Stepping into the Rami Levi supermarket at the Gush Etzion junction on consecutive Thursday nights nowadays feels like a scene out of the American old west. In normal times, Thursday night shopping could be an hours-long outing, as Palestinians shop for their Friday day of rest and Jews shop for the sabbath.
Today, however, the store is virtually empty. A wave of stabbing and shooting attacks at the junction in recent weeks has left five people dead and several more wounded, and everybody looking over their shoulders. Outside, the approaches to the junction are guarded by IDF troops in full battle gear, and bus stops are protected by cement blocks to prevent car rammings.
Predictably, the attacks have been disastrous for local commerce: Next door to Rami Levi, an optician has closed up shop until further notice. Across the road, the lotto salesman told the Hebrew daily Yedioth Aharonoth that he has gone home at the end of the day without having made a single sale.
Gush Etzion is a collection of 12 settlements south of Jerusalem, adjacent to the Green Line, generally considered one of the major settlement “blocs” Israel is expected to keep in exchange for land swaps. It contains approximately 60,000+ Jewish inhabitants concentrated mainly in the large towns of Efrat and Beitar Illit. The area of the bloc also contains five Palestinian villages which are home to around 18,000 people.
AIR correspondent Andrew Friedman spoke to Oded Revivi, Mayor of Efrat, to discuss the current wave of terror, Israeli diplomacy and the reality of the relationships between Israeli and Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
There have been multiple terror attacks since Rosh Hashana [Jewish New Year, Sept. 14], plus all the stoning attacks on the roads. How are people coping?
The story is… complicated, because it depends on what story you want to tell… Modern technology allows everyone to see every attack in real time, and that children are exposed to all of it, so the terror succeeds in creating fear and hysteria, better than it ever has. But the story we ultimately have to tell is what you do with these incidents.
Take the shabbat [Sabbath] after the attack in which Yaakov Don was murdered [Ed note: Rabbi Don, a resident of the Gush Etzion town of Alon Shvut and a teacher at a local high school, was killed in a shooting attack on Nov. 19]. That weekend was the culmination of an annual month-long festival for the Bnei Akiva youth group. The kids stay out all night on Thursday night, followed by a celebration shabbat on Saturday….
But when I got to our chapter of the youth group with the national leadership and a social worker, the counsellors had closed themselves off in a room and were at a complete standstill. Many of the counsellors had studied with Rabbi Don and were friends with his son, and they simply didn’t know what to do with themselves.
I told them, ‘You can’t ignore this. You guys are the leaders of this youth group, and your charges are waiting outside to see how you all react. If you try to imagine what the terrorist wanted to achieve when he killed Rabbi Don, it would have been to harm as many people as possible, to mess up daily life for as many people as possible, to frighten as many people as possible. Now the question is whether or not you want to partner up with that terrorist…’
I hadn’t finished speaking when the kids got up, went outside and had their celebrations all weekend, as they’d planned. After Shabbat, they opened the closing ceremony with a short prayer, they cut out a few of the humourous sketches, and at the Bnei Akiva building they’d painted a huge smiley face on the wall, yellow and black, with the caption “To the memory of Yaakov Don – Yaakov’s enormous smile.”
So, you see that kids know full well how to recognise the fact that something significant had happened here, that it hurts and that it can’t be ignored. On the other hand, they found the inner strength to carry on – in the most impressive manner.
One thing that Efrat is known for is the community’s attempts to create neighbourly relations with the neighbouring Arab villages (Wadi Nis, Abdullah Ibrahim, etc). How has the recent violence impacted those relationships?
It’s a fascinating relationship, really. The worse violence gets, the worse the Palestinians are afraid. Today, you basically won’t see Palestinians shopping at Rami Levi. They are worried people will take them for terrorists. Residents of the villages we have good relations with are petrified that relations with us won’t continue to be good. They understand there’s a lot to lose.
There was an incident about a week ago, three or five people were advancing towards Efrat at night. Our security team gave chase, and they disappeared into [the local town of] Wadi Nis. They weren’t residents of Wadi Nis, but when they were discovered in Wadi Nis in the morning, the residents there were very embarrassed and very scared about what it could do to relations with us. I would even say that the longer the wave of terror attacks goes on, the more they try to make sure that relations with us remain good.
Is that possible?
They are in a tragic situation. The better their relations with us, the worse they are treated by the Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, they say openly that they have no faith whatsoever in their leadership, that they would be very happy to be under our jurisdiction, and they are trying hard to find ways to make that happen.
And what is your feeling, on both the local and national levels? What can you tell me about your meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yaalon and others?
I have met with the entire leadership of the State of Israel over the past three months – the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, President Rivlin, deputy Chief of Staff, senior IDF officers, all of them. They all say the situation is complicated. Aside from the things we know about, which make the situation very complicated, there are many things that they cannot talk about, which complicate matters much more.
I’ll give an example: Many people (Israelis) have said in frustration that “the IDF isn’t doing anything,” that Israel is only acting defensively, that we aren’t going on the attack. Now, we understand that we don’t believe in collective punishment, that we don’t want to go into a village if we don’t have specific intelligence information about exactly what we are looking for there. These things are clear.
But a senior IDF officer told me that [the political echelon] has given him complete freedom of action. But whereas once upon a time arresting a terror suspect in the centre of Nablus would have taken a full-scale invasion of the city, with six infantry divisions, backed by tanks and artillery, today I can carry out the same operation with no more than six soldiers. In the former case, the whole country would have seen the operation because it was much bigger, everyone would have been thrilled that “look, the IDF is ‘doing something.'”
Today, nobody sees it happen, nobody knows about it, but the results are the same. So it’s clear what the right choice is – you send in six soldiers and finish the job quickly and quietly.
But at the start of the Second Intifada, people said the same things.
No, it isn’t the same today… It’s not that you don’t know that it’s all going on. We are fighting with new methods, and for the first time in history we are fighting the war of today, rather than yesterday’s war.
It took me a few weeks to realise this, until I realised that there won’t be a victory album in this war, we won’t have any pictures of Israeli flags flying over conquered territory or sites. It’s a different kind of war.
But it’s an important realisation. Compare it to Syria, where the Americans and the Russians are stuck fighting yesterday’s war. They are talking about flying hundreds or even thousands of sorties a day, with incredible amounts of fire power. Zero effectiveness.
On the other hand we see in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] we basically haven’t used any gun powder and the results are better.
Do you have any expectations about the coming period, the coming few months?
We know that prophecy is given today only to fools. The real challenge of leadership is for a leader to look beyond the daily issues, to a real vision of what they are trying to achieve.
But things are getting more and more complicated. People are starting to internalise the fact that none of those “solutions” are relevant anymore.
So the challenge here is to make it a joint problem. And perhaps it is happening: One IDF commander told me he’d recently met with his Jordanian counterparts. When I asked him why, he said, “Listen, I understand what is going on in Syria, I can’t be apathetic. Today Syria, tomorrow it could spread to Jordan, and from there it affects us. So I am building a dialogue with the Jordanians so we can deal with it together. So perhaps its happening on other levels, maybe that is going on in ways and at levels that we simple don’t hear about…
All of a sudden, you see relations between Israel and the Arab states tightening. Why? because Arab states understood that Israel’s got intelligence technology, and they need that information. So all of a sudden the Egyptians understood that in order to fight ISIS in Sinai, they needed to cooperate with Israel. Same for Jordan, perhaps also for Syria. So that’s what I envision for the future: Joint interests that lead to joint, or perhaps coordinated, leadership.