Israel knows the importance of the high ground.
This is obvious to me as I stand atop Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. The plateau is covered in ruins of an ancient Roman palace. Looking out from the plateau, the Dead Sea forms an extraordinary backdrop for a lifeless, monochromatic foreground dotted with ruins of four Roman siege camps.
According to the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, in 66 CE Jewish rebels overtook the Roman palace at Masada to provide a base camp for Jewish resistance to religious persecution. Factions of rebels had coordinated efforts from Masada for years, while the Romans invaded Jerusalem and sieged the Second Temple, a holy place for Jews. In 73 CE, the Romans marched on Masada. They sent an army of an estimated 10 thousand soldiers to fight against the 960 men, women and children who inhabited the fortress.
When the Romans arrived, according to Josephus, the entire community had committed mass suicide. Legends say that the Jewish commanders ordered everything to be burned except the food, as a sign to the Romans that the death of the people was voluntary: They preferred death to slavery.
Thousands of years later, the story of Masada is a key cultural symbol for Israel, because still today, the Jewish people fight for the same land.
They create settlements atop Masada-like hills throughout the West Bank because, tactically, it makes sense. Israel knows the importance of the high ground.
Even as someone with no familial, religious or historical connection to the state of Israel, after visiting the settlements for the first time, I felt I could understand Israeli nationalism. The settlements are clean, developed and well-designed. Israel has had half a century to build a nation from nothing, and it has done an admirable job of it, even while constantly fighting due to unceasing attacks from all sides. From sands that had been declared unusable, technology like drip irrigation and water recycling brought sustenance. From sands that had only ever known tyranny and imperialism, democracy emerged.
One evening, I stand on a settlement street looking out at the desert below, land made somehow more beautiful by the fact that so many consider it holy. It feels like looking out at the Dead Sea from the top of Masada—only, this time, with success, not defeat.
At the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, a giant sculpture of a key lies atop the entrance arch to a camp that is home to 4,700 Palestinians, most of whom are descendants of the people forced from their homes in the 1948 expulsion.
Keys are a symbol in the camp. Many of the Palestinians left their homes with the promise that they would return in a few days. With each day, their keys got heavier, loaded as they were with both tragic war stories and hopes of return. The keys are treasured family heirlooms. The present is often grim in the camp. There is an omnipresent budget crisis, with services like schools perpetually poorly funded. Overcrowding is rampant. Extended family living 20 minutes away can be almost impossible to see due to Israeli security measures. In the midst of despair, people look to the eulogies and promises contained within the keys.
Nearby, on a hill that looks perfect for a settlement, Palestinian Daoud Nassar runs his family farm. He is a rare case in that he holds all of the paperwork from Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli governance, and he had the resources to take on a years-long legal battle costing him upwards of $100,000. Because of his unique situation, Nassar has been allowed to keep his land despite its identification as prime settlement territory.
When Nassar speaks, he has a surprising calmness, gentleness and surety. His motto is: “We refuse to be enemies.” When building codes forbade construction on his land, he lived in the caves on his property, painting the walls to transform them into works of art. When the government tried to build a road through his property, he, with the help of the community, set up a road block. These days, the Nassar family plants olive trees and hosts programs for local schoolchildren and foreign volunteers who come from all corners of the world to encourage peace.
Once, an Israeli settler came to hear Nassar speak. He spoke about many Palestinians’ very limited access to clean freshwater. “We have swimming pools,” the settler said to him, her face white.
Walking through the streets of Bethlehem at night, I walk along a wall that divides the West Bank from Israel. It is covered in poetry about oppression. In the distance, I see hilltops in the West Bank covered in settlements, their lights twice as luminous as those of the city surrounding me.
I am on the Israeli settlement hill and in the Palestinian valley down below. I’ve split in two.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Friday.