This is a series of travel vignettes of Wajahat Ali, a Pakistani-American Muslim journalist, lawyer, and writer who writes about politics, the Muslim-American cultural experience, creating tolerance through cultural understanding, and building a multicultural coalition of the willing.  Ali travelled throughout Israel and the West Bank and visited various settlements in the summer of 2017, spoke with the people, and recorded his impressions.

Part 1  covered the Settler’s perspective. Part 2 covers the Palestinian perspective.

Interview at The Neumann Steel Factory

For our final tour stop, Avi wanted to take us to the Industrial Park, a few miles down on Route 5. Avi said Yigal’s narrative was the “classic safe haven understanding of what the Zionist movement was supposed to bring.” He assured me that “it’s only one piece of the puzzle.” The other piece, which Avi is interested in developing, requires integrating Israeli and Palestinian populations “not just for security reasons.” Avi said the concept of integration is difficult in Israel because “Jews and Arabs choose to live separately” for the most part. “It’s voluntary segregation. It’s what people choose,” he emphasized. Many Palestinians, who live unequally, would disagree.

“It’s voluntary segregation. It’s what people choose.”

With regards to Palestinians, Avi insists “we have nothing against our neighbors. We are trying to create opportunities.” One of those opportunities is employing nearly 400 Palestinian workers in a massive, 60,000 square meter factory in the Industrial Park that is one of the country’s main suppliers of steel and meshes.

Avi said this industrial park is “not an island — which is an understatement, but rather an ‘ecosystem of peace’ which impacts the lives of every Israeli and Palestinian who interact with each other every day.”

We parked our car and entered the ecosystem’s administrative building where we met an energetic, 53-year-old Israeli with a goatee and earring. This was [another] Avi, a manager, who agreed to give us a quick tour of the Neumann Steel factory. He acknowledged the situation isn’t perfect, but sounded sincere when he said he’s trying his best to create a tolerant, fair environment for his workers. He considers them equals, joking that he spends more time with Palestinians than he does with his own wife — even sleeping most weekdays here in the factory. He fondly recalled hitchhiking around Israel before the wall and eating baklava with Palestinian strangers. He considers himself liberal, but thinks Israel is being captured by extremists, the intolerant right who don’t want to live or work with Palestinians, and “the extreme left” that is represented by BDS and Breaking the Silence, veterans of the Israeli military who expose the brutal realities of the occupation. He thinks the BDS movement “will lead to nowhere” because Ariel, as a city, as a university, as a factory, now exists as a “fact.” I remind him that its proponents say it’s non-violent strategy and perhaps a boycott might force Israel to stop settlement expansion. He remained skeptical and said “I don’t think it’ll get results, and it’ll make the situation tougher.”

As he continued our tour, he pointed out a Palestinian man in an orange flack jacket who was a manager at the age of 40. Avi said the man was able to build a home with his salary, which he said is three times what he could make on the Palestinian side. But, don’t take his word for it, he said. He offered to introduce me to two Palestinian workers I could interview in private.

AR and HB, both of their names were changed at their request, sat in the meeting room with me while Avi Zimmerman stepped out. Both men, Palestinian Muslims from Nablus, declined the ice pops. AR is 32 years old, jovial, with a full head of black hair with a bit of grey. He’s the type of guy who’d probably smile during the apocalypse. HB is 29 years old, intense, with light stubble on his face and short cropped hair, a man who looks like he’s expecting the apocalypse even during a casual garden stroll. Both men are educated engineers who could not find quality work in Nablus.

They both agree the work here is “very good” and the people, for the most part, are “very nice.” “It’s a very friendly environment. We eat together. But sometimes you feel a bit discriminated [against],” added HB, the more talkative of the two. One of their main complaints is they are not seen or treated as equals to their Israeli co-workers. For example, when it comes to wages, yes it’s better, but the factory “doesn’t compare between me and an Israeli Jew. I want to be compared between Muhammad with David. Not Muhammad with Ahmed,” said HB. AR said he leaves the house at 5 am and he’s gone 16 hours a day. He travels here to Ariel daily and also pays taxes, which eats into the wages. HB added there are “no services, no insurance, just wages.”

“The people came here to work because they don’t have opportunities. How can they come to work and sabotage?” 

Whenever there is a crisis at Al Aqsa, HB said “you can sense electricity in the air.” What happens at Al Aqsa even affects the dynamics of workers in a factory in Ariel. HB related a recent story where an Israeli manager alleged Palestinian workers were deliberately sabotaging a sensitive project based on the protests at Al Aqsa. “The people came here to work because they don’t have opportunities. How can they come to work and sabotage?” asked HB. Angrily, HB told the manager he had worked here for 4.5 years, and now, all of a sudden, he’s being accused of sabotage? When discussing Jerusalem, HB had to hold back tears. “I’m crying in my prayer that the situation will be over. I am praying in my late night prayers that the situation will be over.”

Perhaps the one thing Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is the utter corruption and uselessness of the Palestinian Authority. Both AR and HB say the Israeli occupation and PA are to be blamed for their current situation. “All this money they take from all the countries. Where is this money? It goes to them,” said HB, who said they personify “corruption to the bone.” AR added if elections were held today in their town not a single Palestinian would vote for the PA. Both of them also blamed the Israeli occupation citing Israel’s refusal to allow the construction of a water treatment factory in the West Bank because of fear the chemicals will be used to make a bomb. HB says he feels like “a prisoner,” and the Jews are “the guards.” He says they are “prisoners from both sides — from the PA and the occupation.”

I asked, “How do you both respond to Palestinians who say you are normalizing relations with the occupier?”

Ultimately, both men feel they are stuck with the best of a bad situation.

“I want to leave this factory right now if I [could] find an opportunity,” HB admits. “If I go to Palestinian Authority, I cannot support my family. So, I’m stuck. I’m stuck. What can I do?” he asked.

“If you go to Israeli [factory], I can’t tell you we will be rich, but we will be satisfied, in living. Not satisfied with political situation . . . but you will lose your dignity [in] that you are supporting the occupier. But they are the guards, and we are the prisoners,” he reiterated.

Ultimately, they’d both love to go to America. HB says America’s freedom of speech to him is more meaningful than economic opportunities. Over here, he longs to speak freely but censors himself.

“Rawabi is useless,” said AR bluntly when I mention Yigal’s solutions.  Only “the bourgeois people live there,” he continued. “It’s for the rich people — it won’t help Palestinians.” He said he wouldn’t mind paying extra money for some of the concerts. But to live there? “Rawabi is the biggest lie. Not a city for the people, a city for the businessmen.”

“Rawabi is the biggest lie. Not a city for the people, a city for the businessmen.”

Avi re-entered the room and informed us that Haim was on the way.

I asked my final question: “Do you have hope that the situation will improve?”

“I want to see [the] horizon. Right now, I don’t see [the] horizon,” said HB with sadness in his eyes. “Not too much,” echoed AR, smiling.

I thanked the men for their time, and they started casually kvetching with Avi for a few minutes who listened and responded with his own solutions.

As we exited the factory and waited for Haim, Avi reiterated that “whatever happens, come what may, Ariel will be a strategic player in what unfolds and particularly what sets the tone for the region.”

Ariel’s Future

Avi and his community are building, expanding, and investing in this “ecosystem of peace.” Avi says it’ll ensure a better future with their Palestinian neighbors, but it also ensures that Ariel will become indispensable to the region, so entrenched that it will be impossible for the city to be erased and forgotten.

For now, after its 40th anniversary, Ariel is a shining city on a hilltop, whose bright lights serve as either a warning or a beacon for the future of settlements. They shine across the horizon, reaching all way to the shores of America, where some billionaires and communities conveniently help foot some of the bills to keep them running.