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entries tagged with: Gush Etzion


Palestinian village and Israeli town build rare partnership across line

WADI FUKIN, west bank – Mohammed Mansara, a 70-year-old farmer who goes by the name Abu Mazen, indicates with a sweep of his arm the fruit trees and vegetables he grows on his small plot of land in this Palestinian village in the west bank, population 1,200.

Then he points to a small green hill on the western side of the village topped by a tidy cluster of red-roofed homes. That is Tzur Hadassah, an Israeli community of about 5,000 Jewish residents.

“Tzur Hadassah has such nice people,” he says in Hebrew. “They are great neighbors.”

Mansara could walk from his home to Tzur Hadassah in about half an hour, but it’s illegal. Wadi Fukin sits smack on the Green Line, the demarcation between pre-1967 Israel and the west bank. A portion of the west bank security fence is slated to go through the valley, cutting off Wadi Fukin from Tzur Hadassah and from much of what remains of its agricultural land.

Palestinian farmer Mohammed Mansara, in his home village of Wadu Fukin, has close ties with residents of an Israeli town just across the Green Line. Sue Fishkoff

Similar stories repeat all along the Green Line, as Israelis and Palestinians jostle over the route of the fence.

What makes Wadi Fukin’s case different is that it has strong allies across the Green Line: Tzur Hadassah residents who buy fresh produce from village farmers, and Friends of the Earth Middle East, or FOEME, an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental organization that is challenging the route of the security fence here in Israel’s Supreme Court.

Three hundred Tzur Hadassah residents have signed a petition against the fence being built in their valley.

Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah have had a relationship since 2001, when they became two of the first members of FOEME’s Good Water Neighbor project. The project, which now works with two dozen towns and villages, brings together Palestinian and Israeli communities to protect their shared water resources, fostering peace and long-term cooperation based on shared environmental interests.

Tzur Hadassah resident Tamar Gridinger says FOEME’s project prompted her to visit Wadi Fukin for the first time several years ago. A group of Tzur Hadassah residents had been buying organic fruits and vegetables from another source, she says. Then they learned that FOEME had brought in permaculture experts to help Wadi Fukin farmers give up pesticides and return to the sustainable agricultural practices used by their grandfathers.

“When we realized that Wadi Fukin farmers were growing organic vegetables, it was like a gift,” Gridinger says.

Now she and 25 other Tzur Hadassah families participate in a Community Supported Agriculture project, where they pre-buy a month’s supply of fresh produce from the village and pick up their allotment every week. (Israelis may cross the Green Line into the west bank, but Palestinians need a special permit to cross the line into Israel.)

“Both sides gain from it,” Gridinger says. “We get inexpensive, organic fruit and vegetables, and they earn money.”

Since 2001, relations between Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah have deepened. Wadi Fukin farmers invite co-op members to an annual hafla, or celebration, in the village, and Tzur Hadassah residents have helped villagers navigate the Israeli bureaucracy. When one young villager with leukemia needed weekly medical treatment at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, co-op members would pick him up and drive him across the checkpoint reserved for Israelis, saving him hours of waiting at the border.

“I’d never met my neighbors in Wadi Fukin before, and now they have become my friends,” says Gridinger, showing off a scarf Mansara brought back for her from Mecca, where he recently went on a haj, or pilgrimage. “Not because of the ‘great principles’ of the project. Abu Mazen is just a friend.”

Relations between Wadi Fukin are not as good with its Israeli neighbor to the east: Betar Ilit, a fast-growing ultra-Orthodox settlement of some 35,000 residents on Mansara’s side of the Green Line built in part on land originally belonging to the village.

Since construction began at Betar Ilit in 1985, Wadi Fukin’s 11 natural springs have dried up, and when Betar Ilit’s sewers back up, Mansara says, the effluent pours down the hill into the village fields. The Israeli government has sent notices to Betar Ilit to resolve problems caused to Wadi Fukin.

“The main spring is just a trickle now,” Mansara says, showing visitors an empty reservoir where water used to flow. “The water would go into a channel and then to the fields. Now the channel is filled with garbage.”

On March 17, UNESCO declared that the territory of Wadi Fukin and the neighboring village of Battir represent “the best preserved and continuously managed cultural landscape of its type in all the west bank,” and merit protection as a World Heritage Cultural Landscape.

To farm, the villagers use terraced agriculture, where water from natural springs is channeled into more than 70 manmade pools and used later to irrigate the fields.

“The farmers of Wadi Fukin have been using the same agricultural system for over 2,000 years,” says Gidon Bromberg, FOEME’s Israeli director.

FOEME will use the UNESCO document to back up its case that the west bank security fence should not go through this valley. Lawyers for the village are arguing their case on environmental grounds — a first in a security fence dispute, Bromberg says.

The section of the fence proposed for Wadi Fukin is a secondary barrier, Bromberg says. The primary security fence already stands east of Wadi Fukin, circling the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The Wadi Fukin section is slated to stop just south of the village, meaning villagers, or anyone else, could walk around it and enter Israel.

“It makes a mockery,” Bromberg says. “If you have this open area a kilometer south of Wadi Fukin, why do you need a fence here at all?”

Following objections to the fence’s route in the Wadi Fukin area, a hydrological study and a study of the route’s environmental impact were performed, according to a spokesman for the Israel Defense Force.

“It was decided that the fence would be constructed utilizing various engineering solutions that will limit environmental damage to a minimum,” the spokesman said, but the plan is still to build it along the original route.

Even if Wadi Fukin manages to get the court to change that, it may only be a temporary stopgap in the inevitable demise of the village’s agricultural lifestyle.

Mansara farms because his father, his grandfather, and his grandfather’s father all farmed this land. But none of his five sons have gone into the field. They are doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and have moved away from the village.

About a dozen farmers remain in Wadi Fukin, and Mansara is glad his children aren’t among them.

“I didn’t want them to go into farming,” he says. “You can’t make a living from it.”



Different strokes: Englewood rebbetzin swims for charity

From left are Swim4Sadna participants Cheryl Mandel, Barbara Goldin, Vivienne Glaser (coordinator), and Sharon Katz. Aside from Goldin, an Englewood resident, the other women live in the Gush Etzion region where Sadnat Shiluv is located.

Eighty-five women in red-and-yellow bathing caps waded into Lake Kinneret early on June 16 to “Swim4Sadna,” raising funds for an innovative private special-needs school south of Jerusalem. All but three of the swimmers were Israeli. One of the out-of-towners was Barbara Goldin, rebbetzin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah.

“As you’re swimming, you see in front of you all these yellow and red ‘balls’ bopping up and down. It felt like a dream,” said Goldin.

In Israel this summer to visit friends and family, Goldin learned of Swim4Sadna when a fellow passenger in her sister-in-law’s car mentioned it. “As I am an avid swimmer, I was excited,” she said, “and when I heard it was for a tzedaka, I was hooked.”

She had never heard of Sadnat Shiluv (“Integrated Workshop”), a program in the Gush Etzion village of Rosh Tzurim that incorporates special-needs kindergartners through young adults into the greater community. The center provides therapeutic animal care and horseback riding, assisted living, and employment (see box).

“I was quite nervous because I didn’t know anyone else doing the swim, but I thought if I can raise awareness of this tzedaka, and help somehow, that would feel so great,” said Goldin, who e-mailed shul members asking them to sponsor her. A speech therapist at the Passaic County Elks Cerebral Palsy Treatment Center in Clifton, she has a particular affinity for the cause and quickly befriended Vivienne Glaser, the Sadnat Shiluv mother who organized the swimathon.

Glaser’s 19-year-old son lives in the first of several planned group residences and is about to begin a two-year vocational program. “My aim had been to find 50 friends to swim and have them get 50 sponsors each to help us build more desperately needed apartments,” said Glaser, a British native. “We’re trying to make this into an international learning center offering holistic solutions for a range of challenges.”

In the end, 85 swimmers participated, including Glaser, her daughters, and her 75-year-old mother. Each pledged to raise a minimum of 2,000 shekels (about $525) and pay her own expenses. (Tax-exempt credit-card donations are still being accepted through; enter “Sadnat Shiluv” in the search field on the home page.)

Goldin signed up for the shorter 1.5-kilometer (9/10 of a mile) option. “I was too intimidated to do the 3.5 [kilometer] and now I’m sorry,” she said the next day. “It was about an hour’s swim, and I wasn’t even that tired. It’s exhilarating to see the mountains as you’re going along doing the breast stroke. Next year, if I can do it again, I’ll do the 3.5. Maybe I can convince one or two of my friends to do it, too.”

Glaser does intend to make Swim4Sadna an annual event, and even hopes to offer a tourist extension package to attract more foreigners.

She got the idea from a long-running national charity swimathon at the Kinneret on the first Saturday of every September. As a Sabbath-observer, she was never able to participate. “I had seen the advertisements since I was 14, and at age 50 I decided to do something I had always wanted to do and make it benefit the Sadna,” she said.

Not only did she schedule it for a weekday, but also made it exclusively for women — and not just to accommodate Orthodox participants. “In Israel, 30 percent of sports activities are now women only, and that has nothing to do with being religious,” she said. “The combination of being women only and the excitement around something so unique made it such a positive experience.”

Since the swimmers had to hit the lake at 6 a.m., they stayed in the area the night before. Goldin, who has grandchildren in America and in Israel, was one of a handful of adults who opted to sleep on the beach rather than in a hotel. “At Camp Morasha, I loved overnights and the great outdoors, so being on the beach sounded cool. We had to be on the bus at 5 — it was like getting up early to raid another bunk.”

Her enthusiasm didn’t wane throughout the experience. “There is such an electricity doing something you love with so many other women. All of them were passionate swimmers and all of them wanted to help others.”


Leaked maps show gaps in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

WASHINGTON – This time there are maps — not that they necessarily will help.

After the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, the Israeli and Palestinian sides bickered about who had offered what, and the competing historical narratives were adopted by either side and around the world.

This time, the proposed territorial concessions that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian negotiators discussed are visible in living color — in a set of leaked Palestinian Authority documents published by Al Jazeera (

The maps are significant because they show how close the two sides are on some issues — for example, which would control certain Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. But they also show that the gaps on other issues remain far from resolution, particularly regarding Jewish settlements deep inside the west bank.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a proposed map for dividing the west bank, above, just before Al Jazeera published leaked map details from Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2008 and 2009. Washington Institute

Back in 2000, Dennis Ross, now the lead negotiator on the issue, talked President Clinton into not committing anything to paper because he said the controversy that would ensue from maps and percentage sheets outweighed the value of getting things down in writing. He especially distrusted the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Instead of squelching controversy, however, the absence of written proposals and maps stoked it.

Now the leaked maps will help keep the Palestinian and Israeli positions straight.

The map detailing Olmert’s alleged offer to the Palestinian side shows Israel giving 5.5 percent of territory in Israel proper in exchange for 6.8 percent of the west bank. The swaps that Ahmed Qureia, a former PA prime minister and a top negotiator, reportedly proposed in January 2008 to then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were a 1:1 ratio and amounted to trading to Israel less than 2 percent of the west bank.

The Palestinian Authority accounts of meetings with Israeli and American interlocutors reveal many areas of agreement, most of which have been known widely for years. The Palestinians want recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, but they also acknowledge that the refugees ultimately will remain where they are living now.

“If the Arabs will be part of the solution, there will be no problem in this issue,” Qureia told Livni in 2008. “We have to engage countries that host the refugees.”

Such compromises appear contingent on the relationship between Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Ties between the Palestinian Authority and the Olmert government in 2008 were better than they are now between the Palestinian Authority and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. In 2008, direct negotiations were a matter of course, not an aspiration.

How mutual suspicion affects talks is made evident in the leaked report of an October 2009 meeting between George Mitchell, the top U.S. envoy to the region, and Saeb Erekat, the lead PA negotiator. Erekat says that if Netanyahu insists on rejecting refugee rights at the outset, the “Palestinian leadership can only respond by insisting on full exercise of right of return.”

The same dynamic, in which friendlier talks lead to more expansive proposals, applies to territory. In May 2008, in another meeting with Livni, Qureia apparently outlined a deal that would allow Israel to retain a chunk of Gush Etzion, the bloc of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem, as well as nearly all of the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. In the October 2009 meeting with Mitchell, Erekat says construction in some of those neighborhoods is inhibiting talks.

The most striking theme that recurs in the documents is how far apart the parties are when it comes to balancing Israel’s reluctance to relocate settlers with Palestinian demands for territorial contiguity in the west bank.

“In the end the whole matter isn’t merely the value of exchange but the reality of those Israelis and where they live,” Livni says in an exchange from the Jan. 27, 2008 meeting between Livni and Qureia in Jerusalem.

Qureia responds, referring to Maaleh Adumim and Givet Zeev, large west bank Jewish settlements that serve as bedroom communities for Jerusalem, “I can’t accept Maaaleh Adumim settlement as a reality because it divides the west bank, and the same goes for Givat Zeev settlement.”

If anything, the documents shatter the illusion that there is a bottom-line consensus about certain settlements being annexed to Israel in a final-status agreement. Many groups refer to these as the “everybody knows” settlements, such as Maaleh Adumim and Efrat, both near Jerusalem.

In fact, the gap is broader than expected, and helps explain why PA President Mahmoud Abbas turned down Olmert’s offer in mid-2008. Olmert refused to give Abbas the map, so Abbas scribbled it down on a paper, and it became known as a “napkin map,” which is what Al Jazeera published this week.

Another “everybody knows” myth shattered by the leaks is the notion that the Palestinians would accept as swaps Negev desert lands adjacent to the Gaza Strip. In the leaked documents, the Palestinians scoff at such swaps and want land equally as arable as the lands they would cede.

The Olmert map, in its attempt to maximize the amount of settlers Israel would retain, resembles a proposal advanced last week by David Makovksy, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a leading pro-Israel think tank in Washington. Makovsky, who is close to Ross, says he has presented the map to officials in the Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. governments.

“The goal of ‘Imagining the Border’ is to present a menu of options for resolving the territorial component of the conflict, meeting Palestinian demands of minimal land swaps with a 1:1 ratio while allowing Israel to annex areas containing the majority of west bank settlers,” Makovsky says.

Makovsky manages to narrow the gap between Olmert’s 6.8 percent and Qureia’s 1.9 percent to 3.7 percent, but he retains the “fingers” Olmert’s map thrust into the west bank to capture large Israeli settlements. The Palestinians insist those are unacceptable.

Sticking points seem never-ending. The Palestinians regard Latrun, an area southwest of Jerusalem secured by Israel in one of the Independence War’s bloodiest battles, as “no man’s land” because of its designation as such on some maps. They regard its retention by Israel as a concession. Israel and the international community view it as Israeli territory.

Such nitpicking has a toll.

According to the documents, Livni starts the May 4, 2008 meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem dryly: “Based on what I have heard in the trilateral meeting with Condoleeza Rice, I believe that your offer will not be exciting,” she tells Qureia, referring to the then-U.S. secretary of state.

The Palestinians are unrelenting in pleading with the Americans, in meeting after meeting, to press the Israelis to freeze settlement growth.

“Everyone is saying look at what they get from violence, etc.,” Qureia tells Rice in a July 16, 2008 meeting in Washington. “Please. We need your help on settlements” and on the removal of roadblocks and other Palestinians demands.

Settlements continue to dog the talks today.

The Palestinian posture now is not to return to direct talks until Israel reinstates a freeze on Jewish building in the west bank. Palestinian allies are circulating a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that blasts Israel for settlement-building and urges a return to talks. The Obama administration is opposed to the resolution but has not said whether or not it will veto it.

Occasionally, however, the leaked documents show a surprising concession emerges from talks that the sides thought were secret.

Livni, apparently warning the Palestinians not to make an issue of Israel’s Law of Return, tells Qureia and Erekat in January 2008 that “Israel was established to become a national home for Jews from all over the world. The Jew gets the citizenship as soon as he steps in Israel, and therefore don’t say anything about the nature of Israel, as I don’t wish to interfere in the nature of your state.”

That seems to undercut a policy that she introduced and that now haunts talks: That Palestinians need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In the same exchange, Erekat also tosses aside the Palestinian doctrine that all Jewish settlers need to leave the west bank.

“We don’t mind to have settlers live as Palestinian citizens who have all rights under the Palestinian law,” he says.

JTA Wire Service


Israelis troubled about Palestinian response to Itamar

JERUSALEM – The Palestinian reaction to the grisly killings of five Israeli family members in the Jewish settlement of Itamar, on the west bank, has prompted many Israelis to ask the same question of the Palestinians that the world often asks of the Israeli government: Are they really serious about peace?

On the one hand, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went on Israel Radio on Monday to condemn the March 11 killings of the Fogel family members, including a 4-year-old boy and a 3-month-old girl, as “despicable, inhuman, and immoral.”

On the other hand, a day after the attack, members of Abbas’ Fatah faction participated in an official dedication ceremony in the west bank town of Al-Bireh for a town square dedicated to the memory of Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist involved in killing 37 Israelis in a 1978 bus hijacking on Israel’s coastal road. No PA government officials attended the ceremony, Reuters reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided the Palestinian Authority’s reaction on Sunday to the Itamar killings as full of “weak and mumbled” statements and accused the Palestinians of continuing to incite against Israel in their mosques and schools. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas members reportedly handed out candy in celebration of the attack.

The Palestinian leadership must “stop the incitement that is conducted on a daily basis in their schools, mosques, and the media under their control,” Netanyahu said. “The time has come to stop this double-talk in which the Palestinian Authority outwardly talks peace and allows — and sometimes leads — incitement at home.”

The brutal murders of the Fogel parents, Udi, 36, and Ruth, 35, and three of their six children — Yoav, 11, along with Elad, 4, and Hadas, 3 months — shocked and angered a nation that had seen terrorist attacks dwindle in recent years. The circulation of photos of some of the stabbed children — apparently distributed to news media by relatives of the victims — offered gruesome pictures of the blood-soaked scene.

A group called the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades of Imad Mughniyeh claimed responsibility for the attack. Israeli forces combed the area after the attack, and the Palestinian Authority agreed to participate in a joint investigation to find the killer or killers.

The attack sparked angry demonstrations throughout Israel and the west bank in support of the settlers, with demonstrators holding signs reading “We are all settlers” and “Peace isn’t signed with blood.” One of the largest rallies took place in Tel Aviv near the army’s national headquarters.

After a funeral in Jerusalem for the Fogels drew an estimated 20,000 people, some settlers went to Palestinian villages to carry out revenge attacks, throwing stones and destroying property.

For its part, the Israeli government on Sunday announced the approval of some 500 new housing units in the west bank, in the settlements of Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, and Kiryat Sefer.

In the attack, which took place late last Friday night, two sons, aged 8 and 2, were spared, apparently because they were sleeping in a side room that escaped attention. A daughter, Tamar, 12, returned home late at night from a Bnei Akiva youth program to discover the door to the house was locked. Alarmed, she contacted a neighbor, and they entered the home together and encountered the gory scene.

Volunteers for ZAKA, the Orthodox-run search-and-rescue organization, described the scene shortly after the terror attack as “absolutely horrific.”

“We saw toys lying next to pools of blood, Shabbat clothes covered in blood, and everywhere the smell of death mixing with the aroma of the Shabbat meal,” one volunteer said.

The Fogel family had relocated to Itamar following their removal from the Gush Katif settlement in Gaza, which was part of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. They had lived for a while in the Jewish west bank city of Ariel before moving to Itamar, which is near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council settler umbrella group, called the approval of new housing in response to the attack “a small step in the right direction.” He said it was “deeply troubling that it requires the murder of children in the arms of their parents to achieve such an objective.”

At the emotional funerals, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said the Fogel parents personified devotion to the Zionist vision and were pioneers.

JTA Wire Service

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