Trump's West Bank plan validates settlers' dreams, crushes hopes of Palestinians
By STEVE HENDRIX AND SUFIAN TAHA | The Washington Post | Published: February 1, 2020
ELI, West Bank — Eliana Passentin says she has been called many "hurtful" things - lawbreaker, occupier, obstacle to peace - in the 24 years she and her family have lived in this hilltop town above the site of Shiloh, the biblical first capital of the Israelites.
This past week, her heart raced when she heard something different from the president of the United States: that she belonged here. "It was such an emotional moment," Passentin said of watching President Donald Trump introduce an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan based on the assertion - rejected by much of the world but believed with Old Testament fervor here - that Jews have an ancient and irrevocable claim to these lands.
It was emotional, too, for Shadi al-Hajar, a farmer in the nearby Palestinian village of Ein Yabrud.
"I'm full of frustration," Hajar said, sipping coffee with neighbors in a butcher shop. To them, the boost of legitimacy for Israel's occupation of the West Bank was a blow to their dreams of ever living outside the growing shadow of the Jewish settlements. "We thought [the settlers] were going to leave and we would be able to farm our land again," he said.
The emotional weight of Trump's announcement is perhaps being felt most intensely by these side-by-side antagonists, with despair among Palestinians and a surprise sense of validation for settlers.
"I've been waiting all these years to hear someone say something we know and believe and live every day," Passentin said in her backyard, looking over a peaks-and-valleys landscape dotted with eight surrounding Jewish settlements and eight Palestinian villages. "To hear it from the White House, I will always remember those words feeling like a new beginning."
Trump's peace proposal has been embraced by most Israelis, rejected by the Palestinian leadership and dismissed as fatally one-sided by many veteran Middle East negotiators. The plan provides for the possibility of a Palestinian state, but one with limited autonomy on about 70% of the West Bank with no rights to an army or airport and its capital not in Jerusalem but in a nearby suburb. The other third of the West Bank, containing more than 135 Jewish settlements that most countries consider illegal, would be ceded to Israel.
The unveiling of the White House plan sparked an effort by the Israeli government to annex the settlements now. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's push for an immediate vote to enact Israeli sovereignty over the settlements and the Jordan Valley has run into resistance from the Trump administration.
Israeli annexation would dramatically change the status quo in the West Bank, if not day-to-day life, regardless of whether the Trump peace plan gains traction or not. Residents on both sides of the conflict see that prospect very differently.
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Passentin, an Orthodox Jew with a master's degree in archaeology, grew up in San Francisco, immigrated to Israel with her parents and moved to Eli as a newlywed when her neighborhood was just a couple of windswept trailers. The draw was twofold, she said: the heady feeling of helping Israel sink roots in the holy lands it had controlled since the 1967 war and its proximity to Shiloh, a Bronze Age Jewish spiritual center.
"It's hurtful to be described as occupying land that we have no connection to," said Passentin, holding some of the ancient pottery shards she's found in her garden, remnants, she says, of ritual Jewish sacrifices. "We've been here for 3,500 years."
Her town, a neat grid of about a thousand houses, is fenced by concertina wire and monitored by heat-sensor cameras, which were installed three years ago after two Palestinian teenagers tried to break into a home and attacked the family's father with knives and a club.
Passentin regrets the wire barrier. She says she wants to make more connections with the Palestinians who live all around her, most of whom she believes want to live in peace and many of whom she chats with in line at the grocery store.
In Passentin's view, Palestinians should be able to live within the law in their villages as she does in hers. "I don't want anybody to have to pack up and leave," she said.
She has joined a WhatsApp group of Israelis and Palestinians who want to sit and talk about life and the future of this region. She was hoping to attend a meeting that night to discuss Trump's "deal of the century" with "some of our Palestinian neighbors."
But fear of violence is a feature of the life she chose. (In her living room is a photograph of two close friends, a married couple, who were shot to death in their car in 2002, during the second Palestinian intifada uprising.) When her husband asked whether the meeting was safe, "I had to say 'I really don't know.' I trust the people who will be there, but what about their cousins who might not like it?"
Like many in the settlements, Passentin is grateful to Trump for endorsing the settlements and is eager for annexation. But until she feels the Palestinian leadership has done more to prevent extremist violence, she is not ready to be surrounded by a Palestinian state.
"How can you walk with somebody who is using their schools to teach children to hate Jews as part of a math problem?" she asked, referring to reported anti-Semitism in Palestinian textbooks. "I don't think that's possible."
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In Ein Yabrud, about 20 miles away on the winding highway between Jerusalem and Nablus, there was a consensus in the butcher's shop that the idea of a Palestinian state as defined in the Trump plan was a poor one.
"The 'deal of the century' just legalized what's already on the ground," said butcher Ibrahim Hamed, standing between two suspended beef carcasses while slicing steaks for a customer.
The settlements are putting an increasing squeeze on daily life, they said, describing a litany of "the humiliations." Hamed's normally 10-minute drive to a neighboring town can take hours - sometimes four or five hours - when the Israeli army erects checkpoints or closes roads. Israel regularly denies Palestinians permission to build new houses or shops, and then orders structures destroyed when they build anyway.
They condemned violence against the settlers, but pointed out that some settlers attack Palestinian olive pickers, burn orchard trees and vandalize cars. In the previous two weeks, the United Nations had reported at least eight attacks it characterized as settler-involved in the West Bank, as well as at least four incidents of Palestinians throwing molotov cocktails at Israeli vehicles.
"I'm 70 years here," said Musa al-Hajar, Shadi's father. "My father died here; my grandfather died here, my great-grandfather died here. We have a mosque in our town that was visited by the Khalifa Omar," a senior companion to the prophet Muhammad, who lived 1,400 years ago.
Musa recounted when the nearby Jewish settlement called Ofra began 35 years ago as a few trailers, appearing suddenly on what once had been a Jordanian military camp. Soon, houses replaced the trailers and one of the residents began planting on land Musa said his ancestors had worked.
Shadi said they took the intruding farmer to Israeli court and eventually prevailed. But officials still restrict his family's access to the Ofra plot to a few weeks a year, he said. "They tell us it is a military security area," he said.
Israeli annexation would take even more of his village's land, he fears, including buffer zones along promised roads and bypasses connecting the settlements.
The men in the butcher shop described the U.S. proposal as deflating, saying it showed Washington to be a biased peace broker and diminished their hopes of ever living outside of the shadow of growing Israeli towns.
"So we will stay under occupation and let the future decide what happens," said Hamed, resigned to a statehood of helplessness. "Those settlements were built to stay."