‘Israel is not a normal nation. It is a Jewish state in an Arab world, and a Western state in an Islamic world, and a democracy in a region of tyranny’.
Ari Shavit, My Promised Land 2014
My time living in Hararit, a Jewish hilltop settlement in the Northern Galilee, took me to the edge of understanding these words by Ari Shavit. The local bus driver took me a little closer when he told me he’d traveled all the way to New Zealand, my homeland, because he’d wanted to see what life in a normal nation was like.
Half way between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean is the hilltop settlement of Hararit. It was settled in 1980 as part of Israel’s efforts to colonise the Northern District of Galilee. The settlers were a group of Jewish Transcendental Meditation practitioners who wanted to establish a TM-based community away from the frenetic city life of Tel Aviv and Haifa. About 40 families settled over following years and about half of the original families still live there. They were secular Jews, but their choice to settle Hararit was an active statement in support of the Jewish belief that Israel is the land promised to them by God, and that they alone are the rightful inhabitants.
There are 28 hilltop settlements in the Northern Galilee, along with nine kibbutz and a few Druze settlements. Below the hilltops, in the valleys and on the hillsides are the Arab villages where, for hundreds of years, Palestinian and Muslim families have lived, farmed and prayed. During the day, from my hilltop perch it is hard to distinguish where those villages lie, as the taupe coloured buildings merge into the taupe coloured landscape… their edges smudged by the hazy heat of mid-summer. But at night the landscape below me is a patchwork blanket laying across the undulating land, glittering yellow, gold, red and white. When daylight comes the minarets, the tall tower of the mosques, send out their calls to prayer that float up to me five times a day – the call from each tower taking a slightly different journey as it bounces around the landscape, making it seem as if they are all slightly out of rhythm with each other. The call is louder at night when the dust has settled and there is less resistance in the atmosphere. Often in the evening, prayers are followed by loud traditional music and singing, and fireworks. I discover that this is the summer wedding season, and below me in the valley, centuries old traditions are underway to unite couples, families and communities, as they have done for centuries of Arab Muslims.
Hararit was established by a community of ‘hippies’. There is a communal hall where the TM brand of meditation is practiced twice daily. There is a community space for gatherings, a mail drop and pick up post, and an administration building where elected community members meet to make decisions on behalf of the residents. The houses in Hararit are a mixture of hippy sheik, hippy inventive and hippy ramshackle. I stay in hippy ramshackle in a home built in the early 1980s that grew over the following decades as the family expanded and finances allowed. Some newer homes are under construction on a new road directly beneath the first settlers houses. These new dwellings reflect the affluence of any modern western city … space, aesthetics, style and enough car parking for at least three vehicles. But the dust and heat waste no time applying their aging process, and even these buildings look tied.
The original homes now seem to reflect a jaded dusty idealism, as if the original ‘hippies’ have run out of energy – perhaps too much weed and reality numbed and silenced the radical dream to colonize this hilltop and assist the building of the Jewish Promised Land. To me Hararit looks tied. The locals walk slowly in the summer heat along dusty pathways where litter has caught in overgrown shrubs and dried dog poop rolls across the footpaths pushed and pulled by the welcomed wind. The new generation of 30-something hippies wear loose flowing trousers and colourful multi-layered singlet tops, the men and women alike. The women tie their hair in colourful turbans and the men push buggies and carry babies on their backs.
There were to be no roads in Hararit when it was first envisioned. This operated for a few years, but living the dream became more troublesome than expected and soon roads and footpaths were built so people could drive to their abodes with ease. The settlement has a communal rubbish deposit area, car parks and pathways that link people to each other without the interference of vehicles.
Today the settlement is surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. The large heavy gate at the only vehicle entrance remains closed and locked at night. Non-residents visiting after 6pm must call for the gate too be opened. I asked the people of the house where I was staying, why this fortification was considered necessary. I was told it gives people a sense of belonging. What I come to learn from my Jewish neighbors is that the fence was built a few years ago after Arabs from the surrounding villages stormed the settlement one night throwing Molotov cocktails and stones at the houses. The Israeli army soon arrived, surrounding the settlement and dispersing the Arabs. So it was agreed at a local Council meeting that an impenetrable fence would be built to keep the Arabs out and increase the safety of the Jewish settlers of Hararit. There is a sad irony in the building of this fence built by Jewish people to regulate who comes in and who goes out.
My Jewish neighbor showed me an old black and white photo of a small group of solemn looking people, well dressed, staring into the camera. Pointing to the photos she explained, ‘Before the War we were a big family of 250 – these seven survived the camps of Nazi Germany’.
Water is the life blood of this dry dusty land. All around me the colour palate is limited to taupe and dusty green. Getting water to Hararit and the rest of Israel is a major undertaking and a source of unrest between Israel and its neighbours. Water is taken from the Sea of Galilee to irrigate the plains beneath Hararit and to supply water to the people of the Northern District. I see the manmade canal each morning, a blue streak across the valley, then a dry grey snake of concrete in the evening once the plants and people have quenched their thirst. Water is a daily consideration, it impacts nearly every decision – people are not permitted to wash their cars, the washing clothes and bodies is cursory, and many collect their grey water to nourish the dusty and brittle trees in their gardens.
In 2017 the Sea of Galilee reached its lowest level in 100 years. Other measures are needed to provide potable water to ensure the success of the Israeli Government’s Aliyah immigration programme, which aims to settle Jewish people from all over the world in Israel to claim what many Jewish people consider to be their Promised Land. However, irrigation systems across the country come at a high cost to the people, via a water charge, and to the environment, which is creaking and groaning under the pressure.
The impacts of an ever-increasing need for water also has effects downstream. At its southern point water from the Sea of Galilee flows into the River Jordan and south into the Dead Sea. For decades the Dead Sea has attracted many visitors who come to bathe in the water that is around eight times saltier than the ocean. Photos of tourists floating in the Dead Sea while reading a book or newspaper is now iconic. But the shore line has been retreating, so much so that lakeside resorts are now meters from the lake edge or have been abandoned due to erosion or sink holes that have been appearing over the last 30 years swallowing buildings and dispersing communities (see BBC article). The Aliyah programme is disrupting the delicate balance in this land between environment and human habitation.
Where there are areas of green in this bland landscape you’ll find drip-fed irrigation that sends the precious water directly to the roots of a plant to reduce evaporation that wold be lost by irrigating the ground around the plant. However, ’green’ is owned by the Israeli Government – there’s not much ‘green’ in Arab villages. But I saw acres of Israeli fruit plantations covered by shade cloth to maximise the water absorption and improve plant growth by protecting the crops from dust and the intense sun’s rays. There are now also salination plants along the Mediterranean coast are now turn sea water into drinkable water. These intensive practices are expensive and not available to or shared with the local Arab farmers and communities.
My Jewish neighbours told me that Israel is the land of milk and honey, the land of miracles. They saw the successful cultivation and development of this land into productive farms and orchards, as proof that Israel is the Jewish people’s Promised Land. They told me of the hard work undertaken by their grandparents, parents and now themselves to develop this land, and that they alone ought to be the ones to benefit from it, not the people who lived here before they came, the Arabs of Palestine.
Collecting sabre fruit