Love and a settlement…

Nosing around an abandoned caravan in a Jewish-only settlement in the occupied West Bank of Palestine — a settlement that was built on confiscated land and was once used to be home to a camp for lost boys, but had been closed down because of abuse allegations (right? wrap your head around that for a second) — I found a bright but dusty Charlie Brown book for kids.

Wait, what? 
 
Let me tell you the story.

Wait, what? 
 
Let me tell you the story.
Sde Bar farms is a settlement just behind Herodion, the big hill-like thing in the background said to be a palace of King Herod.
 
Friends were doing some work with the Palestinian family that lives down the hill from Sde Bar, their lives had been irrevocably changed by the presence of an Israeli settlement outpost in the back yard.
(Their story, however, is a different one, told eloquently here)

This is in fact their back yard, they say it was where their sheep grazed and they picked olives etc… but no longer.

Welcome to Sde Bar Farms. 
Organic goat cheese is made here. 
Kids read stories about Charlie Brown 
Its existence is illegal under international law. 
Anyway, some background before we head in on our visit:
 

Settlements are locations for homes for Jewish citizens of the state of Israel. They are built on Palestinian owned, village, municipal, or agricultural lands taken by military order or declared as disputed (declared by Israel). 


The land where settlements have been established (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) was occupied by Israel in 1967, following the Six Day War. While settlements are officially recognized as legal by Israel, under international law they are a colony set up on occupied land, a “transfer of population” by the occupying authority. Geneva Conventions say that’s against the law. 

But Sde Bar isn’t just a settlement, its a settlement outpost. 

According to Peace Now, Sdeh Bar Farms was established in 1998 and is, in fact, an illegal outpost of Nokedim, where Israel’s Minister of the Foreign Affairs lives. 

Right. So. Feeling brave one day a pack of us set out to explore what was up the hill. I was a bit nervous, having heard the stories of harassment that the family down the hill related… but, for the sake of curiosity (which I refuse to believe killed the cat) we went for a drive….
 
How does one get to explore a settlement outpost you wonder? Well, you just drive up to the gate and knock on the door. 
 
Finding no one at the gate, you contemplate the scenery, and…
 
 
walk over to the door…. and find it open. 
 

Trick seems to be to just walk in like you own the place. That’s what settlers do in any case, so maybe we just blend.  At the entrance to this eerily quiet outpost… a lottery booth. inexplicably.                    

There was no one playing in the basketball court. (incidentally, the kids down the hill play in dirt and around barbed wire…. it’d be nice if the settlers could maybe share? 


Anyway, we just kept walking, wondering when someone would stop us. 

No one did.  Not as we walked in the gate, not as we walked up the road, not as I wandered over to the wildwild west-looking trailer….
 
 

And went inside…..


The whole place felt utterly abandoned. What was the point of taking away all this land? For some empty trailers and abandoned basketball courts? Not that its okay to take it and use it, but the eerie silence of the place was sort of a pronounced and pathetic dispossession. 

There was something odd about learning the ins and outs of love from a caravan propped on cinderblocks in the middle of occupied territory.
I wondered if they thought about loving their neighbours who they’d taken land away from down the hill when they read it. 
 
According to a Human Rights Watch report “The Israel Civil Administration refuses to allow the village [next to the settlement] to connect to the electricity grid (to which all recognized settlements, as well as many unrecognized outposts, are connected).”
Anyway, I digress. More on the settlement outpost. Turns out it was rather a large operation. 
 
Up at the top there was a large water tank (the Palestinian families below have severely limited access to water) a pool, and a hut from which to dive into the pool. The latter had clearly not been used in a while. 
 

 

 
There was also a large goat farm.
 
Once we circled past the farm infrastructure, we saw four young guys walking around one of the trailers in the center of the outpost. After we had climbed up the water tower to check out the view of the pool and the goat pen beyond, I guess they figured out we weren’t really from the area. They invited us in to chat. 
 
Their hang-out spot was across from the only stone building on the site, which turned out to be a dining  hall. It was at that point we learned that the site had been part of a camp for troubled boys. 

Wait, the state of Israel set up a camp for troubled boys on occupied land? At least that’s what I said to myself.

Recalling settler kids in Hebron throwing rocks at me, and pondering their upbringing, I found it hard to imagine the effect of settlement living on troubled kids.

The boys we met, mostly in their late teens, two spoke English, one was tall and silent, a fourth round, dreadlocked and curious. They were nice, offered to show us around, and invited us to sit in their trailer. They didn’t ask any questions about who we were or why we had happened to walk into a settlement. One of the teens was an American visiting for the summer. He translated our questions and the other teens’ answers.

 

The boys, it seemed, would spend their summers and sometimes their weekends working at the camp, and at the goat farm. At least one of them had been a camper.

None of them threw stones at me. Hum.

 

Seems the guys would all come and pitch in at the site, and they and a few others made the goatsmilk products that were sold in Israeli markets. So despite looking pretty much abandoned, the farm was still in operation. The Israeli kid who spoke English said he lived in one of the nearby settlements, and would come into the farm after school. None of them lived there.

When asked if it was safe, the American kid noted that there were sometimes “army patrols and stuff,” since the area was “technically across the Green Line,” i.e. inside the occupied West Bank.  We asked if it would be safe to drive around the area, and were instructed that as long as we stuck to the clearly labeled road signs, we’d be fine.

 
The signs don’t point to Palestinian cities or villages. 

We were invited in for a tour of the cheese factory, and the store where it’s sold. The kids doled out samples of their faveourite goatsmilk yoghurt drink.

They said we were welcome to come back any time to help with the goats.

When we asked why the camp had been shut down, the American kid was the only one to answer, and said he thought it was some sort of “problem with the government.”

I was intrigued. First thought was that it had been closed because its an illegal outpost. But no.

Peace Now said the location “serves as an institute for youth that have been taken from their homes by court.” It was-state sanctioned and only closed, according to Wikipedia sourcing the Jerusalem post: after an appointed commission investigated allegations of sexual abuse, alcohol and drugs.”   

So, a settler outpost (in itself in violation of the Geneva Conventions) is closed down because of allegations of abuse. Woh.  Did we just pick a particularly unusual outpost to walk into, or is this normal?

On the news desk, I used to write-up articles all the time about settler violence, those living in outposts were usually the most violent, the most often involved in incidents of terrorism, the most insistent that Palestinians had little right to land, or even life at times. 
 
Yet these kids seemed nice.
 
When we pressed them a bit about their Palestinian neighbours, they shrugged, and said there were not usually any problems. They knew they were “beyond the Green Line” but might not have really known what that meant.
We found Benny, at left, on our way back out. He lived at the front of the outpost, in one of a half dozen homes that looked to be under construction. Being built by Palestinian labourers, about 500 meters away from the “camp” toward the front gate.     

He was the only armed person we saw at the outpost.  He had been a camper at the facility as a child, he said, and was now employed as the security guard and general doer of things.

Benny said it got pretty lonely on the outpost, but that there was decent bus service, and it was only an hour’s drive to Tel Aviv where he’d go and party sometimes.

There was not much mixing between Benny and the four other guys hanging out at the trailer on the top of the hill.

But both spoke fondly of the camp, like it was a place they belonged and could be useful.

 

I had no idea what to make of it all at this point. A place where kids from troubled homes can come and feel useful. Useful making a camp on land occupied illegally. Useful keeping that land used and populated so the family below couldn’t take it back. But they didn’t know that now did they. Did they?

According to a googletranslate of the Hebrew site: “Military service is an integral part of the reconstruction of the boys. The farm encourages the boys to join and make the boys physical and emotional level with full military service. Most boys join the combat units and some elite units. They return home on the farm during their vacation from the army.” 

After being sent into the West Bank on combat missions, treating Palestinians as targets and suspects and a ‘other’ as ‘other is possible, they return to the West Bank, to a patch of land that once was farmed by a Palestinian family. The website also notes, “the farm allows every boy to leave his past and to society to accept as an equal.”     Palestinians in the tiny residential area below are certain the settlers stole their solar panels. They had been donated to them by an International aid agency because there is no electricity or reliable running water in the area. Except for the settlement.
 

The farm’s webiste makes no mention of the fact that it has been shut, even though it was updated in 2010, and the farm as been closed for years. It also does not mention that it is an illegal settlement outpost.  

(It does, however, ask for donations so that new goats can be purchased, and how you can help keep the farm going… for the kids)

We left that day with full minds and a lot to sort out. These kids seemed decent. The camp project was complicated with a whole lot of problems. The families living down the hill were clearly present but not factored in to that life on the hill.

And it all seemed to come back to Charlie Brown. This love thing wasn’t as simple as the book lead on.   It didn’t cover the people that you don’t share with, the people you don’t trust, the flag that is not yours. It didn’t explain that loving one thing could mean doing harm to another. It didn’t cover whether not love that harms is love at all.

So, anyway. That’s what one settlement outpost looks like. Welcome to Palestine.

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