November 4, 2004

Beyond the Green Line: The Israeli Settlement Town of Efrat

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Efrat, West Bank — “Get down, Yoni, we’re being shot at!” yelled Mrs. Schwartz to her son on the ground floor of their house. Yoni complied. After several minutes of laying low with his mother and hearing the gunfire erupt, Yoni rose cautiously against her protests. “I’m going to see from which direction it’s coming,” he said.

It was a false alarm.

The sound Rachel Schwartz had nervously interpreted as gunfire was in fact fireworks another mother nearby had lit for her daughter’s birthday party. But Rachel wasn’t the only one on her street to have hit the deck; most had believed their houses, too, were under attack. One woman went so far as to run upstairs, take her sleeping baby out of its crib and lie over it for protection.

Andy and Rachel Schwartz, originally high-school sweethearts from Poughkipsee, N.Y., live with their five children in the Israeli settlement town of Efrat, a few miles south of Jerusalem. The Schwartzes are a pretty typical Efrat family. Like 40 percent of the town’s 10,000 residents, and most on their street, they speak English in their house.

The fireworks episode notwithstanding, life for the Schwartzes in Efrat is pretty normal. Andy, an MIT graduate, drives every morning to his office in Jerusalem’s technology district, the same neighborhood where Intel’s Pentium 4 Chip was developed; Rachel, when not occupied raising her children, works in a local Jewish bookstore.

Eldest son Michael serves in the Israeli Army as a paratrooper, while the other four children attend school in Efrat. Yoni, 17, Asher, 15, and Ari, 13, are all devoted New York Mets fans, and Sarah, 10, is an ace at jump rope. Both Yoni and Ari have played for Israel’s national youth baseball team and on Efrat’s little league team, which Andy coaches. Asher is a piano virtuoso who likes playing the themes of movies like Forrest Gump and Titanic by ear.

I spent many weekends at the Schwartz house, adjusting to the family’s Friday afternoon routine.

While the kids surfed the internet upstairs or watched episodes of “Friends” in the family room, Rachel would be in the kitchen preparing Friday night meals, with Andy shuffling about the house, putting things in order, and occasionally venturing outside to feed the many stray cats that waited patiently outside their porch. “I can’t stand seeing hungry cats,” he admitted.

The West Bank: 1948-2004

A majority of the 230,000 Israeli-Jews who make their homes beyond the “green line,” Israel’s de-facto border with the West Bank, live in communities like Efrat within four major “settlement blocs” on the outer West Bank — areas containing few, if any, Palestinians. Efrat, whose 10,000 residents are mostly modern Orthodox Jews, is only the fourth largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank, behind the largely secular towns of Ma’ale Adumim (population: 31,000), Ariel (population: 18,000), and Givat Ze’ev (population: 11,000). These larger settlements have full-fledged malls, hotels, and, in Ariel’s case, a university.

The West Bank, an area originally designated for a Palestinian state under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, was occupied by Jordan after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. In Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Shortly following the armistice, Israel proposed a return of these territories to the Arab states in exchange for peace and recognition. This was the “land for peace” formula delineated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. The Arab League, which convened subsequently in Khartoum, Sudan, issued a famous declaration: “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel.”

Between the Six-Day War and the Yom-Kipuur War of 1973, the Israeli government left the territories largely untouched, hoping for a shift in the Arab position.

Slowly, however, a new movement arose within Israel, a segment of religious Israeli Jews who saw in Israel’s capturing of “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical name for the West Bank territory, the fulfillment of a biblical promise and the beginning of a messianic era.

They called themselves “Gush Emunim” — “bloc of the faithful” — and pressured the government to allow them to build homes in these territories.

For several years, the Israeli government allowed building only in areas of the West Bank and the other territories that it deemed necessary for its security. Any restraints, however,

disappeared under Prime Minister Menachem Begin of the right-wing Likud Party, which rode to power for the first time in 1977 on Israeli security fears after the 1973 war, in which Israel’s Labor-led government was caught off-guard by an Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

Begin would give up the entire Sinai Peninsula in return for peace with Egypt in 1979. However, he encouraged Jewish settlement of the West Bank with tax breaks and other incentives, policies maintained by subsequent Israeli governments, Labor and Likud.

In retrospect, most Israelis regret the settlement enterprise, as it has complicated the two-state solution — a premise Israelis have come to accept by a 3-1 margin in most polls. At the 2001 Taba negotiations, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a state which included 97 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza. Barak proposed to annex the remaining portion, on which about 75 percent of Israeli settlers live.

Arafat rejected the deal, objecting to Barak’s demand for him to sign an “end of conflict” clause as a prerequisite to any final-status agreement.

Given the settlement realities on the ground, few predict the ultimate border between the State of Israel and a future State of Palestine would be a full and complete return to the 1949 armistice lines. Resolutions recognizing this among other “Middle-East peace guidelines” passed overwhelmingly in the United States Senate (95-3) and House of Representatives (407-9) this summer.

Major settlements like Efrat are expected one day to be incorporated into the State of Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s administration has allowed continued building there even as it freezes construction in other parts of the West Bank and plans to withdraw Israeli settlements unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.

Israel, citing ongoing suicide bombings and the absence of a “real peace partner,” has begun constructing a security barrier — 95 percent chain-link fence, 5 percent concrete wall — that juts into the West Bank in areas to encompass Jewish settlements like Efrat.

Efrat & the Palestinian village of Wadeenese

Relations between Palestinians and Israeli settlers have been intense, particularly deep in the West Bank, where the settlements tend to be closer to Palestinian population centers. There the residents more fanatical. Terrorist infiltrations into Israeli settlements are commonplace. Some settlers have responded with acts of vigilantism. Some have destroyed the olive trees of Palestinian farmers and one, Baruch Goldstein of Kiryat Arba, in 1994 murdered 29 Muslim worshippers at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.

Relations between the Jews of Efrat and the Palestinians of nearby Wadeenese present a stark contrast.

Efrat’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, keeps on friendly terms with the head sheikh of Wadeenese and has become widely respected among its residents. Under Riskin’s direction, Efrat built the impoverished village a schoolhouse and a medical facility.

Many of the men from Wadeenese come to Efrat for work as plumbers, electricians and on construction crews.

One, in a business dispute with Andy over some allegedly negligent construction work, asked him that the matter be settled in a beit din — a religious court run according to Jewish law-presided over by Rabbi Riskin. Andy lost.

Relations with Wadeenese have deteriorated considerably over the past four years, after the breakdown of the Middle East peace proce

Infiltrations into Efrat have taken place, though usually with non-fatal results: Synagogues have been vandalized here and there, and Efrat’s supermarket was struck once by a suicide bomber, whose only casualties were a few loaves of bread.

But real tragedies have occurred.

Andy’s little league team has been missing a player the past few years.

Fourteen-year-old Koby Mandell, originally of Silver Spring, Md., skipped school one day with friend Yossi Ish-Ran to go hiking in the hills surrounding Efrat. The two were later found dead inside a cave, their bodies mutilated and their blood smeared on the cave’s walls. Their murderer was never found.

Koby’s mother, Sherri Mandell, a Cornell graduate, channeled her sorrow into writing a memoir, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, and founding Camp Koby, a summer camp for Israeli youth — Jews and Arabs — who have lost immediate family members in terrorist attacks.

Andy has himself carried a firearm with him since the 1993 Oslo Accords, which transferred control of Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the nascent Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat.

Puzzled by the timing of his purchase, I asked Andy: “Shouldn’t you have felt safer after the agreements?”

“I guess we should have felt safer,” he answered. “But for some reason nobody did.” Andy had also worn a bulletproof vest on his drive to and from work until a tunnel was constructed on the road from Efrat to Jerusalem that passes the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, where Palestinian snipers would fire at bypassing cars. One of the victims, 53-year old Sara Blaustein, was a next-door neighbor of the Schwartzes.

Blaustein’s son, who had also been in the car and injured in the incident, recovered fully from his wounds. Upon his return from the hospital, his friends bought him a welcome-home gift. It was a T-Shirt that read: “I got shot in Israel, and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt.”

Archived article by Benjamin Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer