada resumed last September, the Israeli military blocked them with large chunks of concrete and high piles of dirt. This effectively cut surrounding villages off from Jenin, the main city in the northern West Bank. A network of side-side roads then sprang up--cutting through fields--to enable people to work, shop and go to school in Jenin. …

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