The Crunch family is approaching its second anniversary of moving from Beit Shemesh to Gush Etzion (which, to the unfamiliar, is “across the green line”). Initially, I had some anxiety about the move. Efrat, while functioning as a comfortable suburb to Jerusalem, has had its share of unrest. Property crime, vandalism, and even occasional personal crime exists here, sometimes Jew-to-Jew, and sometimes Arab-to-Jew. During the terror war in the first years of this decade, an Arab worker, clean-shaven and wearing a loose robe, walked into the local supermarket and attempted to blow himself up. (He failed, releasing detonator powder everywhere, and while fumbling with his fuse, was shot in the head by his own employer who recognized him in his shaheed get-up.)
And yet, despite the occasional flare-ups, there is a cooperation between Jews and Arabs out here which cannot be ignored. We share the roads; we share an economy. When it was still safe to do so, Efrat residents shopped in Arab markets in Bethlehem, and Arabs shopped in Efrat’s stores. (The riots and shootings ended that.) But even today, they buy gas in our filling stations, and we hire them to build and repair our homes. And in two days’ time, a new grocery store will be opening here in the Gush with both Arabs and Jews working and shopping in it.
Living here, I have come to appreciate the complexity of the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and Arabs and their government. The attitudes of the Jews I know towards Arabs run the gamut from total distrust and hatred to pity and a desire to give them whatever they want, and everything in between. (Teaching my children to avoid labeling Arabs as good or bad is almost a daily task as they see them zoom past on the roads, or ride donkeys along the roadside. I tell them that most Arabs are normal people like us, making a living and raising families. Some plot to kill Jews; those are the bad ones. And others risk their lives to save innocent people, including Jews, by reporting attacks in advance to the police or the Shin Bet; these are very, very good Arabs, and righteous Gentiles besides.)
A commenter on my blog some time ago expressed total disbelief that any Arab could want to be governed by Israel rather than by fellow Arabs. It seems likely at the outset; but further investigation proves that it is merely conventional wisdom, and not necessarily the truth. One study conducted (entitled “Coexistence in Israel”) shows that 77% of Israeli Arabs would rather live in Israel than any other country in the world. Why? Because their quality of life is better here than Arabs enjoy in most other parts of the world. And at least some West Bank Arabs feel similarly. An Arab who worked on renovations for friends of mine in Beit Shemesh was distressed at the prospect of Israel withdrawing IDF presence from his village (as a “confidence-building measure”). His reason was that when the IDF is present, there is no crime, and Hamas is kept at bay. When the IDF leaves, the village will revert to lawlessness and Hamas will be free to enter and take over, creating an existence of fear and less freedom for the residents. Another Arab working in Efrat told friends of ours that they have no respect for their own leaders, a bunch of fatcats who don’t work for a living but skim off the aid given for developing the Palestinian economy to make themselves rich. Are these Arabs saying what they think the Jews want to hear, or what they really think? My friends and I are inclined to think they are being truthful. Why? Because these Jews don’t know anyone in their villages, and far away from their chieftains and the listening ears of the PA and Hamas, they are free to speak their minds in a way they never could at home. There is no threat to their lives or their well-being when they’re at work, and it’s more likely that they can speak freely among strangers than among those they know who may expect them to act or speak in a certain way.
There is plenty of talk about the Arab leadership and its relationship to the Arab “street.” It is commonly believed that the leadership is more moderate than the citizenry, and that their loud pronouncements against Israel and reluctance to get serious about peace are due to a need to keep the support of the more violent, anti-Israel “street.” I become more and more skeptical of this as time goes on. Israeli Arab leadership is strongly against young Arabs performing national service in Israel, claiming that the programs are discriminatory and warning that those who choose to serve in them will be ostracized. Meanwhile, it was reported in 2009 that the number of young Arabs lining up to do national service (a palatable alternative to serving in the IDF, which is not required of Arabs) had quadrupled and that some of those young people’s villages were encouraging and supportive of their choice to serve, pointing to a gulf between the leadership’s goals and those of the citizenry.
I have also heard from those who criticize Israel’s blockade of Gaza that it has failed to drive a wedge between Gazan Arabs and Hamas. Again, this would seem to be the case if one goes by intuition. But do the facts bear it out? First of all, the reports out of Gaza are conflicting about whether there is really a crisis there or not. Some sources say the people are starving in the streets, there is no clean water, and unemployment is sky-high. Other sources say that the people are well fed, the markets well stocked, and ample medicine is available to keep the population healthy. The cry goes up that Israel must be responsible for providing clean water, food, medicine, and economic opportunity for Gazan Arabs. Having uprooted all of its citizens from Gaza and handed over the land with the Jews gone and their greenhouses still intact, one would think that that would have provided Gaza with a good start (in addition to all of the monetary aid they received). Instead, the greenhouses were destroyed, Hamas was elected, democratically elected Fatah members were ousted in a bloody coup, and missiles were launched toward Israel with ever-increasing frequency. Are these events Israel’s fault? Or did Hamas squander a golden opportunity to make good its reputation as the Arab party free from corruption, and get the credit for laying the foundations of a successful Palestinian state? I’m inclined to think the latter, and absenting any facts to the contrary, I’m willing to bet that in the privacy of their own minds, there are many Arabs in Gaza who agree with me. But, surrounded by Hamas and their neighbors (some of whom may function as the ears of Hamas), who is free to speak his mind candidly about the situation?
I share my friend’s concern about the continued dependence of Gaza on Israeli and world aid. Arabs live complicated lives, and they are thinking, sentient beings. I believe most are not interested in seeing the aid that is meant for them and the building of their society spent on weapons to be shot at Israel. I believe most are not happy about having their basic needs provided for by the Jews (not their people) instead of the Hamas (their elected people). My friend raises the point of the role of pride in Arab culture, and he’s absolutely right. How good is it for a people’s pride to be the longest-standing refugee population in the world? What does it do for their pride to be given handouts instead of the wherewithal to support themselves? How must they feel being the political stick used by the rest of the Arab world to beat Israel with, never to see their own agenda for a decent life furthered?
While the world hammers away at Israel to make more concessions to the Arabs in the hopes of wooing them toward peace, a large question remains unanswered: Peace with whom? With the PA (which at least still pretends to talk about talking about peace)? With Hamas, whose raison d’etre is the destruction of Israel at the cost of its own people? With both? With neither? I think Israel and the Arab people share a goal of living free and independent lives. I think the greatest threat to that goal is not withheld concessions from Israel, or the threat posed by the average Arab on the street; it’s the Arab leadership itself. They benefit from media circuses like the “Freedom Flotilla” and the media war on Israel, not the citizens of Gaza.
Perhaps it’s time to hold the Arabs in power responsible for the welfare of their own people. After all, isn’t that what they were elected to be?