Our Hamas to Migron Family Vacation

January 16, 2012 blog

Combining work with a family vacation poses many challenges. For example, what to do with the wife and child while meeting with Hamas.

Fortunately, 17-month-old Abe was sleepy when we arrived for my meeting with Hamas in Bethlehem, and he slept in his car seat, under the protection of his fearsome body guard, his circa 100-pound bantam weight mom, in a nearby parking lot.

My Palestinian associate and I proceeded to the Hamas offices. No sign or flags out front — Hamas is forced to keep a low profile in the Fatah-dominated West Bank — most of the Hamas leaders are in Israeli jails, include almost all of the Hamas members who were elected to the now defunct Palestinian Legislative Council.

I nervously fumbled with my glasses case in the elevator up. We were led into the office of Sheikh Khalid Tafish. Tafish sat in a plain, clean room, in a crisply pressed traditional robe and head dress. He met us warmly, and proceeded to methodically tell us the story of his rise to a leading Imam in Bethlehem, then into politics. His story’s chronology is mostly marked by a series of arrests and stays in Israeli prisons. He was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 (while in jail), and plans to run again if elections are held in May (and fully expects to go back to jail if he’s elected).

This wasn’t the meeting in which I was going to ask him about Hamas, its history, its involvement in violence against Israeli civilians, or the group’s isolation from the US and other world powers as punishment for terrorist activities. Tafish is a regal presence, and I was pleased to learn that he’s receptive to being a subject of “Holy Land.”

The family vacation next moved to Beit Umar, a village near Hebron. Here the villagers are engaged in a continuing struggle against the neighboring Israeli settlements, including Bat Ayin and Karmei Tzur. The entrance to the town is unremarkable — a paved road curving past an Israeli watchtower. Once you get inside, the town comes alive, with abundant street life (literally spilling into the street, making driving a bit tricky). Beit Umar also is remarkable for the warmth and intelligence of some of its residents, including the Mayor, Nasri Sabarna, Issa Slyvi, a man with a Santa Claus beard who is involved in the anti-settlement activities, and Ahmed Oudeh, a young man who is a student at Hebron University.

After a dinner with Ahmed’s family, I went to Hebron University to speak to a group of Dutch university students there as part of an exchange program. I showed them the “Holy Land” trailer, and we proceeded to discuss the following three questions: a) is objectivity possible b) is objectivity desirable c) is objectivity morally justifiable.

We returned to Beit Umar, where I discovered that Nasri had insisted that we sleep at his house. I joined my wife and son under around 10 blankets, and we slept late.

The day we drove to a different world, the Israeli settlement of Migron. Although Migron is only a 20 minute drive from Jerusalem, it sits atop a high hill, 10 minutes up a steep dirt road from the main north-south highway. Migron has become a flashpoint in Israeli politics — the Supreme Court has ruled that the settlement be evacuated and destroyed by the end of March. The decision was in response to a legal case initiated by the activist group Peace Now on behalf of Palestinians from nearby villages who claim that they own the land on which Migron was built. Settlers and the influential politicians who defend their interests have been fighting against the decision, and if Migron is destroyed, it would be a landmark event in the contentious, sometimes violent argument about the future of Israel’s settlement enterprise.

A Migron resident had invited me for Shabbat a few months ago. Our host was Aviela Deitch, originally from Milwaukee, who is one of the official spokespersons for the settlement. I had met her previously in an effort to persuade Migron to let me shoot part of my film there. Although my efforts to get the approval have so far failed, Aviela had invited me on a strictly personal level.

Although I’m Jewish, I have never before observed Shabbat. However, as we bounced up the road to the settlement, I pondered the meditative value of no Androiding for 24 hours. Aviela, her husband Shalom and five kids (the sixth boards at a high school in Jerusalem) enjoyed a relaxing Shabbat of prayer, eating and a bit of playing. They were warm hosts. Another Migron couple, whom we had never met, loaned us their house for the weekend. I found that amazing.

I joined in all the prayers at the shul — not reading Hebrew, I attempted to keep up with the prayers, guided along by Shalom. My Android addiction proved less severe than I expected. Aviela and her kids fawned over my 17-month-old son and asked my wife, Zhihong, who is Chinese, many questions about China.
My impression of Migron is that it’s an extremely conservative, pious community. Middle class, straightlaced. These are not “hilltop” people — they are social workers, teachers, bankers. Short hair (by and large), white shirts.

It won’t be a fun day if they are forced out of their homes. For settlement critics, it will be more proof of the great effectiveness of the “facts on the ground” strategy, and they will urge the public to get beyond the emotion of the moment to think about larger issues of fairness and of Israel’s future. To Migron’s supporters around the West Bank, the evacuated-settlement will become a new rallying point, no doubt spurring on new waves of outpost construction to fight back against limitations on Jewish settlement.