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Palestinian labourers building new apartments in Beit-El. Photo by Rhonda Spivak


View of Ramallah from Beit-El, with the buffers between the two. The first building with the red roof on the right hand side of the photo next to a parking lot with cars is the PA Ministry of Health. Photo by Rhonda Spivak


Palestinian workers building inj Beit el. They looked away so as not to have their faces photographed since they don't want it broadcast that they are working to build a Jewish settlement. Photo by Rhonda Spivak


Barbed wire fence separating Beit El from the outlying areas of Ramallah. An UNWRA school is on the other side of the barbed wire. The school has the long grey fence around it. Photo by Rhonda Spivak

 
BEIT EL AND RAMALLAH: TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT

Rhonda Spivak, November 1, 2010

Never before had I been to the  Jewish settlement of  Beit El,   only a 20 minute drive  across a rocky plateau , north of Jerusalem,  towards the  capital city of the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah.  While the drive isn't long, it takes one well past Israel's security fence, deep into the heart of the West Bank.

Founded in the late 1970's by religious Jews, Beit -El is the site of the biblical Bethel, where  according to  Jewish tradition the patriarch Jacob  fell asleep and dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. In more recent years I had come to know of  Beit-El  as the broadcasting centre for  the right-wing Arutz Sheva, Israel National Radio.

I don't know what I expected exactly, but I was rather taken aback  to realize that Beit El isn't only near Ramallah—it  has practically merged with Ramallah.  In fact, there is virtually no open space left between this Jewish settlement and the burgeoning Palestinian capital.

Of course, when Beit El was founded  by a handful of  Jewish settler families in the 70's, there wasn't a Palestinian town or village in sight. It may never have dawned on anyone at the time that one day, as each of Ramallah and Beit El grew, the two would converge on each other.

Ramallah is in "Area A,"  as designated  by the Oslo Agreement, meaning that it is land under full Palestinian control.   While Ramallah's inhabitants numbered 12,000 just after 1967, today it  has a population of about 70,000.  Beit-El, which is in "Area C," where Israel retains full control, now has almost 6000 people.   Notwithstanding that the name Ramallah means "the Height of God"   it is Beit El  is built on a hilltop, not Ramallah, which is built in the valley below. With each passing year,  Beit -El  has  grown down the hill, while Ramallah,  has  grown steadily towards it.

Standing from my vantage point in Beit El, I had a panoramic view of Ramallah , which has now surpassed East Jerusalem as being the economic centre of the Palestinian West Bank.   Ramallah has undergone a face-lift in recent years, and in my eyes parts of it look like the wealthier parts of Amman. From Beit El, I  looked down to  identify the building that now serves as the PA's Ministry of Education, and also got a close-up view of an UNRA school for Palestinian refugees

Since Oslo, Palestinians from Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin and Nablus  have flocked to Ramallah to find work and economic opportunity.   Prices of real estate in Ramallah have boomed. Palestinians from Tunis, the Gulf States, America, and  Beirut having invested in Ramallah,  and  PA leaders such as  Mohammed Dahlan, and  Nabil Shath, live in  the city's luxury neighborhoods

As Mary, an American Christian living in Ramallah, who did not want to give her last name, told me, " Ramallah is a place where some Palestinians have made  lots of money, and yet other Palestinians aren't any better off than they were."

After visiting Beit-El, I now realize why Israel couldn't possibly try to include the settlement within Israel's security fence.  Geography doesn't allow it.  If there ever is to be an independent Palestinian State, there is no way for Israel to keep Beit- El. Presumably, in any peace agreement, Beit-El would have to be evacuated, and its buildings would be given to Palestinian refugees as compensation in lieu of them returning to homes in pre-67 Israel.  Beit-El would effectively become a neighborhood of Ramallah.

While visiting Beit- El , I couldn't help but notice  a  row of new  apartments   in the process of  being built.  This, of course, was occurring despite all of President Obama's  calls for Israel to  freeze settlement construction. 

 As Ari, a young modern orthodox man living in the settlement, told me "The apartments that are being built were approved of before Netanyahu came to power, and are part of  Beit-El's natural growth.  They have all been already sold and the new owners are waiting to move in.  There are other young couples looking to buy. There is more demand but not enough apartments. Some young couples are living in caravans  nearby, because  of the shortage of apartments."
 
I noticed that the apartments were being built by Palestinian labourers, and asked Ari where these labourers were from.  He answered, "From  Ramallah, of course…With all of the wealth in Ramallah that the PA has managed to amass for its cronies, there are still unemployed Palestinian labourers who come here to find work."

As I left, I thought to myself, how ironic it is that Palestinians are  the ones building  new homes in Beit-El. If only the PA would find employment for all of the Palestinians of Ramallah, then presumably these labourers would stop building Beit-El.  And then, a real settlement freeze would likely occur there.   

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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