Last week, with family in tow, I took the day off to go on an organized tour of the West Bank. The trip started in Peduel, a Jewish settlement half an hour from central Tel Aviv. It’s a scenic spot. Ariel Sharon used to call it “the balcony of Israel”: located on top of a mountain in the Samaria region, Peduel reveals below the big cities of Israel that lie near the Mediterranean shore.
The view sends a clear message to most Jews: you don’t want anyone else but the state of Israel controlling this area — certainly not the Palestinians. That, of course, was the point of the panorama: the trip was put on by Mishkefet (“binoculars” in Hebrew), a large-scale PR effort by Jewish settlers and their supporters to get Jewish Israelis of all political persuasions to “know their land.”
“We believe these tours will serve as a tie-breaker in Israeli public opinion,” Yossi Dagan, a co-director of the project, told the newspaper Israel Hayom last year. Other organizers try to be subtler and describe the project as a “national acquaintance project.” The guide is instructed to say the tour is not about politics but about seeing the land and seeing the facts — the facts on the ground. That’s a smart move, if not a totally honest one: the view, the land, the facts, the narrative of the day are all very much political.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that — so long as you keep your eyes open and both look at what you see and look for what you don’t see.
On a day trip to the Samaria region you see a scenic view, strategic points, biblical landmarks, welcoming settlers and organic agriculture. You don’t see roadblocks, military activity, protesters or kooky rabbis, and you don’t see many Palestinians.
We ended our day taking in the sunset at the top of Mount Gerizim, the biblical “mount of blessing.” Nablus — or biblical Shechem, where the stories of Jacob and Joseph took place — lies at the foot of the mountain, so close and yet so distant. The city is under the control of the Palestinian Authority and Israelis are not allowed into it. Access to the site where many Jews believe Joseph is buried is permitted only on certain dates and requires making prior arrangements.
Looking at Nablus from 700 meters or so high, our tour guide pointed to Joseph’s Tomb. “See the white open-square-shaped building? See the smaller open-square-shaped building?” Ten years ago, an Israeli soldier guarding the tomb was killed by a Palestinian shooter partly because Palestinian security forces failed to rescue him. This story our guide told in great detail. Again, the lesson was plain: Israelis cannot entrust their security to Palestinians.
As one-sided and ideological as this tour is, though, there’s something to be said for it. It’s interesting, friendly and well organized, and for the many Israelis who go on it — during the recent holiday of Sukkot thousands of them did — it’s a chance to finally see the places about which they have such strong opinions. Samaria (and Judea), as the settlers insist, is really the bedrock of Judaism — the land where its prophets made warnings, its battles were fought, its altars were erected. If they are ever to give up this territory for the sake of peace, Israelis should get to know it first.