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Story Publication logo October 24, 2015

In Troubled Israel, Moderation Flies Under the Radar


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Twenty-years after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Israeli society is as divided as ever, and former...

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TEL AVIV, Israel — From a distance, the center of Israel is invisible.

Take Friday's news. Palestinians threw a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli car, injuring a 44-year-old woman and her daughters, ages 11 and 4. Israeli troops completed another cover-of-darkness roundup of suspected Hamas members, while 250 Palestinians clashed with soldiers in Hebron. A masked man "presumed to be a [Jewish] settler," according to The Jerusalem Post, stabbed the leader of the group Rabbis for Human Rights.

The Handshake and the Fists

Twenty years after an assassination changed the course of Israeli history, emigrants from the Pittsburgh region to the Holy Land live on all sides of the world's most intractable divide.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Rich Lord and Larry Roberts are in Israel this week, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, exploring the lives of ordinary people in this polarized place. Some of the people you'll meet here believe that familiarity can ease the anger between Arabs and Jews. A few who came in peace now cry for justice. Others are standing firm on land where it often rains stones.

On Sunday, we'll look at Israel 20 years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who famously shook hands with Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat at the White House in 1993. Until then, follow Larry and Rich here every day as they bring images and stories from Israel's fault lines.

There's little sign of a political middle.

"The extremes have taken the high ground and dominate the political discourse," said Alan Freeman, vice president of The Jerusalem Foundation, which works to unite that fractious city. "That's a hard place to come back from. The pendulum is reversible, in our minds."

Certain trends in this land at the world's navel have tugged, magnet-like, on the pendulum for 20 years, since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which the country will commemorate over the coming week.

Palestinians, bereft of strong leadership and economically stagnant, have been increasingly radicalized. Jews have poured across the so-called Green Line, settling in lands held by Jordan prior to 1967, but controlled since the Six-Day War by Israel.

"Last week, we had these numerous knifings in the city," said Mr. Freeman, who has worked to improve Jerusalem for 40 years. "Young Palestinians are in revolt."

He admitted he's down — but not out. "There are things going on beneath the radar screen."

Bats in biblical lands

The conflict in recent days has focused mostly the Delaware-sized West Bank of the Jordan River — biblical Judea and Samaria — where some 550,000 Jews live in scattered settlements among an estimated 2.5 million Palestinians. Another nearly 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed. The Palestinian Gaza Strip, along the Mediterranean Sea, is run by radical Hamas. The landlocked West Bank is a gerrymandered mess of areas administered by the Palestinian Authority and others run by Israel — but all subject to Israeli military power.

Tensions over who can pray where on Jerusalem's Temple Mount have, in the past month, spurred Palestinians to rock throwing, random stabbings and fire-bombings. Israeli authorities have responded by shooting culprits, arresting suspected Hamas members and tightening restrictions on Palestinian movement.

"The stabbing attacks are so self-defeating," said Omar Yousef Shehabi, a Warren, Ohio, native and executive director of Palestine Works, which brings young legal talent to the Palestinian cause. "You have a generation in [Palestinian-dominated East] Jerusalem that has no political leadership, no sense of hope." Israel's fragmentation of the West Bank has aggravated the leadership vacuum, he said.

Jews in the West Bank have taken to carrying sidearms, or more intimate weapons.

"My husband drives around with a baseball bat next to him," said Varda Meyers Epstein, 54, a writer, originally from Squirrel Hill, who lives in Efrat, a Jewish settlement not far from Palestinian Bethlehem. She's packing pepper spray.

Daoud Nassar, director of operations of the 100-acre Tent of Nations farm, also near Bethlehem, said he's smarting from increasing restrictions on movement in the area.

"As a Palestinian, I need a permit from the Israeli military authorities to go to Jerusalem, six miles away," Mr. Nassar said in a workshop at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty on Oct. 16, sponsored by the Friends of Sabeel North America. "Palestine," he said, "is disappearing, is taken."

Efforts and risks

Surrounded on three sides by the West Bank is Jerusalem, where surging populations of both Palestinians and ultra-Orthodox Jews have increased the polarization of the holy city of 800,000.

Both the Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox tend to be impoverished and distrustful of outsiders. "Where there is economic despair, what they tend to do is turn more and more to religion to give them a sense of strength," said Mr. Freeman.

The Jerusalem Foundation has focused economic development efforts on the ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinians, thinking that involvement in the economy will have a moderating effect.

The foundation also funds numerous programs aimed at bringing Jewish and Palestinian youth together, including an unusual bicultural school and after-school efforts at the Jerusalem International YMCA.

In recent weeks, though, stabbings have prompted Jewish families to keep their kids home after school, while checkpoints have made it hard for Palestinian youth to get to the YMCA.

The climate of fear has other, more insidious effects on the creative output the YMCA tries to spur. For instance, a youth filmmaking team — backed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh — worked on capturing a moment of tolerance on the contentious Temple Mount. There Judaism's Western Wall flanks Islam's Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and tensions often flare.

The results of the project can't be screened now, because of safety concerns, said Efrat Ayal Hatchwell, the YMCA's youth department director. "Bringing a Jewish youth to Al-Aqsa is a risky thing for a Muslim youth right now."

Can't talk now

The late Prime Minister Rabin was negotiating toward a solution that would have given the Palestinians control of the vast bulk of the West Bank, and perhaps eventual statehood. Both the expansion of Jewish settlements there and the weakness of Palestinian leadership make that seem distant today.

Mr. Nassar said it's tough to talk as equals with Israel while under "occupation."

He said he's in the midst of a 25-year court fight with the Israeli government, which has challenged his family's century-old deed to the farm that now sits amid Jewish settlements. He's had his olive trees sawed down by Jewish settlers and apricot trees bulldozed by the military, he said.

"Even when they come back to destroy 10 trees, we plant another 20 trees," he said, emphasizing his farm's slogan: "We Refuse to be Enemies."

Some Jews answer that friends don't want to drive friends into the sea.

"You can't make peace with someone who believes you don't belong here and need to be expelled," said Dov Bloom, 62, a resident of Beit Yatir, the West Bank, who moved to Israel from Pittsburgh in 1979.

Couscous diplomacy?

In the search for a new normal, some settlers and some Palestinian thinkers are inching toward oddly similar conclusions. They are shelving long-touted formulas like land-for-peace deals resulting in a two-state solution, and thinking in terms of one country with two cultures, in which the battles would move to the ballot box and the courts.

Mrs. Epstein said her Efrat neighbors agree that the West Bank should be annexed and its Palestinians made citizens. She's not worried that Jews could eventually be outnumbered in their own homeland. "That's why I had 12 children," she said.

Few Palestinians are publicly abandoning the call for a homeland, but talk of coexistence is no longer taboo.

"In the long run, there is no other way but to live together, Israelis and Palestinians," said Mr. Nassar.

Some Israelis worry, though, that an Israel in which just 60 percent of the population was Jewish might cease to be the Jewish homeland, or might be even more strife-torn than the current arrangement.

In Israel's Galilee, where Jews and Arabs — who generally don't call themselves Palestinians there — live in relative balance, there are new, increasingly urgent efforts to unite youth.

"Look what's happened here these last three, four days. Everybody is fearing everybody," said Naim Obeid, 44, an Akko Arab and a board member with the Akko Center for Arts & Technology. Modeled on the Manchester Bidwell Corp. developed in Pittsburgh by William Strickland, it seeks to train youth and adults, Jewish and Arab, in a variety of skills.

"If we get over the fear, if we give the children an opportunity to sit with each other," Mr. Obeid said, "we can do the change."

In Even Menachem, on Israel's border with Lebanon, Lori Lagziel remembered the 1996 day when a Katyusha rocket fired by the Islamic militia group Hezbollah blew up her daughter's bedroom, injuring no one. It's time to forget, she said. Given the chance, she'd talk peace with Hezbollah's leader at her dinner table over her fabulous couscous, she said.

"We're all upset," said Mrs. Lagziel, 58, raised in Greenfield. "It's not a terrific time. We're sick and tired of the wars, and I think a lot of people on the other side are sick and tired of all the wars."



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