On the Other Hand: Removing the obstacles

Whether at the UN or in a West Bank backyard over a plate of humous, communication is the key.

Humous 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Humous 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
It was over 10 years ago when I last drove into Eizariya (Bethany), a sprawling Palestinian neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, bordering Abu Dis on one side and Ma’aleh Adumim on the other.
There was a spacious plant nursery a few hundred meters inside the town entrance, just past the turnoff to the settlement of Kedar, where we, and it seemed at times like half of the residents of Ma’aleh Adumim, used to buy ornate clay pots, young, healthy plants and seeds for flowers from a friendly, laid-back staff.
That was before the second intifada and its wave of suicide bombers and terror attacks that fractured whatever tenuous coexistence had existed between Israelis and Palestinians.
As a result of the Palestinian campaign against Israel, the IDF erected a roadblock at the entrance to Eizariya – which in addition to checking the Jerusalem residency cards of the Palestinians traveling on the Jericho-Jerusalem highway – was there to prevent any Israelis who still had the notion to from entering the neighborhood, which is considered Area B under the Oslo Accords – Palestinian municipal control with Israel in charge of security.
And that’s the way things stayed, until in recent months, as part of goodwill gestures toward the PA to coax them back into negotiations, the government ordered the army to remove a few dozen roadblocks throughout the territories, including one leading into Eizariya.
That’s how, last week, I once again I found myself driving on the town’s busy, disheveled roads, with their undefined traffic lanes and shoulders dotted with donkeys, living room furniture and discarded construction material.
The impetus for the revisit was the decision to do some shiputzim (remodeling) in our home for the first time in... well, ever.
Our contractor, Meir, brought in a work crew of Eizariya craftsmen and laborers led by their foreman, a burly fellow named Jezi. The 30-year-old father of three came from a family of a whopping 19 siblings (10 girls and 10 boys, including himself), the result of his father marrying a second wife after his first wife produced 10 daughters.
It was that kind of information that was gleaned during the week Jezi and his staff spent every daylight hour at our home, tearing up and laying new floor tiles and bathroom pipes. When he first suggested that we would save a bundle of money buying the ceramic tiles and bathroom fixtures from a store in Eizariya, we immediately objected.
“What? We haven’t been in Eizariya in a decade. I wouldn’t feel safe going in there,” my wife said.
“No, no, things have changed, the roadblock is gone and Israelis are shopping there all the time,” responded Jezi, an observation seconded by Meir the contractor, who added that he himself was a frequent visitor.
Remaining unconvinced, we visited various stores and Jerusalem and in Mishor Adumim – the industrial area of Ma’aleh Adumim – and found the prices exorbitantly expensive.
So, that’s how we found ourselves at 8 a.m. one day earlier this month, with some trepidation, despite Jezi sitting in the back seat, returning to the shopping area less than a kilometer from our home that for 10 years had been a world away.
The main avenue was bustling with activity – a dusty, Middle Eastern bazaar motif with a diametrically opposite character to the “Pleasantville” manicured suburb we had just left. After a three-minute drive, we arrived at the tile and fixture store, and meekly followed Jezi inside.
Upon entering, the first person we saw was the mother of my son’s 10-year-old classmate. Another customer sported a knitted kippa prominently on his head. After being served thick botz (Turkish coffee) from the dapper proprietor, who was also handing out candies to all the customers to honor the birth of a granddaughter, we found the items we needed. Jezi then negotiated on our behalf, arriving at a price well below what we had been quoted elsewhere.
We drove back to Ma’aleh Adumim lighter by a belly full of apprehension, albeit heavier with a trunk full of guilt at making a purchase at a store that likely didn’t pay VAT to the government. But until the Trajtenberg Committee report recommendations are implemented and the prices of goods across the board are lowered significantly, we all have to make choices based on our needs and resources.
The next day, I stayed home from work to move furniture and boxes in and out of rooms to enable the floor tiles to be ripped up and replaced. By now, the half-dozen workers knew where the cups, sugar and Turkish coffee we bought for them was in the kitchen, and comfortably maneuvered throughout the house.
At around noon, they stopped, washed up, and brought out plastic bags loaded with food to our backyard table and spread out the contents for a communal lunch. Large, fresh pita, a tub of humous with extra harif (spicy sauce), containers of chickpeas and tins of sardines, along with a big bottle of cola adorned the table.
“Come, join us,” Jezi called out, probably feeling sorry for me after undergoing a rare day of unaccustomed manual labor which left me looking a little like a marathon runner who had hit the invisible wall.
I brought out some additional condiments, and there we were – Jezi, Yusef, Ahmed and three other workers sitting around the table breaking bread. We made some small talk – about the weather, the travails of taking care of the yard and the humous, whose extreme spiciness prompted a coughing fit by me and laughter by everyone else.
In the previous days, I had restrained myself from bringing up any controversial or politically-tinged subjects, but with “September 20” approaching and the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the UN hot on the agenda, I couldn’t resist the rare opportunity afforded me by sitting face to face with a group of Palestinians.
“So,” I said to Jezi, who spoke a passable Hebrew, unlike most of the others who could understand but could only speak a few words.
“What do you think about what’s going on with the Palestinian Authority and the UN this month?”
A proverbial hush fell over the proceedings. Hiring Palestinians and eating lunch with them is one thing, but bringing up the issue that’s the crux of our century-long conflict is something else.
I wasn’t sure if I had crossed a line of Jewish-Arab, employer- employee relationship, and if my question was being considered an invasive act along the lines of asking “So, how’s your sex life, anyway?” After an uneasy moment, Jezi spoke, saying “look, we don’t care about politics. We just want to work, feed our families and go home at the end of the day.”
“But wouldn’t you prefer to be a citizen of a Palestinian state, than a Palestinian with a Jerusalem-residency card,” I asked? “Sure,” he answered, without elaborating.
We returned to eating in silence, and after a while, they started talking in Arabic to each other, and I started to clean up the plates.

Our next conversation, a few minutes later, was about measurements for our new sink. The words flowed freely. It was a subject that was much easier for a Israeli from Ma’aleh Adumim and a Palestinian from Eizariya to talk about.
I suppose if all Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had to discuss was whether to put the toilet paper holder here or there, then negotiations between Israel and the PA would not have ground to a halt.
But, the stakes are clearly much higher. And whatever transpires as a result of this week’s UN proceedings, let’s hope that the end game is a return to direct talks – with or without the spicy humous – on the future of the land we’re destined to share.