Interview with David Ha’ivri, Shomron Spokesman

david-haivri

On Sunday, I traveled to the northern West Bank city of Ariel to meet with David Ha’ivri, director of the Shomron Liaison Office and spokesperson for the Shomron Regional Council. The Liaison Office serves as the representative of the regional council’s interests to outside inquiries, particularly the foreign media and international interests.

The Shomron Regional Council itself is the local governing body for all the small Jewish communities of the Shomron (Samaria) region which comprise the northern portion of the West Bank. Excluded from this body are the large towns and cities like Ariel which have their own municipality and elected government. The council provides municipal services to the area including schools, security, town planning, waste and sewage disposal, electricity, and emergency services. Members of the council are elected by residents of the region and the statutory body as a whole is under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior.

The council administers one of the largest areas geographically in the country, some 2800 square kilometers comprising roughly 10% of the state including the West Bank. After the Israeli withdrawal from portions of Northern Shomron in 2005 coinciding with the Gaza Disengagement, four communities (Ganim, Kadim, Homesh, and Sanur) were destroyed, and Israelis were banned from accessing the northern portion of Route 60, the central highway in the West Bank. This has presented particular problems for the provision of services to more isolated settlements, which must now be accessed via Afula to the north.

Unlike the Yesha Council, which is not a statutory body but is actively involved in politics, the Shomron Regional Council officially operates in the reverse. When the current mayor, Gershon Mesika, was elected some 2-3 years ago, he moved to officially disconnect the political/ideological elements of the council from its administrative functions, through the creation of the Shomron Residents Committee. This body is headed by longtime settlement advocate Benny Katzsover.

However, Mesika was elected in a landslide (70% against a number of other challengers) in part on the promise that he would be a stronger figure for the settlement movement than his predecessors. As a firm public advocate of Jewish building in the West Bank, he was seen as a welcome change from the previous leadership associated with the failures of the Gaza Disengagement. Mesika has continued to take a strong stand publically in favor of continued settlement, recently declaring that if PM Netanyahu were to extend the building freeze, it would signal the end of his government.

Ha’ivri asserts that even as an officially non-political figure, Mesika can afford to take such stands because of his relationships with senior members of government and in the Likud party itself. Over the last year, Mesika and his supporters have brought over 12,000 people into the Likud party. They now comprise 25% of the party membership. As a party whose internal leadership is dictated by election by its members, this pro-settlement constituency is in a powerful position to support members of the party sympathetic to their cause and punish those who stand against them.

Why have settlement advocates have concentrated their energies in Likud rather than the explicitly pro-settler parties like Ichud Leumi and Habayit Hayehudi? Ha’ivri argues that while they do carry influence in these parties as well as Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, it has become obvious that the political dynamics of the country are such that Likud is the larger and more influential party. Assuming these numbers are correct, it would suggest that Likud’s supporters, even in the last election, may not simply be those casing a protest vote against Kadima or Avodah (Labor).

We then turned to the question of why Israelis are living in the Shomron at all. It is one of the sparser areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and is home to two major Palestinian population centers; Ramallah and Nablus/Shechem. Ha’ivri argued that this land is the core of the national homeland; that it has been the dream of Jews for 2000 years since they were “forced off the land by the Romans.” It is the land for which Jews have prayed to be returned and which they have successfully resettled.

No other nation, he argued, has been so dispersed from its homeland and successfully re-gathered to re-constitute its state. To see Jews of all backgrounds from around the world gathering together is an “acknowledgement of the truth of the prophesy of the Bible.” Even when presented with other alternatives in the early years of the Zionist Congress, it was decided by religious and secular alike that the Jewish state could only be constituted in the historic land of the Jewish people. As such, the Jewish claim to Yehuda and Shomron is greater than the claim to Tel Aviv, and it is only through the former claim that the latter can have any legitimacy.

Here he referred to the Talmudic concept of Yiush, despair at the loss of an object and the belief that this object will never be returned. If however, one loses an object but does not give up hope that it will be retrieved, the ruling states that the original owner is still obligated to that object. So much more so if the object can be identified by the location where it was found and by the characteristics unique to that object. This, he argued, is the Land of Israel, a place for which the Jewish people never gave up hope of returning and where the signs of ancient Jewish history in Shechem, Shiloh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron are all readily apparent.

If this land in the West Bank is so important to the Jewish people, than why are there not more Jews living here? David responded that the whole world is astounded by the Jewish population growth in Yehuda and Shomron, which is one of the highest in the western world and certainly the highest in Israel. He is not at all concerned that this is not an attractive place for Jewish people to live. Rather, he is concerned that continued pressure from the international community, especially the United States, will continue to keep these communities from expanding at their natural pace. The problem is not that people do not want to move here or that people are not having babies, rather it is that there are no vacancies in almost any community. Those who grew up in the West Bank are therefore being forced to move elsewhere for lack of anywhere to live.

But what of the problem of demography? This is an issue which David asserted is rather strange. It is hypocritical, he believes, that the left wing in Israel claims to be so concerned about democracy and freedoms, when they are really concerned that the Arabs might become the majority. The ugly things which they say about the right wing and religious in Israel, that they are racist or the like, he believes pales with the idea that the left is willing to “cut up our homeland because they don’t want Arab population mass in our country.”

The two great fears of the left, he argued, are of the population growth of the Arab minority and of the Orthodox. These fears are expressed alternatively as it is politically convenient. This builds on what David believes is the other misnomer of the Israeli left, that Israel should be a western democracy in the American mold. That Israel can or should be a melting pot for all peoples is a mistaken concept. The values of a western democracy, he asserted, should not be prioritized over the idea of a Jewish state.

“Israel,” he insisted, “was founded to be a Jewish State, it should be a democracy for all of its Jewish citizens.” In the context of the Middle East, it should be recalled that Israel is the only democracy, and the notion of limiting democratic principles for the benefit of a particular population is hardly exceptional here. While the western world is quick to criticize Israel for granting Palestinians anything less than first class citizenship, they do not bother to consider the incredibly low standard of living of most Palestinians in Jordan, Egypt, or Lebanon to name but a few other states where their rights are incredibly limited. Nor do they consider absolute lack of rights for Jews anywhere else in the region.

Moreover, David firmly believes that Palestinians in Israel, if given the uncoerced choice, would prefer to live under Israeli control without voting rights than under the likes of Hamas. A Palestinian working in one of the settlements makes three times what he would in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Under Israeli control, their standard of living is considerably higher and they arguably enjoy more freedoms they they do elsewhere in the Arab world or than they would under a fundamentalist regime.

While Palestinian polls dispute this evaluation, he believes that Palestinians are not free to express their preferences. Should they say publically they would prefer Israeli control, they would expect violence in response. Conversely, Palestinians under more firm Israeli control, namely in eastern Jerusalem and Arab citizens elsewhere in the state have expressed such sentiments, that they prefer Israeli control to transfer to a Palestinian state.

We then came to the question of security: is Jewish settlement in the West Bank a security liability for the state of Israel? If this is so, David challenged, then why does the IDF follow settlers to the hilltops they control and set up military outposts? Note that in the early days of the settlement movement, the process was somewhat in reverse. Communities would either be established by the state on strategic sites or set up in “provocative” locales and the army would force them to move onto or near military bases.

In any event, the government understands that giving up strategic mountain ranges to a Palestinian state is an intolerable security hazard. It is for this reason why every Israeli government which has pondered the creation of a Palestinian state have insisted that it be thoroughly demilitarized. Even the Geneva Initiative includes this stipulation.

Finally, I asked David if he fears that there will be another expulsion from the settlements on the pattern of the 2005 disengagement. He believes that the state continues to be “plagued by irresponsible leadership” who might make such a move, but it would be a terrible mistake. The majority of Israelis and the Israeli leadership acknowledge that the disengagement brought no benefit to anyone, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians. Yet there is still active pressure to continue such moves.

Still, he strongly doubts that this will happen again. The state and its citizenry are still reeling from the expulsion of 8000 people, and not just the former residents but the soldiers and workers who participated are still traumatized. To think that this is a “Monopoly game that can repeat itself is naive.” To say that the “left” is willing to engage in another disengagement is also an overstatement. There are at least a few in this camp who are not, although this may depend on how one defines the “left.”

On the possibility of executing another territorial withdrawal on the pattern of Gaza, after visiting Ariel, it is easy to become skeptical. For proponents of the Geneva Initiative, excluding Ariel from the map of Israel is essentially a matter of simplifying borders and minimizing percentages of territory in the West Bank which will need to be swapped for territory outside of it. Yet walking around the city, it is clear that this is no hilltop outpost. With a population of about 17,000, this is over twice the number of people removed from their homes in the whole of Gush Katif in a single municipality.

If dismantling Jewish settlements in Gaza was a national trauma, many might say that this will be national suicide. Those who advocate withdrawal from the territories highlight that while removing settlements will certainly be difficult, the consequences for the state of continuing its rule over the Palestinians will be worse. The conventional debate suggests that Israelis are now faced with two choices: the preservation of a Jewish democratic state without the territories, or the move to an apartheid-like regime in which democracy is lost in an attempt to preserve the state’s Jewish character in the whole of the land.

Speaking to opponents of such withdrawals, particularly those who live in the West Bank, the frame of reference is somewhat different. The choice is not between land and democracy, but first and foremost between land and Jewish identity. If Israel withdraws from places like Shiloh, Shechem, Hebron, and eastern Jerusalem, what most Israelis consider to a great degree to be their historical homeland, what legitimacy does Israel have to exist as a Jewish state in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat? In this view, having an ethnically homogenous Jewish state is a poor substitute which most opponents of withdrawal increasingly believe to be impossible anyway. A Jewish state devoid of control of its “historic heartland” has no more right to exist in the Middle East than a European colonial state.

This concern for identity is quickly followed by a perceived trade-off between land and security. If Israel gives up control of the strategic highlands which dominate the West Bank, what assurances can Israel have that it will not face persistent rocket attacks which will target the country’s largest population centers? This debate is certainly a familiar one and the differences between the two camps seems rooted in the degree to which they believe that a reliable partner for peace can be found. This partner may not necessarily be Palestinian; it could be Jordanian, American, pan-Arab, European, or a body imposed by the United Nations. The question is whether a responsible body, military and/or diplomatic, exists that can ensure that an Israeli withdrawal will not be detrimental to the state’s security.

Over the next few days and into next week, I have a number of other meetings scheduled with members of the settlement community. These include members of elected representative bodies, administrative officials, and community activists, all of whom are coming from different backgrounds and political interests. I will be looking especially for how they reflect on these three concepts integral to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: democracy, identity, and security. Thus far, my interviews have demonstrated to me that it is impossible to identify any specific combination of opinions on these issues to one end of the political spectrum or the other. All bear directly on Israelis’ relationships with the Land of Israel. As always, I will report more as patterns emerge. Wish me luck.

8 Responses to Interview with David Ha’ivri, Shomron Spokesman

  1. Julie Caron says:

    Mr. Zellman,
    Thank you for this article, it was informative, and yet at the same time I do have a critisisim with all due respect.
    It seems to me that we who are pro Israel have ceded some ground to those who would like to destroy Israel. Let me explaim this by saying that there can be no such person as a Palestinian, as there has never been a county called Palestine. Palestine was always an occupied territory except when this land was under the rule of Israelites. From the time of Joshua through the time of the exile imposed by the Roman Empire in 70 C.E.
    Prior to 1947 the people living in Palestine were referred to as Jew, Arabs, Turks, British, etc.
    After Israel became a recognized nation, people living in Israel were called Israeli’s. Of course the Arabs chose to be hyphenated Israeli’s…Arab Israeli’s. after 1948 Palestine ceased to exist. The Arabs were given land that they refused and in so doing this land was given to the Hashmenite King Hussein, which is today Jordan.
    The Arabs who had lived in the territory of Palestine became homeless because they chose to become homeless. Sadly, there was not an Arab state willing to take these Arabs, in fact King Assaud of Syria massacred 25,000 of these poor Arabs trying to find a home in Syria. (The world said nothing to Assaud about this atrocity.)
    By calling these Arabs Palestinians it gives them a legitimacy that is undeserved. I truly wish that you would be correct in calling them Arabs who once lived in the British occupied territory of Palestine, instead of calling them Palestinians.
    Thank you,
    Julie Caron
    USA

    • arielzellman says:

      Hi Julie,

      Thank you for reading and for your comments.

      I am well aware of the historical problem posed by the idea of Palestinian national identity, and indeed, there are even a fair number of Arab historians who problematize the idea of a Palestinian Arab people prior to the mid-20th century.

      According to most credible historians, the very idea of a Palestinian national identity was not born until the 1920s at the earliest, and even then in response to a mixture of British colonial policies and Jewish immigration. I attended a conference this Spring in which one prominent Palestinian Arab historian even asserted that while Arabs of this area had certainly developed a national consciousness by the mid-century, it was not really until the late 1970s and early 1980s when this congealed into a demand for an independent national state.

      That said, to assert that there is no such thing as the Palestinian people is both falacious and
      unhelpful for understanding the conflict. When several million Arabs residing in Israel including the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East perceive themselves to be Palestinian and identify themselves as a national group with other Palestinians, one is hard pressed to deny their existence.

      Whatever feelings one may have about the political and territorial claims of this population, refusing to call them by the name they use for themselves is unlikely to have any effect on these claims. As for the notion of Israeli-Arabs, while there are certainly those who accept the label, there are many who do not and identify themselves as Palestinian.

      It could very well be that this choice is directly correlated to the degree to which they feel a part of the society in which they live. Arabs who fled Israel in 1948-9 to, say, Lebanon, might have preferred to become Lebanese citizens. Yet continued exclusion from participation in the state could very well have solidified their self-identification as Palestinians. Similar conditions can be used to describe the continued disassociation of Israeli-Arabs from Israel.

      In short, I do appreciate the historical basis of your critique. Yet insofar as it bears on the very present nationalist conflict of today, I do not believe that refusing to employ the term “Palestinian” to describe Arabs who identify as such accomplishes much.

  2. Lee says:

    The statement you made above “When several million Arabs residing in Israel including the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East perceive themselves to be Palestinian and identify themselves as a national group with other Palestinians, one is hard pressed to deny their existence,” is a bit outrageous, wouldn’t you say. Does that mean that if a large group of people say they are Klingons (or insert your favorite non-existent people), that “one is hard pressed to deny their existence”? This is exactly what Joseph Goebbels meant when he stated that if you tell a lie long enough, people will believe it to be true. Hitler also called it the “big lie”, a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

    The name ‘Palestine’ actually comes from the Roman name ‘Palestina’, which the land was renamed after the Bar Kokhba rebellion in the Second Century CE. It was the Roman Emperor Hadrian who gave the land that name in an effort to erase all trace of Jewish history. It was to be an affront to the Jews, using the name of their long-time enemies, the Philistines (who have not existed for many centuries, even at that time). The Philistines were not Arabs, they were not Semites. They had no connection, ethnic, linguistic or historical with Arabia or Arabs. By the way, Yasir Arafat called them “Falastinians”, which is “Palestinian” with an accent as there is no “p” sound in the Arabic language. The area designated as ‘Palestine’ was not a country, but a territory, a geographical term.

    “Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel …” Zuheir Muhsin, former Military Department head of the PLO, and member of the PLO Executive Council, as stated in the Dutch daily “Trouw”, March 1977.

    “There is no such country as Palestine. ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented. . . . Our country was for centuries part of Syria. ‘Palestine’ is alien to us. It is the Zionists who introduced it.” — Local Arab leader to British Peel Commission, 1937

    “…[the Palestinian Arabs’] basic sense of corporate historic identity was, at different levels, Muslim or Arab or — for some — Syrian; it is significant that even by the end of the Mandate in 1948, after thirty years of separate ‘Palestinian’ political existence, there were virtually no books in Arabic on the history of Palestine…” Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice, (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 186.

    • arielzellman says:

      Hi Lee,

      Thank you too for your comments. As you may read above, I am well aware of the historical lineage of the term “Palestinian.” Nor do I at all deny the accuracy of the quotations you have provided.

      My point is that denying the existence of a Palestinian people, whose experience as political outsiders and refugees has indeed made them into a clearly identifiable and politically meaningful group, does nothing to address their political claims. If anything, the denial of their existence by people who are in no position to change their material and political reality might make their identity all the more salient.

      If there is anyone who is in a position to change the realities of Palestinian identity, it is Arab political leadership. Guaranteed, if Lebanon were to give full and equal citizenship to its Palestinian population, allow them to move out of the refugee camps, and join the rest of society, this would do more to change the idea of the oppressed Palestinian than denial on the part of those who compare their identity to the Nazi’s “big lie.”

      You are entirely entitled to your opinion and I understand from where you critique comes. However, as someone studying the conflict, it seems to me that failing to call a large group of people what they call themselves does little to enhance understanding.

      • Lee says:

        Ariel,

        Thanks for the quick response.

        RE: your statement, “failing to call a large group of people what they call themselves does little to enhance understanding.” Actually it does do very much to enhance understanding considering that the whole issue here is exactly that: their claim to be a “people” who have existed for over a thousand years on this land. It’s the whole basis of their argument and to ignore it is to ignore the very heart of the matter. Once it is disproved that they were never a people, everything else is moot. That’s why the need to disprove this lie because otherwise people would feel they have a rightful claim to their “homeland”.

        In addition, these people want their land “back” but prior to the Six Day War the land was illegally occupied by the Jordanians and Egyptians, so how can it possibly for them to have it “back”? And why did they never demand that Jordan or Egypt give it “back” in all that time prior to 1967?

  3. arielzellman says:

    Hi Lee,

    I do not believe that the basis of the popular Palestinian national claim lies in antiquity, but rather in identifying with anti-colonial ideologies predominant in the 1950s and 1960s. This is the era in which Palestinian nationalism came of age and it was this consciousness, of wanting the throw the “foreign imperial power” out of the land of their residence, which propelled the early PLO and Fatah.

    This claim of antiquity is much more new, and, I believe, largely a response to the Jewish national claim to Israel. Faced with a national group that can distinctly trace its cultural and religious roots to this land which far predate Palestinian or even Arab national consciousness for that matter, it was only rational for them to develop a narrative which could compete.

    I believe the “Philistine/Canaanite” narrative still does not have nearly as much popular force as the anti-colonial one. Whatever the status of Arabs under Jordanian or Egyptian occupation in what is today Gaza and the West Bank, fellow Arabs do not qualify as colonial occupiers compared to the relatively alien culture of the Jewish state.

    That said, even if the argument of Palestinian antiquity were the dominant one for Arabs, I would argue that the international community as a whole continues to see this conflict as an anti-colonial struggle. In that respect, the national label of Palestinian is as valid for this audience as the national label of Sudanese, Nigerian, or Ugandan; all equally problematic terms both in terms of history and internal identification of peoples in these countries.

  4. Lee says:

    You have taken the issue well beyond it’s actual limits. It’s very simple: this phony “Palestinian people” claim that the real Jewish people have taken land that they have had for centuries. That’s it. Nothing else. All the rest just serves to cloud the issue and hide the real facts, which is the intention of the Arabs.

    Sudan, Nigeria, and Uganda were all actual countries. That is the difference! Palestine was never a country, it was a territory. You can’t have one certain people from a territory, as there are many different people who live there. Just like the “Americans”. There is no such people as the “Americans”. There is no such place called “America”, despite what people here in the US say. The people in Mexico, Chile, Canada, and other are all “Americans”.

    Are you aware that at one time prior to 1948 the Arabs used to refer to the Jews in Palestine as “Palestinians”, and not the Arabs?

    It’s obvious that you are either trying to cloud the issue, as do the Arabs, or really don’t understand the basics of the issue. It’s not that complicated, really.

    • arielzellman says:

      Again, Lee, you are not telling me anything regarding the historical narrative of the Middle East that I do not already know. As for trying the “cloud” the issue or that I do not understand the issue, neither could be farther from the truth.

      Sudan, Nigeria, and Uganda became countries where they did not exist previously and the residents of these countries haltingly began to identify as Sudanese, Nigerian, and Ugandan once colonial borders were set around them. So too did the Arabs in British Mandatory “Palestine” begin to identify as Palestinians rather than as simply Arabs, Syrians, or Egyptians.

      This is not clouding facts; it is explaining them.

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