Normalization Through the Eyes of a Gap Year Student
Leaning back over the edge of a cliff, I took a deep breath and looked out at the beautiful expanse. To my left was the Dead Sea. To my right were the caves of Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found. Directly in front of me were 14 other Jewish teenagers who had decided to drop everything, pack up their belongings, and spend their gap years in Israel-Palestine all cheering me on. I bent my knees, pushed off, and let go. A rush of exhilaration coursed through my body as my feet suddenly abandoned the side of the cliff. . .
. . . and promptly returned to the rock exactly where they had been without dropping down.
You see, it’s easy to paint a pretty picture, but reality can often be underwhelming and problematic. In this particular case, I forgot to feed the rope through my belay device. On a broader scale, however, my rookie mistake took place in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
How is it that I—a young, progressive Jew who is openly critical of the occupation—had ended up rappelling down a cliff in the middle of a settlement? To fully explain the circumstances that led up to the rappelling trip, I should start by describing my first few months in Israel proper.
People expect that because I took a gap year, I avoided the worst of the pandemic, but I moved to a country that imposed more stringent regulations than the U.S. ever did. My dreams of interning for the Jerusalem Post were crushed; they stopped hiring during the pandemic. The Hebrew lessons and Israeli-Palestinian conflict classes I had so looked forward to were all online—barely anyone bothered to join the Zoom calls. Our weekly trips around the country were canceled.
Confined to my apartment for over a month, I started a bucket list. I promised myself I would never again take my freedom for granted. Running a marathon, doing a handstand, traveling to all continents—nothing was beyond my grasp. I wrote down “Study Kabbalah” and “join a daf yomi group” in my notes app between “dye my hair purple” and “learn how to pole dance.”
As soon as the lockdown ended, the first number I called belonged to a tourism company called Adventure Israel that, according to its website, would take me to “Israel’s most out-of-the-box sites.” I explained on the phone that I was an American gap year student looking to go rappelling with a group of friends somewhere close enough to Jerusalem that we could get there and back before buses stopped running for Shabbat. He suggested Qumran and I quickly agreed.
It wasn’t until I looked into the transportation details the day before our trip that I realized where Qumran was: the heart of the West Bank. I’d like to say that upon this realization, my values compelled me to call off the trip or at the very least postpone it until we could find a different location. The reality is, though, that a few days later, I was dangling off the edge of a cliff.
I’m sure there are those who would argue that my liberal views are merely a pretense for actual participation in the occupation, but I’d like to think that isn’t the case. Rather, I think my actions point to the vast normalization that has made the occupation convenient and easy to ignore.
First and foremost, the fact that public transportation doesn’t run on Shabbat meant that my group couldn’t realistically travel anywhere farther than an hour away on Friday unless we made plans to stay overnight until Saturday evening. Given this constraint, perhaps Adventure Israel could have convinced us to miss classes one day so that we could travel somewhere within Israel proper, but that suggestion didn’t seem necessary because there already was a place that satisfied our transportation needs. The only catch was that it was in the West Bank. Except, this so-called “catch” wasn’t actually a problem at all. In fact, no one even thought to mention it to me.
This brings me to my second point. Travel for Israelis and tourists into the West Bank, at least into Area C, is easy and goes essentially unquestioned. All I had to do to arrive at Qumran was purchase a ticket at the Jerusalem central bus station and hop on the 486 line directly to the West Bank. The entire process was actually easier than purchasing a ticket to other parts of Israel proper like Eilat which, given its distance away from Jerusalem, requires advance purchase online. Even the checkpoint we had to pass through—a topic that so often comes up in the news—was nothing more than a toll you might drive through on an interstate for our Israeli brand “Egged” bus. We drove through it without stopping as if we had an E-ZPass.
Now, of course, all of this is predicated on the fact that we were traveling into Area C, the area of the West Bank that is under Israeli civil and military control. Traveling into Area A, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, is strictly forbidden for Israeli citizens. In fact, there are big red signs outside all of the major roads that lead into it that read “This road leads to Area ‘A.’ Under the Palestinian Authority, the entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives, and is against the Israeli law.” That said, over 60% of the land in the West Bank is formally categorized as Area C, which means that, for Israelis, driving through most of the West Bank is easier than traveling from the suburbs of Boston into the city.
Like Israelis entering Area C, Palestinians leaving Area A must also go through checkpoints. The checkpoints outside Area A, however, are completely different from the toll-like checkpoints I’ve described. Instead, they more closely resemble airport security. You must enter on foot, go through a metal detector, and show an Israeli visa before exiting the checkpoint to catch a Palestinian bus to East Jerusalem. Alternatively, you can drive through one of the aforementioned toll-like checkpoints directly between Area C and Israel proper, but doing so with a Palestinian green and white license plate instead of an Israeli blue and yellow one runs its own risk. There are plenty of injustices inherent in this system, as well as nuances. The explanation for that policy, some would argue, is Israel’s security. I would like to focus on normalization, an issue that constantly gets overshadowed by other topics at hand.
While news headlines are flooded with stories about Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians at checkpoints or Palestinian terrorists sneaking past checkpoints, those headlines never elaborate on where such checkpoints are actually located. Yes, there are checkpoints in between Israel and the West Bank, but as I explained earlier, the majority of those checkpoints are simply the equivalent of tolls without a required monetary payment. The checkpoints that people read about in the news are the ones that resemble airport security. Such checkpoints are located inside the West Bank itself on the border of Area C.
This simple issue of location points to the way in which Area C, although east of the Green Line, has, in reality, all but officially become a part of greater Israel. This reality holds true down to the fact that settlers are allowed to vote in Israeli national elections while Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem are only allowed to vote in municipal elections (although it should be noted that they are eligible to apply for citizenship instead of residency if they want).
As egregious as some of the crimes committed by the Israeli government might be, the more flagrant human rights abuses are only made possible by the insidious process of normalization. Furthermore, normalization clearly discredits many of the Israeli government’s past claims that it is working toward an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (although in recent years, such posturing has been forgone in favor of more aggressive proposals like Netanyahu’s plan in the summer of 2020 to officially annex parts of the West Bank).
My third and final point about normalization is the way in which it implicates everyday Israelis and progressive Jews like myself by luring them into participation in the occupation. You may be wondering why I decided to start this piece with a long-winded story about my first few months in Israel-Palestine. To put it plainly, my goal was to establish that contrary to the stereotypes of settlers as ultra-Orthodox Jewish men with long white beards or young religious zealots committed to regaining Judea and Samaria, many people who participate in the occupation are simply average, even left-leaning, citizens (or in my case tourists).
There is a certain banality to the whole situation. I didn’t rappel in the West Bank for religious or political reasons—as cool as it was to be so close to where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered—I simply went because it was convenient. After weeks and weeks of lockdown, I was anxious to get out and explore the country I was living in for the next several months. Little did I know that the part of the country I would end up in actually wasn’t part of the country at all. Once I did realize this, the moral implications paled in comparison to my immediate stress over organizing a group of teenagers and the dearth of other feasible alternatives. My decision was made easier by the fact that apart from the minor inconvenience of having to use Google Maps instead of Moovit, there was absolutely no indication I was in the West Bank. In fact, just the other day when I explained the premise of this article to one of my friends who had been on the rappelling trip with me, he was shocked, having never realized where we had been.
I went to settlements multiple times afterward for similar reasons. Once, I went because I wanted to go to the Dead Sea. The part of the Dead Sea that is outside of the West Bank is roughly three hours away from Jerusalem by bus whereas Kalia, a settlement on the Dead Sea, is only 45 minutes away. Confronted with the same Shabbat transportation dilemma as before, my friends and I naturally opted to go to Kalia, paying an entrance fee that presumably helped support the settlement. Similarly, not having any family in Israel, I opted to spend Passover with my friend’s family.
Not only was the offer a welcome opportunity to spend the holiday surrounded by other people in an actual home with food I didn’t have to cook for myself, but it was also convenient because my friend and I were planning to go to Eilat together as soon as the holiday ended to SCUBA diving in the Red Sea. It turns out that her family lives in Ma’ale Adumim, one of the oldest and largest settlements in the West Bank. Apart from those two specific occasions, we also drove through Area C more times than I could count given my tendency to fall asleep on the bus simply because it was often the fastest way to reach Jerusalem. The reason why I write that I spent my gap year in Israel-Palestine instead of simply saying Israel is because technically I didn’t just spend my gap in Israel, I spent it in both Israel and Palestine.
Like me, many Israelis participate in the occupation and even settle in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) for reasons that are neither religious nor political, but simply financial. Take, for example, my 33-year-old program coordinator who categorizes his religious views on Facebook as “Britney Spears” and grew up in the Gaza Strip. As you might be able to guess, his family didn’t settle there out of religious ideology but rather because the property was dirt cheap.
Although Israelis no longer live in Gaza as a result of the 2005 Israeli disengagement, the same rationale applies to settlements in the West Bank. While the money I saved by taking a 45-minute bus ride instead of a three-hour one was negligible, the economic benefits that Israelis enjoy by living in the OPT are anything but inconsequential. According to a 2013 report by the NGO Peace Now, the Israeli Housing Ministry’s budget allocates four times more funds to settlements than their percentage of the population. In other words, although settlers at the time were only 4% of all Israeli citizens, they received 17% of the Housing Ministry’s budget. The same report also found that the state invested in three times more construction in the West Bank than in Israel proper proportionate to population size.
Furthermore, despite settlements having lower property taxes, most of them receive additional benefits because of their status as national priority areas. So long as they do not own apartments elsewhere, individuals who purchase an apartment in a national priority area receive state mortgage supplements, 50% of development costs for buildings in national priority areas are financed by the government, and there is a 69% discount on the value of the land in such areas which significantly reduces the cost buyers must pay. Even though individuals themselves are no longer provided with direct incentives to settle in the OPT, the broader financial incentives still provide a compelling reason to do so and lead to housing that is generally hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper in settlements than it is in Israel proper. Beyond housing costs, government subsidies also reduce the cost of schools and buses in settlements. With Tel Aviv having just been listed as the most expensive city in the entire world this year, such financial incentives are hard to ignore even for the most liberal-minded Israelis.
In recent years, the gap between the cost of housing in Israel proper and settlements has decreased—with property costs rising faster in the OPT than they have in Israel proper—but rather than being the result of shifting policies, this change was caused by the wave of secular Jews who have recently moved into settlements and only further blurred the Green Line.
As such, despite the image of settlers as ultra-Orthodox, radical Zionists, 35% of settlers define themselves as non-observant. Although this number is significantly less than the 69% of all Israelis who consider themselves non-observant, it undermines the monolithic narrative on settlers that dominates the media. Particularly in progressive Jewish circles, this narrative has long served as a life jacket upon which to cling when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I support a two-state solution.”
“I’m against the expansion of settlements.”
“I’m committed to the peace process.”
While at many points in my life, I’ve said these very platitudes, at the end of the day, that’s exactly what they are: platitudes built upon an oversimplification of reality. As aspirational as a two-state solution might be, given the current situation on the ground, it is frankly delusional. As Gideon Levy wrote back in 2015, “One state already exists here, and has done so for 48 years. The Green Line faded long ago; the settlements are in Israel, and Israel is also the settlers’ land.” Perhaps instead of denying this, progressive Jews should take it as an invitation to reconsider their long-held view of what an ideal solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks like.
Opposition to the expansion of settlements functions similarly. Although it’s a compelling talking point, it rests on the notion that further expanding settlements will intractably normalize occupation without acknowledging the normalization that has already occurred. You need not look further than my experience rappelling for evidence that the occupation has already been normalized. The current government coalition’s survival is explicitly predicated on not mentioning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and despite what news headlines will have you believe given the extensive attention they pay to the conflict, regular Jewish Israelis hardly think about it on a day to day basis. The occupation is so far from their radar that it essentially doesn’t exist.
I’m certainly not advocating in favor of settlement expansion, I simply begrudgingly recognize that it hardly crosses a line that hasn’t already been crossed. Basing an entire view on Israel in opposition to settlements and opposition to settlements alone presumes that line is untouched. Frankly, it is also a cop-out. It’s easy to construct a black and white dichotomy between progressive American Jews and ultra-Orthodox settlers. How comforting is it to distance oneself from “those other people” who are participating in the occupation? How reassuring is it to know that most Israelis aren’t a part of it? The problem with this dichotomy is that it actively ignores the nuance of settler identity and the way that settler colonialism implicates not just ultra-nationalists but regular Israelis and even gap year students as well. It ignores the fact that occupation is now woven into the very fabric of Israeli society.
The vague commitment to a hypothetical peace process falls short for similar reasons. Although I agree with the sentiment behind each of the aforementioned statements, the way they have been accepted as sufficient explanations on their own encourages oversimplification and undermines true commitment to peace, justice, security, and liberation for all peoples in Israel-Palestine.
So how is it that I still have hope? Because unlike other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are deeply rooted in fervent religious beliefs, oppression, security, etc… normalization is primarily an ongoing political issue. As such, it is not quite as intractable as other aspects of the conflict. Although policy is informed by culture, it is also subject to changes in political will, and under the right circumstances, it is a lot easier to change policies than to change large segments of the population’s deeply held beliefs.
Instead of driving young couples who are unable to afford the high prices of apartments in Jerusalem into settlements, the government could implement policies that address the root economic causes that lead to soaring property costs in the first place. Instead of subsidizing settlements, the government could tax them, an idea which would likely be popular with the majority of Israelis who think the government spends too much on settlements. Instead of turning a blind eye to the IDF soldiers who defend illegal outposts established by wealthy settlers, the government could redirect their manpower to socially productive projects within Israel proper. None of these policies are radical, but they are effective because they address the actual factors that impact Israelis. As hard as it is to imagine solutions to the conflict, on a very basic level, people, regardless of their political views, respond to these types of immediate factors, whether shorter bus rides or cheaper housing costs.
I recognize that in many ways, my suggestions bear a certain resemblance to policy that is merely against the expansion of settlements. The difference is that they are not in and of themselves the end goal. They are examples of possible first steps that set the groundwork for future, more drastic policy and cultural shifts. As much as I wish a more radical approach was immediately feasible, the Israeli government is simply not going to implement policies it views as against its self-interests like forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes and return to Israel proper. The occupation is rotting away at the State of Israel and its long-term viability, but until external pressure or internal revolt force the Israeli government to realize that fact, it has no incentive to change its current approach to the conflict. Without conscientious effort to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians, grandiose proposals of one-state, two-state, or confederation solutions are simply pipe dreams. In the meantime, policies that shift the Israeli government’s approach away from upholding a de facto binational state where one group of people have inferior rights have the potential to start moving the wheels in the right direction.