At the crossroads

The Gush Etzion junction, on the main thoroughfare between Jerusalem and the West Bank, is an improbable meeting point for thousands of Israelis and Palestinians,and a flashpoint of terror

IDF soldiers secure the perimeter of the traffic circle at the Gush Etzion junction during a demonstration by residents (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
IDF soldiers secure the perimeter of the traffic circle at the Gush Etzion junction during a demonstration by residents
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
The murder of 21-year-old Hadar Buchris was the last straw for mothers living in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.
Buchris, who was studying in a seminary in the area, had long brown hair, almond-shaped eyes and a pleasant smile. While waiting at a bus stop Sunday afternoon at the junction, she was attacked by a Palestinian, and stabbed in the head and chest. She was pronounced dead at the hospital. Within 24 hours of the attack, hundreds of Israeli residents of the area returned to the scene on Monday to demonstrate for peace and security.
Rivka Epstein Hattin, a piano teacher from Alon Shvut and one of the main organizers of the event, said she’s had enough of the violence. “We’re great at making meals for dead people,” she said ironically, “but we need to focus on our celebrations. We need to come together as a nation, call out to God to help us. We also need to use our brilliant minds – focus our brilliant minds on solutions for our children.”
Dubbed “The Mothers of Gush Etzion,” participants were encouraged to bring signs in English and Hebrew with positive messages, like “We want life” and “Keep our children safe.”
“We need to know that every car that passes through our area does not have a murderer in it, doesn’t have a weapon in it,” Hattin said to me, standing in the center of the traffic circle, surrounded by 400 other participants. The line of cars coming from Jerusalem was starting to build as the sunset on Monday. “There are all sorts of options on the table. We need to be aggressive and we need to protect our children – and that needs to be at the top of the agenda right now.”
The junction is a main artery that leads to numerous Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages.
A gas station, automobile repair shop and numerous shops and attractions make it a popular destination for both Jews and Arabs alike in the area. The Rami Levi discount grocery store takes pride in hiring both Jews and Arabs.
Despite calls to ban Palestinians workers, on Monday one could hear the mix of Hebrew and Arabic among the employees at the supermarket.
At the demonstration, the atmosphere was a mix of anxious frustration with jubilant displays of nationalism. Seminary girls waved flags and sang national-religious songs while mothers thrust signs reading ‘We want security’ in the faces of passing Palestinian drivers.
Dozens of IDF soldiers surrounded the demonstration while cars with Israeli and Palestinian Authority license plates made their way around the traffic circle. It was a surreal moment, almost of the victim confronting the attacker. With the increased security, traffic moved slowly, so that each Palestinian car had ample time to take in the signs and the faces of the people.
The Gush Etzion settlement bloc consists of around 20 villages. According to records from Peace Now, a left-wing NGO, in 2011 more than 22,000 people lived in 14 settlements in the bloc. Stretching from Bethlehem south towards Hebron, the area is considered a strategic defensive position as well as important to the historical and biblical character of the Land of Israel. Settled by Jews in the 1920s and 30s, the area was given to the Arabs in the UN partition plan of 1947.
During Israel’s War of Independence, 127 Jews were massacred in their villages by the conquering army of the Arab Legion. When the land was conquered by Israel in 1967, it was an ideological win as much as a strategic one.
Today, the general consensus is that if there ever is a two-state solution with land swaps, the Gush Etzion bloc would remain within Israel proper.
The residents have built ideal lives for themselves in bucolic neighborhoods that are friendly and communal. There are schools of religious studies, small businesses and wineries, visitor centers and nature parks.
The only problem is that their neighbors keep trying to kill them. Within the span of two days this month, four people were murdered.
The wave of terrorism plaguing Israel flared up during the High Holy Days, after perceived threats to al-Aksa Mosque led to confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces on the compound. The so-called “knife intifada” or “third intifada” dates its beginnings to October 1, with the brutal shooting-murder of Eitam and Naama Henkin by Hamas terrorists near the West Bank settlement of Itamar. Approaching the end of November, there have been nearly 100 attacks on Israelis by Palestinians all over the country.
While the terrorism – involving guns, knives and other sharp objects and car rammings – has centered around Jerusalem and in the south near Hebron; the Center has not been immune, with attacks in Kiryat Gat, Tel Aviv, Beit Shemesh, Netanya, Rishon Lezion, Netanya and Ra’anana. According to the IDF, between October 1 and November 24, 21 people have been killed and 189 wounded – 20 of them seriously.
On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset that the fight against terrorism requires “patience, courage and persistence,” but Opposition leader Isaac Herzog criticized the government for having “no direction.”
Whatever the differences in politics or the nuances of the conflict, residents are demanding a more secure reality.
Since the end of October, the responses of the security agencies at the Gush Etzion junction have been defensive measures – fences around open medians to prevent attackers on foot approaching the junction, concrete blocks in front of bus stops, a massive presence of soldiers, and diversion of Palestinian traffic traveling north from Hebron on an access road around the junction.
Yet some say this is not enough. Davidi Perl, head of the Gush Etzion regional council, said that Palestinians should no longer be allowed to use the junction. A ban on Palestinian workers in the settlements has been put into effect.
“We believe that this area should be separated, Jews from the Arabs, because this is our heart, this is the center of our life,” Perl told me at the demonstration on Monday. “Why do we have to be with the Arabs? If they wanted peace, fine. But they don’t want peace now, so we have to separate from them at this time. It’s not apartheid; the reason I’m not going to their village is simply because I’m afraid. They don’t have to come here, they can go there [points to access road].”
Asked if this wave of terror has been different than in years past, Perl pauses.
“It used to be that we’d have a terror attack down the road,” he motions, “but this spot is central. People are afraid, worried. It’s different this time because its not one big attack, like a bomb; the attacks are coming one by one, another one, another one. That is the most difficult thing about this situation.”
The participants at the demonstration expressed a range of views on how the security situation should be handled. There were those who wanted to completely cut off Palestinian access to Route 60: “It can’t be that they share our roads and want to kill us!” expressed one demonstrator. Others believe that Palestinians shouldn’t be employed in the settlements: “As long as they have freedom of movement, they can hurt us – either they stop the incitement or we have to take action.” Other people expressed remorse that these attacks were killing both Jews and Arabs. One woman suggested adding more checkpoints because they save all lives. Some chose their words carefully, saying “Arab” instead of “Palestinian” in a subtle slight to their claim of nationality and peoplehood.
The demonstrators were wary of speaking to the press, yet resigned to its necessity. “We don’t have freedom of speech,” Daniel Kaszlvitt, a father of eight from Neveh Daniel said. He believes that the Israeli government should give a heavy-handed response against the Palestinians in the area, but measures his words carefully.
From Thursday to Sunday, Kaszlvitt had to mourn the loss of two of his friends: Ya’akov Litman, who was shot and killed near Otniel, and Yaakov Don, also from Neveh Daniel. At the demonstration, Kaszlvitt appeared stoic, despite his mourning. He praised the soldiers for all that they do, but expressed frustration with the situation.
“We don’t have complaints against our army; our boys are doing everything they possibly can and they sit there, willing to put their lives on the line day to day to save that one girl.”
Kaszlvitt is reluctant to say how he believes the security situation should be resolved. “I hope this will all be written well in a favorable manner,” he tells me, “in a way that won’t make us sound like lunatics. We’re people who want to live in peace. When we try to speak out against this [terrorism], we’re labeled as fanatics.”
What's causing  this cycle of violence? No one answer is known and no one reason is correct. A combination of frustration and antagonism; perceived threats to the Temple Mount; online incitement and rumors of Palestinians being executed in cold blood have been given as examples of what might spur the next attacker.
According to Hillel Frisch, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the security services and politicians are refraining from implementing any forms of collective punishment that could threaten to embolden the terrorist elements, and instead focus on defensive measures and deterrence until this wave of terrorism passes.
Frisch says that a distinguishing characteristic of this wave of terrorism is the delicate security cooperation between the PA and Israel. “In the second intifada, [Yasser] Arafat allowed weapons from PA security agencies to get into the hands of the terrorists, and you also had terrorists among the PA security authority agencies. We don’t have this in the present intifada. That means guns, Kalashnikovs and ammo for suicide bombings are much less available. This is a less lethal wave of terror.”
However, the longer attacks continue, Frisch adds, there will be increasing pressure from below, from the residents in the West Bank, to take harsher measures against the Palestinian population. Frisch says that from a security standpoint, taking collective punishment measures could spur elements – particularly those affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad – to become more organized in their attacks.
If the PA wants to retain control of the West Bank, it would do well to curb incitement in its media, Frisch says.
“I think the PA should really reconsider that if this continues, it’s going to be bad. They should stop the incitement from their own strategic perspective; collective punishment [by the government] could spark mass participation [of Palestinian terrorists]. If Israel takes mass measures against the Palestinian population, it might boomerang and direct their anger not only against Israel but against the PA. Hamas tried calling it the ‘Jerusalem and West Bank intifada’, the PA insisted on calling it the ‘Jerusalem intifada.’” “I think there are fewer cells; most of them have been decimated and there are very few firearms. This is why, in the perception of both Hamas and Israeli security forces, the stabbings can’t last, and that’s why the Israeli security services and Israeli political leadership are trying to avoid measures of collective punishment at all costs.”
A former national security official, who asked to remain anonymous, advised that in the present climate, no major decisions “to the Right or to the Left” should be made under the influence of terror. “It is very important not to act under the pressure of enemy action, whether political, diplomatic or terrorist. We need to make decisions that are important for us and our future in the aftermath of the success against terrorism, not in its midst.”
He adds that large-scale military operations, such as 2002’s Defensive Shield, are not applicable to today’s situation because the former was attacking a large and well-organized terrorist infrastructure, the latter is battling the will of individuals to carry out terrorist attacks.
He says that in the current fight against terrorism, we should continue to support the judgment of military forces on the ground and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), for the population to continue to watch for irregular behavior of Palestinians and, “if necessary, for the time being, take measures to separate traffic and separate the population [Israeli and Palestinians] to reduce the danger of attacks like in Gush Etzion.”
He adds that Israelis need to be careful to not play into the hands of those on the Palestinian side who want to use the current situation to “drive us into a strategic corner.”
But for  Efrat resident Yonit Rothschild, the security situation is intolerable, and whatever is being done, it’s not enough. Having arrived seven years ago, she says she couldn’t imagine what people went through during the second intifada.
“When I first moved here, I said I could never live through an intifada, but now I am. I’m actually nervous.”
She stresses that she doesn’t view all Arabs as enemies, “but my children’s lives are my duty to protect. If it inconveniences them I’m sorry,” she says, emphasizing how difficult the situation is.
“But [my children’s] lives are my priority.  Lives are more important than sentiments and our government has to have the same clarity.”
Shaul David Judelman, a married father of three girls who lives in Tekoa, works full time with Palestinians and their local leadership in – he hesitates to call it “peace work” – a “detente” and “understanding towards seeking a better future.”
“Everyone I talk with on both sides – Israelis and Palestinians – are on edge, not going out when they don’t have to, keeping their kids at home,” he says. For himself, he doesn’t travel much with his young daughters but he still travels the road every day. For his Palestinian friends, he says they are terrified of being stuck at a junction, caught in a misunderstanding and being shot. “Palestinians I know are trying to keep their kids inside, that they go straight home from school. Everybody’s terrified. One of the mysteries of straddling the two sides is that everyone thinks one side has a monopoly on fear, but everyone’s living in real fear.”
He says that while the army has answered a call from citizens for better security, he doesn’t see the increased defensive measures and the separating the roads as a long-term solution. “If someone is determined to attack they are going to attack. It’s not a long-term solution, but no one has any long-term solution right now. We’re in crisis. The real work, the real change happens when things quiet down.”