Forty years later, two view from the West Bank's Road 60

An Israeli and a Palestinian reflect on the impact of the Six-Day War that began 40 years ago Tuesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The road that runs between Sinjil and Shilo retraces one of the oldest paths in the Middle East.

The ancient Israelites would have traveled up it on their return from Egypt to bury Joseph's bones. Jesus would have traveled down it on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Slightly more recently, 820 years ago, Saladdin's forces pushed through here to wrest Jerusalem from the Crusaders to reclaim it for the Muslim world.

Today, Road 60 is still the backbone of the West Bank, like a spinal column upon which all movement is dependent. The Israeli and Palestinian communities along the route live in clear view of each other and hold radically different visions of who really belongs here and who is persecuting whom.

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Here, along this serpentine road that rambles through a gentle green landscape, is the heartland of a conflict that was defined by the Six-Day War, which began 40 years ago Tuesday.

Just west off the road and up a hill, the Palestinian village of Sinjil has a proud history. It was named during the Crusader period as St. Gilles, pointing to at least a millennium of life here and more. It boasts a well that is believed by inhabitants to date to the time of the biblical Joseph, held in the Muslim tradition to be a prophet.

Turning east and up a steep slope, the Israeli settlement of Shilo feels itself equally rooted in past and present. Directions to Shilo, which the community's website offers, come straight from Judges 21:19. After the Exodus from Egypt, the first Israelite capital was here, and this was the place of the Tabernacle for more than 300 years.

Given that overwhelming weight of history, the past 40 years seem like a too-brief chapter in the life story of a corner of the earth that has long roused religious fervor and international rivalries.

But in these four decades since the fateful June 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan – deemed a "liberation" by some Israelis and an "occupation" by Arabs and most others – there have been reality-altering changes in the landscape, from its physical characteristics to demography. The postwar settling of about 267,000 Jews into the West Bank have placed Israelis and Palestinians in uncomfortable proximity of each other and complicated the prospects of reaching a two-state solution.

Forty years of occupation

The people in Sinjil and Shilo can hardly be said to coexist. Rather, they partake in a hope that the other will eventually go away and stop making their lives miserable. They are dedicated to the absolute truths of their narrative, which, were they to exist in a vacuum, would be unassailable.

But nothing here happens in a vacuum. And so, when the Israeli army decided just a few years ago that one way to control militants or suicide bombers from leaving the West Bank was to seal most of the access roads leading to and from their villages, it meant that the people of Sinjil found themselves all but stuck. There were six entrances to the village, but the Israeli army put barriers up in all but one of them.

The field work manager for Btselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, says this is a typical state of affairs for Palestinian villages along Road 60. The fewer entrances to any village, the easier it is for Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to maintain control of who and what is traveling Road 60. The army says this has been effective in decreasing terrorism. Palestinians says it simply embitters and impoverishes.

For Fathi Shabaneh, it means that eking out a living in agriculture is increasingly difficult. Whereas he used to be able to take his produce into Ramallah in 15 minutes, now he can depend on it taking one to two hours, given the difficulty of travel for Palestinians and various checkpoints.

"As a farmer, I have a lot of land I cannot reach," says Mr. Shabaneh, pointing to an olive-tree grove that belongs to his family and sits just outside an IDF camp on an adjacent hill. He also has trees due north, just outside the Israeli settlement of Maale Levona, to which he occasionally walks.

"I go even though it's dangerous for me. But my land is more important than my life," says Shabaneh, a father of four. On many occasions, he says, he and other farmers have had their crops damaged by nearby settlers. They don't expect intervention on their behalf from the army, which remains in control of this area until further notice.

There was a time when most of the residents would have survived on farming. But post-1967, Palestinians here found themselves with less water for agriculture, says Khalil Shikaki, a political analyst in nearby Ramallah, and encouraged to work as laborers in Israel. But with the advent of suicide bombings in the 1990s and the start of the last intifada in 2000, Israel stopped allowing large numbers of Palestinian workers to come in from the West Bank and Gaza.

And no one here is interested in working in Shilo anymore after an Israeli settler in Shilo shot dead four Palestinian workers from Sinjil. The potential for common interests, even economic ones, has largely died. To Shabaneh, the answer is for Israel to evacuate Shilo and its other settlements, and leave them empty for the return of Palestinian refugees.

The promised land

To Yisrael Medad, who grew up in New York, was in Israel for the Six-Day War, and moved to Shilo in 1981, the shooting was an unfortunate act committed by an unstable person. But that doesn't change any of his red lines. There should be no establishment of a Palestinian state because Israel wouldn't survive it.

Some other solution, he says, should be found, in which "they don't get a flag, they don't get guns or a foreign minister."

By comparison, when he moved up here a few years after the settlement was established in 1978, his wife packed a pistol wherever she went. But they weren't deterred by not being welcome by the local population. From the moment Israel won the Six-Day War – which he spent in a foxhole near the Egyptian border – he wasn't one of those people who felt dazed and amazed at the gains, he says.

"I remember the radio reports telling us what was what, for those who didn't know their Bible. 'This is Shilo, this is Bet El.' I knew exactly where we were. I was home, basically. I wanted to move to a place where no one could tell me, Mr. Medad, you don't belong here," he says. "We're off on our own here, and we're not bothering anybody. We wouldn't even agree to have a fence around us, which the army wanted. If there are terrorists, put them behind the barbed wire, not us."

Medad, who works at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, says that half of what Palestinians say happens to them at the hands of settlers and the army is "off the top of their heads."

There are incidents, he says – shootings, stonings – but they happen in both directions. "We're not impressed with their cries of discrimination," he says, as his wife, Beth, peels onions before the Sabbath. She wears an orange ribbon to show her opposition to leaving any territory in a land-for-peace compromise. Any time she sees a new roof rising in one of the neighboring villages, such as in Sinjil, she's convinced the Palestinians there are preparing to use the houses as bunkers, as Hizbullah did last year in the war in Lebanon.

"Yes, there are dozens of roadblocks," Medad says, "but if there weren't suicide bombers, the army wouldn't have to do that. If they're not shooting at us, then perhaps we could talk about a solution."

A chapter defined by exhaustion

Medad and Shebaneh, both religious family men with a passion for the ground beneath their feet, both gentle in manner and well-spoken, seem less inclined to shoot than to talk. But the final pages of this 40-year-long chapter seem to be defined by exhaustion and exasperation, both with the potential of making peace with their foes across the road and with their respective national leaderships.

On Thursday, however, the two embattled leaders have promised to try to restart the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to meet in the West Bank city of Jericho Thursday, marking the first-ever meeting of an Israeli and a Palestinian leader on territory that was transferred to Palestinian Authority control as part of the Oslo Accords.

Six-Day War chronology

June 5 – In a decisive step, Israeli planes destroy 400 aircraft, most sitting on tarmac, belonging to Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Israelis enter the Sinai.

June 6 – Israel captures Gaza; troops move into the Jordanian sector of a divided Jerusalem.

June 7 – UN passes a cease-fire resolution. Israelis capture Jerusalem's Old City and takes control of the West Bank. Jordan accepts cease-fire.

June 8 – Israel takes control of Sinai Peninsula. Egypt accepts the cease-fire.

June 9 – Israeli Air Force pounds Syrian targets on Golan Heights.

June 10 – Israeli forces capture the Golan Heights. Syria accepts the cease-fire.

Israeli forces: 679 killed, 2,563 wounded; Arab forces: about 21,000 killed, 45,000 wounded.

Sources: "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" by Michael B. Oren; The Christian Science Monitor, 1967; Reuters; Associated Press.

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