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NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript - Troubled Lands

BILL MOYERS: Today there are some 200,000 Israelis living in the West Bank. Few have any intention of leaving no matter what the Palestinians do or say. The West Bank, they claim, belongs to Israel.

You might be surprised to know that an estimated 20,000 of these settlers are Americans — men, women and families who have taken Israeli citizenship and now make their home in the middle of a bitter and violent feud.

Producer Bob Abeshouse went to the West Bank to find out what it's like to live surrounded by people who want them to leave.

BOB ABESHOUSE (PRODUCER): I started out from this checkpoint on the Greenline, where Israeli territory ends and the West Bank begins, to find out what it's like for expatriate American Jews who have settled in one of the most contested areas in the world.

David Rubin was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He worked as an elementary school teacher before moving to Shilo ten years ago to fulfill his dream of living in the holy land.

His wife Lisa, also an Orthodox Jew, lived in New York and Florida before she came to the West Bank on a religious mission.

DAVID RUBIN (SETTLER): We believe that it's very important in the Zionist tradition to settle the land of Israel. To settle areas that haven't been greatly populated to that point.

ABESHOUSE: The Rubins were drawn here by the nearby ruins of ancient Shilo, the Jews first capitol after the exodus from Egypt 3000 years ago.

LISA RUBIN (SETTLER): You really feel divine presence. At least I feel it when I'm down there.

DAVID RUBIN: That's one reason, and of course a second reason is quality of life where you can buy a house for a relatively inexpensive price.

ABESHOUSE: The comfortable homes in Shilo were a real bargain because of Israeli government subsidies to encourage the settlements. The Rubins also liked the environment for raising children, but that was before Palestinian gunmen stepped up their attacks on Jewish soldiers and settlers alike.

LISA RUBIN: We really, for the first time are at unease about everything that has been going on around here. But we have to hold onto it. So we are holding on.

ABESHOUSE: Shilo is surrounded by Arab villages, and is located between two Palestinian cities, Ramallah and Nablus. It's smack in the middle of territory needed to connect them in a Palestinian state.

MARK (SHILO SECURITY CHIEF): Well, this stretch of road leading southward been approximately 25, 30 terrorist attacks, mostly shootings, cars, school buses

ABESHOUSE: Mark is the chief of security for Shilo. He was raised in Philadelphia and came with his family to Israel when he was 15. He and his wife have four children.

MARK: Constantly on high alert in this area due to these, these villages around us. They're filled with uh, Palestinian terrorists. Palestinian policemen. We've known that there's no difference anymore.

ABESHOUSE: About 17 percent of the West Bank is called Area A, where — up until last week — Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority was in full control. In Area B — slightly larger — Palestinians have civil authority but the Israelis control security. These two areas contain almost all of the territory's 2 million Palestinians. Area C is fully controlled by the Israelis. Sixty percent of the West Bank land, it contains about 200,000 people in 200 settlements.

MARK: If we look at the top over here, the top of the mountain, that's area A, controlled by the Palestinian authority. Further down the village itself is Area B. You look at the road going to Jerusalem. This is the village of Tarrobasia. Shilo's on the other side with another one of our villages further west.

ABESHOUSE: Palestinians regard all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as a violation of UN resolutions and the Geneva Convention against settlement in occupied territory. In size, the West Bank settlements range from a few large ones with a thousand families or more, to just a few trailers like this one over the hill from Shilo. It's one of more than 30 new settlements that have sprung up on the West Bank in the last year to stake out land.

MARK: Any time you have a smaller community the risks are greater.

ABESHOUSE: Mark has his hands full responding to incidents and infiltrations in the area. One of his biggest challenges is protecting the children who are bused into Shilo each day for school.

MARK: All the children around the region are bused to school in armored buses. One of the favorite targets of the terrorists in the area have been school buses.

ABESHOUSE: A father myself, I had a hard time understanding how anyone could expose children to such danger.

MARK: A man has to make a decision sometimes. Where is his line? My line is here. I've built my house here. I've raised my family here. I will not leave.

ABESHOUSE: Supporting a family is not easy in the settlements. In fact, many settlers must commute across the Green Line back into Israel to work, buy goods, and secure services. Last December, David Rubin was returning from a trip to a dentist in Jerusalem when he barely dodged the bullets.

DAVID RUBIN: We were halfway home on a very dark road. And all of a sudden there was a massive shooting attack on the car.

ABESHOUSE: Rubin, who teaches high school English, was driving with his three-year-old son Ruby on this road just outside Ramallah when they were ambushed by gunmen hiding on the ridge.

DAVID RUBIN: There was a hail of bullets with tracers on them, so I saw four bullets in front of my eyes. I had a three year old sitting behind me and I looked at him and he didn't respond. I was in a state of panic

ABESHOUSE: Ruby had been hit by a bullet in the back of the head. It chipped some of his skull and left a nasty scar,but luckily there was little other damage.

LISA RUBIN: The bullet must have gone right through the hood and it went right over here and went up and out. and the doctor said it was um – a real miracle. It missed his brain stem by a millimeter. So I'm just so thankful for such a miracle. And I thank God every day that they are ok.

ABESHOUSE: How can you subject yourself to that kind of situation where your husband and your children are exposed to this kind of risk and danger?

LISA RUBIN: This land belongs to us. And there is proof all through the Bible. And I feel that if, um whether you know, if people start leaving, whether it's Shilo or Israel in general, we're just giving it away.

DAVID RUBIN: It makes my commitment that much stronger to be in Israel. And I say that without hesitation.

LISA RUBIN: I believe God is watching over us — not only us, but other families as well. All of Israel. This is where we have to be.

ERA RAPAPORT (SETTLER): This is where Judaism in Israel started. You can't go back earlier than this.

ABESHOUSE: Era Rapaport came 24 years ago to found Shilo with eight other families. There was little but barren land next to Arab villages.

RAPAPORT: This wall is the wall of the ancient city of Shilo. At least 3,300 years old. At least. That's the time when Joshua came into Israel and made this the first capital.

ABESHOUSE: Era was born in Brooklyn and moved to Israel where he was a medic during the 1967 Six Day War. He and others viewed Israel's success in the war as a sign of divine intervention, and devoted themselves to settling the captured lands so they would remain part of a greater land of Israel.

RAPAPORT: For 369 years, four times a year, millions of Jews came here. Just here. The only place — in fact this path is one of the oldest roads in the world.

ABESHOUSE: The settlement by Era and the others in Shilo was done under the pretext of being part of an archaeological excavation, but when the dig was over, Era and the other settlers refused to go. They were backed by Ariel Sharon, then Minister of Agriculture, now Prime Minister, whose government is committed to the settlements survival. But the settlements are seen as a major problem by Israeli opposition parties. One of the opposition leaders, Yossi Beilin, sees settlements as a festering wound, especially settlements like Shilo.

YOSSI BEILIN (FORMER ISRAELI JUSTIC MINISTER): It is one of the settlements which are stuck in a very densely populated Palestinian area, and there is no justification in the world to keep something like that out there.

ABESHOUSE: Beilin was an architect of the Oslo accords, the 1993 agreement signed by Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. Prior to Oslo all Israeli administrations since 1967 had invested heavily in settlements and bypass roads.

BEILIN: One of the main issues is that so much money was invested in the settlements. It is something around $50 billion dollars since '67.

ABESHOUSE: The strategy, Beilin said, was to make it easier to annex the land for Israel's defense.

BEILIN: The orginal idea was that the settlements would become a kind of buffer zone, that they will defend Israel. This is a joke, a sad joke because they became the biggest impediment for security and the investment in defending them is such a huge one.

RAPAPORT: I'm not here for security. That is a byproduct. I'm here because I am wearing this skullcap on my head which basically means that I am connected to the Bible, to the good lord who gave me the right to be here and more than the right. He gave me the charge, the commandment to do so.

ABESHOUSE: That kind of talk has Palestinian leaders worried. Ziad Abu-Zayyad, the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs for Arafat's Palestinian Authority, says there is an obvious solution.

ZIAD ABU-ZAYYAD: We have to remove these settlements in order to allow a territorial linkage between the different Arab cities and towns. And to enable the Palestinians to have one entity with their kind of claim on that entity, that it is their country, it is their state.

ABESHOUSE: Driving on the West Bank, you continually pass military vehicles and checkpoints. Tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers are stationed in the West Bank and Gaza, and thousands of reserve troops are rotated in and out on a regular basis. In Israel all men under 45 are expected to do reserve duty for a month each year. One of their main responsibilities is to protect the settlers.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, ISHAI: Our job was to secure roads that only settlers drive through; our job was to protect the settlements.

ABESHOUSE: These reserve combat officers and soldiers are part of a group that has taken a stand against serving to defend the settlers. The group insists that occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is itself a threat to Israel's long term security and the moral standing of the nation's military.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, YANIV: When you are inside occupation you cannot be moral. There's no such thing as being a good occupier, a moral occupier.

ABESHOUSE: In this video shot earlier this year, but never seen in the United States, the reservists denounce as immoral the orders they received while serving in the West Bank and Gaza.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, ISHAI: During the first two weeks, the open fire orders we received were – whoever picks up a stone, shoot him, period.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, DAVID: No one can ask you to do such things – to shoot people, to hold ambulances from going, to destroy houses without even knowing who lives there.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, YANIV: You prevent people from passing, you surround them in their own villages, you prevent them from going to work, you make them stand for hours and hours in traffic. Only the disturbance you cause to the normal life of innocent people is in and of itself cruel occupation.

ABESHOUSE: This reserve artillery officer said there are different standards applied to Arabs and settlers in the West Bank.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, ISHAI: There are two kinds of people. There are white people who speak Hebrew and there are dark people who speak Arabic. One kind you are not allowed to touch because they are citizens of Israel, and its sacred, and the other kind you can just do whatever you want to them and its OK, because they are Arabs.

ABESHOUSE: The group issued a declaration against fighting in a war to preserve the settlements.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, DAVID (Reading from statement): We who know that the territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israeli defense forces in any mission that serves Israel's defense. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose, and we shall take no part in them.

ABESHOUSE: 30,000 reservists were called up for the current Israeli offensive. Most reported, but the number of so-called "refuseniks" signing the declaration continues to grow. There are 390 today. 12 have already been sent to prison.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, YANIV: This is where you need all of your courage; this is the hardest battle.

ABESHOUSE: The refuseniks say they are patriotic Zionists, but they are worried about Israel's future. It's estimated that by the year 2010, there will be more Palestinians than Jews in the combined area of Israel and the West Bank. Unless the Israelis give the West Bank back, they will have to rule as a minority dominating a majority.

ISRAELI RESERVE SOLDIER, NOAM: In my opinion, in ten twenty years , people will look back, and they will grab their heads, and say 'what have we done, what have we wrought, what happened here in Israel?

ABESHOUSE: The refuseniks and the settlers are polar opposites, with two competing views of Zionism. The refuseniks, like many Israelis, regard the lands captured in the 1967 war as bargaining chips for peace. Most settlers regard the West Bank as a god-given inheritance that cannot be traded away. The settlers' political leader Benjamin Elon is scornful of the refuseniks.

BENJAMIN ELON (FORMER TOURISM MINISTER): It's a shame that we have uh, in Israel uh a few that are without roots. And they don't know our tradition and they don't know the Bible. And they don't know what is the meaning land of Israel.

ABESHOUSE: Elon, a member of Parliament, resigned as a minister in the Sharon government because he wanted an even tougher policy towards Arafat.

ELON: We have to fight back. We are here forever and no one will uproot us from this land.

ABESHOUSE: Elon lives in a barbed-wire enclosed settlement next to an Israeli army camp in Ramallah. When I went there, it had the feel of a place under seige.

ABESHOUSE: Can you envision any situation where some settlements will be removed to achieve peace?

ELON: Some Arab settlements maybe. If they want to do it in order to achieve peace. And they want to move themselves with some kind of agreement with me to the east bank of the Jordan, we can negotiate it. But the children of Israel that return to the land of Israel will be removed by Jewish government ....can you imagine some nonsense…some tragic scenario like this? Never. Never.

ABESHOUSE: But many Israelis view Elon as an extremist. I watched this demonstration in which twenty thousand participated, protesting against occupation and the settlements.

ISRAELI YOUNG MAN: It creates all the ill will between Palestinians and Jews because we are actually taking over more and more of their land.

ISRAELI MAN: Unfortunately Sharon is the Prime Minister not of the Israeli state but of a settlement state.

ISRAELI WOMAN: I'm also in love with the Bible and in love with the text, but I think that they are causing problems for our security.

ISRAELI CITIZEN: It's the main problem in Israel. The settlements will keep the war between us and the Palestinians forever.

ABESHOUSE: I saw how the cycle of blood and vengeance works up close. At a settlement I visited, a 19-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a pizza parlor, wounding 25 , seven critically, and killing three teenagers.

Thousands of settlers and Israelis from the other side of the Greenline came to the funeral.

It felt tragic and senseless, teenagers killing teenagers — yet another generation lost in an endless struggle over land.

ZIAD ABU-ZAYYAD: If they settle in the West Bank and Gaza there will be no room for a Palestinian state. And in this case we will have no homeland.

ABESHOUSE: Abu-Zayyad believes that negotiations are the key to stopping the violence.

ZIAD ABU-ZAYYAD: I believe that the shooting and the suicide bombers are something which has to stop. And it cannot stop without the resumption of negotiations and without giving hope again to the Palestinian people.

ABESHOUSE: But the settlers don't want negotiations. Many want the Arabs gone altogether, removed by force if necessary. They call it transfer.

RAPAPORT: If they continue battling me and the government of Israel, and rightly, doesn't want to go ahead and kill Arabs, then the other choice is to leave. They have to leave. They have to leave if its ten, if it's a million, if it's two million.

DAVID RUBIN: Ultimately it is impossible for two hostile peoples to live in the same land. There is already a Palestinian state to the east of the Jordan river, uh it's known as Jordan. There are 22 Arab states surrounding Israel and the solution can be found in the resettlement of the Arabs in their countries.

LISA RUBIN: Arabs can choose from many other places to live. And I think they just want it cause they hate the Jews. And I don't think they will ever make peace with us. And we just have to do what we need to do.