Heartbreak in Israel
We are in England now for the first leg of our trip in Europe. We are searching for a van. We will send updates soon about our experiences in Egypt and Greece. This update from Israel was difficult to write, you will understand when you go further..
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I was so excited to come to Israel and share this holy land with my family. It was something we had all been looking forward to, to see the holy sites and reflect on what it means to me to be a Jew, and celebrate our Jewish homeland, and share this with my family. However, my excitement in coming to Israel has turned to outrage and despair. What I have seen here and what I have heard from people living here and what I have studied have shattered my old beliefs. I am disgusted and sick to my stomach at what I discovered is happening; and am appalled at the behavior and policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinian people.
In the United States the media has thrown a blanket of propaganda and a barrage of lies about what is happening here in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. There is no justice for the Palestinians. My heart is broken at learning about what is going on.
What would be a holy pilgrimage turned into an investigation of what is happening and realizing that the deliberate destruction of a people is occurring. Based on what we have been taught in the United States, what I am about to speak about may seem outrageous and infuriate some of my friends and my family, but we have witnessed first hand, we have spoken with those who have witnessed or been victims of it, and we have reviewed documentaries that have helped us piece together this insidious puzzle. I will speak out about what I have seen. Our sacred journey took a totally different turn when we arrived in Israel. We are forever changed.
Our Experience at the Ramallah Checkpoint
I took my family to the West Bank town of Ramallah today. This was a very prosperous town years ago, it is a beautiful area, with a delightful climate as it is situated at 3,000 feet elevation. It is populated by the Palestinian people and has been for a long time, but it is in the occupied West Bank of Israel.
We took a minibus headed to Ramallah with our friend Suhaib. He lives in East Jerusalem, in the Palestinian area of Jerusalem. We bought some baby clothes for Elijah at his store. We spoke about how things are here, and we made plans to see Ramallah the next day. It turns out that he has finished his master’s degree in International Studies and will be studying for his PhD soon. He is one of many of the wonderful Palestinian people we have met.
The ride to Ramallah was very uneventful, a nice 20 minute ride, except for one thing. We saw the wall that Israel is building. I felt queasy when I saw it. This is the big wall that made me think about the Berlin Wall that was built in Germany. We were told that the Israeli government has spent about $4.5 billion on it so far for its construction. I also heard that the United States has contributed 25% of the cost of building it. When completed it will circle not just Jerusalem, it is intended to encircle all of the West Bank. The “wall” which some people refer to as a “security fence” is a huge concrete wall that spans over 670 kilometers between Israel and the West Bank. The border is only 300+ kilometers, but the wall spans much further because it snakes along and curls back on itself as it trespasses beyond the green line, the internationally recognized border. It is 25 feet tall in urban areas and has sophisticated electronic sensing devices so that if someone tries to climb it, security guards will be immediately dispatched to remedy the situation and deal with the “intruder.” In rural areas, the wall has ditches, security roads, perimeter roads and double barbed-wired fences that take up 80 meters in width. Overall, just the wall alone has taken over 10% of the Palestinian land. It is called a security fence, but the main purpose of the wall is to isolate, segregate and imprison the Palestinian people. We have also read that the long-range insidious plan for the wall is to “chop up” Palestine into small non-contiguous pieces so there can never be a future Palestinian state.
Anyway, back to the story, it was easy to tell when we got into Ramallah because all of a sudden the nice smooth ride became very bumpy from the rutted road that is not maintained. I mention this because Israel has full control over Palestine to restrict their lives, but takes no responsibility to take care of the infrastructure. I was beginning to wonder what the ride back was going to be like.
In Ramallah we spend a couple of nice hours in the town walking around and seeing the shops and the people and I’m wondering what it is like for them to live here. I know that Yassar Arafat lived here when he was in charge of the PLO government, and that the Palestinian Authority (PA) government still works out of this city.
On the ride back to Jerusalem we come to the first checkpoint. Everyone on the minivan got off as my family and I sat and looked at each other. I thought we would wait in a line as cars were checked and then we would go through. But the checkpoint was closed, no one would be able to get through, and it could be hours before it would open.
Control and Harassment through Checkpoints
In my reading and speaking with people I was beginning to learn that delaying the Palestinians in their travel, and harassing them is very frequent, arbitrary and capricious. It is part of a whole policy by the Israeli government to oppress, humiliate, and steal the freedom from their lives. What I had been reading about was about to be shown to us in living color.
After we got off the minibus and moved through the streets, watching vehicles turning around and honking, and all kinds of chaos I saw a mass of cars stopped at the checkpoint where 2 soldiers were stationed in a tower. To the other side was a walkway where we went. Through that walkway were about 150 Palestinian people standing against the gates trying to get through and another 50 people sitting down waiting. They are used to this waiting because it occurs to them all the time.
As we stood behind the checkpoint gates, I saw the way the Israeli soldiers were treating the people. They were harsh, condescending, and way beyond disrespectful. They were yelling at the people and telling them to move back. I thought to myself, “They are treating these people like animals. How can they act this way?” I felt sick to my stomach and ashamed. I looked at the people and wondered how they endure this type of treatment daily, coming to these checkpoints and waiting for hours sometimes just to pass through to where they needed to go, all the while being treated like second class citizens with no rights. You see, they have no rights here. Basically, each of their towns in the West Bank is a ghetto. They are not allowed to travel from one town to another if they live in the West Bank. Their town is like a prison.
I went to the gate and showed the soldier my American passport and he said, “Come around, I have some information for you.” We were going to be allowed to pass through because we were American, but I felt ashamed knowing the Palestinians would be waiting here for hours. I had considered waiting there with them, and so had everyone in our family, including Matt and Kate. At that point other people with foreign passports demanded to go through also, and there was a lot of shouting and pushing. One man was very insistent in trying to get through the gate but the soldier yelled at him in Hebrew in a very intimidating way to move and get back, which he finally did. When we did pass through I looked back at the mass of people who would be waiting for hours. I felt so sad. The soldier who had seen our passports and initiated us getting through (and had been so brutal to the Palestinians waiting) asked me in a friendly tone, “What are you doing here?” I told him “Tourism”. I didn’t tell him that I wanted my family to know what was going on here first hand because I needed to write about this and tell people what is going on. He then asked me, “Why would you come to a place like this?” He was speaking to me as a buddy, and if I had met him somewhere else I would have thought him a nice person. But in this situation I thought he had lost his moral compass, like the Israeli government. He thinks the people who live here are lower class people, not deserving to be treated with dignity. I wanted to ask him, “Why are you treating these people this way?” But I kept silent as we were let through.
The wrong color ID
We rode back on a second bus, one that was trying to go to Ramallah but was turned back due to the closure. On the bus we were stopped at 5 additional checkpoints on the way back by 5 different kinds of soldiers, special officers, border police, and police. The special officer laden with high-power weapons came onto the van and asked to see the identity cards of 2 of the people in the back that looked like they might be Palestinian. When he saw their cards he began yelling at them, saying something like, “What are you doing on this bus, you don’t belong here.” After berating the men, he threw their identity cards at them contemptuously and stormed off the bus. I asked the young man in front of me what had happened as we had just previously developed a rapport and he informed me that the 2 young men had the wrong type of identity card. What that means is that their cards identified them as Palestinians from the West Bank (as opposed to Palestinians who live in Jerusalem). Palestinians from the West Bank are not allowed to come into Israel and can receive punishment by the police, or harassment for doing so. The special officer had not detained them because he was looking for something else, a particular person and couldn’t be bothered following through with these two men who had left their towns that they were not supposed to leave. As we continued down the road, we had to stop at another checkpoint. This checkpoint was guarded by the police and they looked at these two men and wanted to see their ID cards. They took them off the bus, without their bags. People on the bus were shouting, “They left their bags, here, take your bags.” But they were taken away without their bags. Our new friend, Issam informed us that they would be taken to the police station and the bus driver would bring their bags there. When the police finished with them, they would get their bags back.
What was happening here has to do with the different rights of different citizens. Israelis have blue ID cards and they are free to go wherever they want. Palestinians born in Jerusalem are Israeli Palestinians but don’t have the rights of Israelis. Palestinians born in the West Bank have no basic rights, they do not have freedom to travel to Israel at all, and they have severe restrictions in being able to travel to other Palestinian towns. If they are traveling at all, they have to deal with the checkpoints that will delay them for hours at a time, based on the whims of the soldiers. These soldiers are as young as 18 and unaware of the torture they are inflicting. They seem to be unaware of the basic human imperative to treat others with respect and dignity. They have been brainwashed to believe that it is okay to abuse and humiliate the Palestinians, and they have learned tactics that allow them to practice cruelty and torture.
In this theater of life I may have missed my chance, I thought later. I wanted to ask the soldier how they could treat these people in this way. But I didn’t. And then I thought that we could have stayed behind with the Palestinians and talk with them about what they go through. But I walked numbly through the gates, stunned and wanting to cry. I could imagine how angry people can get having to endure this kind of treatment.
We later found out that the checkpoint had been closed for nearly 5 hours; they reopened the gates at 9:30 p.m. All these people had 5 hours of this day stolen from them. The soldiers never explain what is going on; they are on the other side of the fence carrying their guns until the order is given to lift the gates.
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem
The next day we went to Bethlehem. Our friend Lorenzo, who was staying at the same residence we were is from Italy and working with the Palestinians, teaching them in the realm of organic agriculture. He took us to see his friends who live there.
To get into Bethlehem, we had to pass another checkpoint in the shadows of the huge wall. Seeing the wall gives me such a violent visceral response, and the checkpoint is a labyrinthine passageway that people go through like cattle.
We quickly became friends with Nadia and Elias and their family. We met two of their children this first visit, Firas and Ramiz. We were very impressed by them, they are very special and caring people. They have been living through tremendous hardship and devastation, yet they remain very dignified people. They were wonderful hosts to us, taking us around the city and serving us a sumptuous meal. They told us about the effects of the Israeli policies, of the wall and how things have changed in their village. The street that they live on was the main road from Hebron to Bethlehem and then to Jerusalem for hundreds if not more than a thousand years. Recently there were many thriving businesses along this road, and traveling to Jerusalem was a very quick drive, 10 minutes. The wall was put in place to block this main artery. Most of the businesses have shut down since the closure. Hundreds of people who lived near the wall have left their homes because of the harassment from the Israeli soldiers.
At Nadia’s house, they are in a vulnerable position because they are right next to the Israeli lookout tower and “The Wall”. They have boarded up their windows so they can maintain some privacy. They also told us that they never feel safe to lock their door. A few times when they have, the Israeli soldiers have blasted it open to check that they are not doing anything suspicious. They have found nothing each time, but they don’t feel safe to lock their door. How ironic is that? We also saw bullet holes in their upper floors (these areas are open because they had been building a large building for a store, but the economic environment went dead when the main road was closed, they could not finish their building, but live in a small part of it). The bullet holes are from Israeli soldier fire.
Later in the day we walked to where Nadia’s friend Antoinette lives. Her house is right next to the wall. When the Israelis were building the wall, they took all her land, so now her beautiful house sits on the outside of the wall and what was her land lies within the other side. This confiscating or expropriation of land is an ongoing occurrence for Palestinians everywhere in the West Bank.
When we walked through the town, Nadia pointed out one business after another that had shut down since the wall went up and the road was blocked. We saw posters on a building of a young boy of 11years. He was one of three boys who had been part of a group throwing stones at the soldiers. Everyone in this village still remembers and mourns the loss of these boys. They had been shot in the back as they ran away after throwing stones at the soldiers. These boys were 10, 11 and 14, now dead. Senseless killings by Israeli soldiers are not foreign in this holy land.
Palestinians-Living under Military Occupation
The Palestinians have been living under an illegal military occupation and rule since 1967, one of the longest in modern history. This basic and crucial fact is something I was never able to grasp before. The Palestinians lives are dominated by Israeli control, they have no civil rights and they are deprived of many human rights. They are not allowed to protest or resist this occupation in any way, as their land continues to be taken away from them and their houses are demolished. They are not allowed to build houses, the Israeli government will not give any building permits, if they build anyway and are caught, their house will be destroyed. They are interfered with when they try to travel. There is an extensive network of excellent roads built between the Israeli settlements in the West Bank but Palestinians are not allowed to use these roads, they are only for Israelis. In one example of apartheid here, Palestinians must use the roads for them that go circuitously around, and endure checkpoints that delay them for hours. What can be driven in 1 hour for the Israeli settler can take Palestinians 5 hours to drive.
The farce about this situation is that the Palestinians have been depicted in the American media as terrorists even when they are under a repressive military occupation. It is the brutal policies of the Israeli government, the beatings, torture and killings by the soldiers, and the vigilante vandalism of the settlers that have been causing the Palestinians to protest, resist, and then commit desperate acts. In every situation, there are many more deaths suffered by the Palestinians than by Israelis. It is the Israelis that have stolen the land of the Palestinians, building settlements, displacing the Palestinians, expropriating lands whenever they choose, and following policies designed to strangle, humiliate, and destroy them economically and socially. From the beginning, they have been working to transfer or expel the Palestinians who have lived on these lands for many generations, whose families have been here hundreds or thousands of years. The situation is similar in ways to the wars between the United States and the American Natives. When the United States made treaties and then broke them, and then took the lands of the Natives, the Natives were described as savages (terrorists) and criticized for their war like ways. Eventually most of the Native Americans were subdued and put on reservations. The Palestinians have been segregated and imprisoned in their villages, living under horrendous apartheid like conditions, yet they are the ones who are described as terrorists.
How Could the Jews, victims of Oppression for so many centuries, become abusers as Israelis?
We met a man in Akko, he was our waiter for lunch, and he said to us once we started talking about the issue, “What happened to the Jews in Germany was terrible, just awful . . . Why would they treat us this way?” I have been asking the same question since I began this study.
In World War II Germany when the Nazis determined that there was no value to the life of a Jew, they stripped them of all civil and human rights. The Nazis had decided that their country would be better off without Jews, an ethnic cleansing would suit their purpose, so they proceeded to exterminate them in the most horrendous acts of modern history. The international community was outraged at the discovery of these war crimes and the killing of over 6 million Jews. This became a big factor in the international community assisting Israel in becoming a state in 1948.
In Israel and Palestine, the Jews treat the Palestinians as if their lives have no value; they have stripped them of civil rights and human rights. If the Israelis decide they want to take land for settlements they just expropriate it from the Palestinians who own it. They have no right to build homes, they have no right to travel freely and they are subjected to searches and roadblocks in the West Bank whenever the Israelis decide.
The Palestinians have not been sent to gas chambers en masse, but their treatment has been inhumane and these policies have left them destitute. The international community is outraged and has passed numerous United Nations resolutions affirming the Palestinians right to their land and the illegality of the Israeli occupation, and the illegality of building settlements. Many other attempted resolutions condemning Israel for its actions have been vetoed by the United States, their ally and partner.
When the international community was outraged over the apartheid policies in South Africa, international boycotts put tremendous pressure on South Africa to stop its harsh discrimination on its Black population. Israel has resisted any attempts to have witnesses from the international community see what their version of apartheid looks like.
When the Jews resisted the German Nazis, they were called freedom fighters. When the Palestinians demonstrate for the right to have their own country, when they resist the Israeli occupation of their land, and resist the brutal policies and harsh treatment, they are branded terrorists.
The Nazis lost the war and those officers who were found were charged for their war crimes. I used to wonder how the Germans could go along with their cruel policies and not resist them and say no. I’m wondering how the policies that exist in Israel today are allowed to continue. The international outrage to stop this discrimination, segregation, and outright torture of the Palestinian people is there, but there have not been any economic sanctions imposed. The United States through its vetoes at the UN has allowed it all to happen.
I am opposed to the policies of the Israeli government, and am appalled at the soldiers and settlers who are carrying out these policies. I cannot be called an anti-Semite because I am Jewish, and proud of what I am. But I do not understand how a people who have been so badly wronged and made to suffer through such inhumane treatment at the hands of the Nazis could then create such agony for another people.
A Brief History of this Conflict, Myth and Reality
For hundreds of years and maybe thousands of years the Palestinians, an indigenous people, lived in this area. The Jewish people had been exiled from this area thousands of years before. In the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century Jewish people began settling in this area and a Zionist movement had formed to create a Jewish homeland. When the United Nations mandate to create 2 countries was developed in 1947, one for the Jews and one for the Palestinians, 55% of the land was set aside for Israel and 45% was designated for the Palestinians even though Palestinians outnumbered the Israelis 3 to 1 and were the ones who had been living here originally. Leading up to Israel’s independence in 1948, there were skirmishes and conflicts with the Arabs who were not happy with the idea of their country being taken over. There were atrocities committed by both sides. The British tried to broker an arrangement and finally gave up.
After the war in 1948, Israel took more of the land and then controlled 78%, including West Jerusalem which had been designated as an international city. They had achieved this increase by massacres of Palestinians, destruction of hundreds of villages, and confiscation of lands. There were also 770,000 homeless, destitute, refugees created. After the 1967 war, when the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and other lands were taken, another 300,000 Palestinians became refugees, and since then their land has been totally occupied. The West Bank and Gaza have been under military rule since 1967, one of the longest military occupations in modern history.
The myth that I came to believe growing up was that no one lived here before Israel became a state. It was wonderful that Jews could return to our promised land. When I was a pre-teen I was very proud when Israel extended its borders in the 1967 war. I also had been taught that Israel was a tiny country, overmatched in the midst of hostile neighbors who wanted to destroy her, and that Israel had defied the odds and had been able to defend herself successfully against attacks by her powerful Arab neighbors. The truth is that Israel is the military superpower in this region (as well as in the world) and has been using that power to exert her will without any accountability to international law, morality, or human rights.
For many years, Israel has unfairly demanded that the Palestinians guarantee the security of the Israelis. It is the Israelis occupation soldiers who have acted with an unbridled use of force, and without any conscience in totally ignoring the human rights of those they oppress. Israel has never been accountable to the international conventions they have agreed to or to the Oslo peace process agreements they have made.
Land theft and expansion by Israeli settlers
Since 1982, when settlements began being built in earnest, to the present, the settler population in the West Bank has increased every year, even during the 7 year process of the Oslo peace accords.
With the illegal building of settlements in the occupied territories Israel has taken away another 45% of what is left over of the Palestinian lands. They have also built excellent roads (as mentioned previously) as part of an extensive road system for the settlers to travel through the West Bank. These roads are not available to the Palestinians. In this way, the towns of the Palestinians are disconnected and cut off from each other. In addition, with the policy of checkpoints and limitations of traveling between towns for the Palestinians, there are closure periods where no one is allowed to leave the area, and then there are curfews that have lasted days to weeks to sometimes months where no one in the town is allowed to even go outside of their home, each town is in effect, a prison by design.
When the Oslo peace agreement was signed in 1994 it was hailed as a breakthrough for peace. Following its signing, Israel never slowed down, let alone stop, the building of settlements or the increase of the settler population.
For years I had thought that the Israelis were acting in good faith. Now I have seen differently. They have been working to destroy the people whose land they have taken over. It seems they will not rest until they have expelled the Palestinians and completed their ethnic cleansing. How can there be peace here if the Palestinians land is all taken away and they are locked in a prison?
The international community has been outraged, but UN Resolutions censuring Israel have been repeatedly vetoed by the US. It is the unequivocal support of the US that has allowed Israel to continue these harsh policies, illegal under international law, and escape international sanctions.
Israel has expanded its borders unilaterally into Palestinian land, extensively crossing into the Green Line, the internationally recognized border (pre-1967), with the building of the wall. The Israeli policies have purposely created a condition where each of the cities in the West Bank are isolated and cut off from everything else. Each area is a virtual prison where businesses cannot function. To just travel within the West Bank, in addition to enduring checkpoints, the Palestinians must get permits from the Israelis to be able to travel at all. They live in the land of apartheid.
Policies to Starve Palestinian Businesses
We were told about another example of the Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. A truckload of tomatoes were held up at the border for 2 weeks. Only after the tomatoes rotted was the semi-truck allowed to pass through.
Over a 3 year period, the Israelis uprooted over 100,000 olive trees. These trees were the principle income for many families, trees that have been on their land for hundreds of years. These are just a couple of common examples of destruction among many.
The result of these policies is the starving of businesses who cannot exchange their goods, especially in the agricultural realm where timing is absolutely critical or the products are ruined. In the business realm timing is often critical. Timely information exchange is also crucial for a business to function. If someone tries to mail a package and it doesn’t get there in a timely way, how does the business function? How does a newspaper or magazine get their product out on time? How can stores operate when their goods do not arrive on time? How can businesses function in this kind of climate? And how can the people take care of their families?
There is Opposition in Israel to these Policies
There have been many Israeli groups that have spoken out about what is really going on. One group, with probably the most up-front and personal view of the abuse and brutality of the government policies is a group of 500 soldiers who have made a stand and refused to take part in the continued occupation of the West Bank. They are called “Breaking the Silence” and have spoken out about what they have witnessed and what they themselves took part in.
Another outspoken group is “Peace Now”, here are a few statements made as part of their position paper:
“The [Israeli] government refuses to recognize the simple truth that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under the cover of a just war against terror, the government leads a policy that denies the existence of the Palestinian people and their basic rights . . . these racist and apartheid-like policies do not fit in with the values of Judaism. I believe they increase hatred and the desire to continue terror attacks . . . Peace Now believes that a mutually agreed border between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, based on the 4 June 1967 lines, will ensure the security of Israel's citizens, and the well-being and moral standing of the society. The absence of such a border and the existence of the settlements harm the security of the country and its citizens, cause social and economic disintegration within the country, place in question the moral standards of the society and reduce Israel's standing in the family of nations.”
In our studies of the Palestinian-Israeli situation, we have read books, pamphlets, websites and met with members of the Arab Human Rights Association. We have joined some groups aligned with a peace movement. If you desire to do study on your own, these are some sites you may want to visit, or books you may read (however, we are not sure these books, as controversial as the are, will be found in the US market):
Peace Now – www.peacenow.org.il/site/en/homepage.asp
Arab Human Rights Association – www.arabhra.org/
B’tselem.org - www.btselem.org/index.asp
Books: The Palestinians – In Search of a Just Peace, by Cheryl A. Rubenberg
The Palestine – Israeli Conflict, by Dan Cohn-Sherbok & Dawoud El-Alami
Leaving Israel Upset and Confused
I am proud to be a Jew, yet I am heartbroken and disturbed to see what is occurring here in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians. When I came to the Middle East 6 weeks ago I had asked the question, “Why is there such a bitter conflict here? It is true that before Israel’s independence, the Palestinian people did not want Israel to become a state. It had been the Palestinian’s land for generations. They had put up tremendous resistance, and there were atrocities committed by both sides. Since then they have become refugees, displaced, destitute and held under military rule. The fact remains, the Palestinians have a legitimate claim to the land here, and the right to have a sovereign state.
The Israelis have been harsh in their treatment and unjust in their policies. Where is the recognition of the Palestinians right to retain their land, have freedom to travel, freedom to retain their way of life without interference? Responding to acts of protest over unjust treatment, and apartheid like policies that keep them trapped in their communities, unable to travel and have opportunity, they are labeled terrorists and therefore deserving of harsh and deadly treatment. Their leaders are systematically assassinated.
Jews through their history know what it is like to be oppressed. We do not seem to understand how we are perpetrating what was done to us. There are groups of Jews in Israel calling for accountability regarding these abusive policies, but we do not hear much about them in the United States. The United States of America gained independence by overthrowing the yoke of British oppression. It was “terrorist” acts perpetrated by the American patriots on the British that won them their independence. As a matter of fact, there were significant “terrorist” activities conducted by the Israelis against the British at the end of their rule, specifically the bomb blast at the King David hotel that killed 81 people, mostly British.
The Palestinians want a homeland, a return to the 1967 borders. They want basic human rights and civil rights. They want it to be acknowledged that they have had their land taken away and suffered grievously. These people are not terrorists. The desperate and horrific acts performed by the suicide bombers can be linked to the brutal aggression of the Israelis. The policies of the Israeli government have created these desperate conditions. How can there be peace when there is no justice?
As I mentioned before some of my views and comments may come as a shock and you may feel disbelief. I can understand that as I have tried to put myself in that place of knowing what I previously knew and hypothetically listening to someone sharing the views that I now hold and I realize how difficult it would be. These views will confront foundational beliefs. I want you to know how difficult this has been to write, especially because I am Jewish and support the existence of Israel as a state. But if I didn’t write about what I’ve seen and learned I wouldn’t be in integrity with my soul and my profound beliefs in justice for all.
All our love to you and may peace come to this land. Shalom.