Published1 day ago
On a hillside overlooking Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, three young Palestinian men are engaged in a scene that could be from biblical times. Working with practised speed, they strip olives from a laden tree. The ripe fruit falls to the ground in glistening piles.
But, this is new work for Ahmed. Before 7 October he worked on Israeli construction sites, making around 400 shekels (£85; $105) a day. After the attacks of 7 October, almost all Arab access to Israel from the West Bank was banned.
Ahmed, like many others, lost his livelihood.
“There’s no [decent] work now,” he tells me as he strips the branches clean.
“I work one day here, one day there – in the fields, picking olives. I need to feed my family. What can I do?”
Israel’s intense security crackdown in the West Bank has not only affected Ahmed economically. Checkpoints, already a source of huge resentment, have imposed even greater restrictions on his freedom of movement.
“They have closed roads. I can only walk around my home now. These checkpoints are suffocating us.”
The same increased security that Ahmed criticises has made people like Danny Chesterman feel safer. A cheerful man who used to run bike tours, he lives in the settlement of Efrat. He moved to Israel decades ago, but has retained his London accent.
“We’re being portrayed as illegal settlers stealing Arab lands,” he replies, when I ask him about the way his community is seen from the outside.
“In general, we have not stolen anyone’s land.”
“We are people that go to work in the morning. We run businesses. We have professors at university. We are people of the book and not of the sword.”
There was international controversy at the start of the year, when the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu legalised nine settlements in the West Bank.
The UN and many countries say all settlements are illegal under international law. It is something many Israelis, especially those living in the settlements, vehemently dispute.
One thing few people would disagree on is that the events of 7 October, as well as Israel’s military response, have soured relations between Jewish settlers and their Arab neighbours.
“I hope and I believe that the relations with our immediate neighbours here in the Arab villages will continue to be good,” Danny tells me.
“Having said that, obviously there are security concerns.”
On the morning of 7 October, Hamas – proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK and many others – launched an unprecedented assault on Israel. Around 1,400 people died and around 240 others were taken hostage.
In response Israel launched air strikes on Gaza, and its troops have since entered the enclave. Israel says it will not rest until Hamas is destroyed. So far, the military campaign is thought to have left more than 10,800 people dead, including 4,400 children.
Danny tells me he has heard the Hamas attackers had help from Gazans who worked with Israelis. He says it has fundamentally altered the way people here seem to think about their Arab neighbours.
“There were instances near the Gaza Strip of kibbutzim (rural communities) where they had a fantastic relationship with Arabs working there and later discovered maps describing the village with the names of the families,” he claims.
“Really terrible things that they discovered from people who they believe they had excellent relationships with.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Oded Rivivi. He has been mayor of Efrat for more than a decade, and insists that while relations between his settlement and most of the nearby Arab villages had always been good, they have fundamentally changed, for now at least.
“How long will it take to overcome it? Only time will tell. But as long as you don’t hear Arab leaders going out and condemning (Hamas)… it’s definitely making it take longer for that trust to be rebuilt,” he says.
West Bank tensions
In Arab villages back across the valley, there are very different catalysts for mistrust – Israel’s security crackdown has not only involved extra checkpoints. In the last month, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have arrested more than 1,400 Palestinians. They claim most were connected to Hamas.
Just on the day we are filming, the Palestinian Authority says 18 people were killed in the West Bank, taking the total to 170 in just over a month.
It has been met with Palestinian protest, both violent and peaceful. In Bethlehem, for example, shopkeepers held a general strike. While much of the anger has come as a consequence of what is happening in Gaza, the West Bank was already a tinderbox before 7 October.
Settler violence has been a particular source of rage. Young Israeli men, often well-armed, are accused of forcing Palestinian families from their homes. One video showed a Palestinian man being shot in the leg by a settler armed with an assault rifle.
Back in Efrat, I challenge Mayor Oded over those concerns.
“There is a small group of extremists that do act violently,” he tells me, “and those people need to be dealt with by the police… [but] the vast majority of people, Jewish people who live here, deserve security, deserve to be treated like human beings… because that’s the nature of these communities”.
He insists action will be taken.
“Last night we had a meeting with the prime minister, all of the mayors. There was a consensus calling for the government to make sure that these extremists get arrested, get stopped, and the quicker it happens, the less damage it will do.”
In the end, all these conflicts come down to land. Two groups of people both firmly believe in their right to possibly the most contested piece of land on earth. For decades, the international call has been for a “Two-State Solution”, with the West Bank and Gaza making up an independent Palestinian nation, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
More on Israel-Gaza war
Over recent years it has seemed an ever less likely prospect. The coalition government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, propped up by far right settler parties, made compromise look all but impossible. Events of 7 October are seen by many as the final nail in the coffin of the two state dream.
“I think every day that passes we are going further away from that,” Mayor Oded says. “Israel actually evacuated all its citizens, all its civilian presence, all its military presence from the Gaza Strip under pressure from the international community. And what we got was a military army of Hamas.”
Of course, that suggestion will be met with fury, not to mention resistance, by many Palestinians. For them, as well as much of the international community, the Two State solution is the only one that is acceptable. They say anything else is predicated on the basis of the continued denial of rights and freedoms for millions of ordinary Palestinians.
Back at the olive grove, just as the sun is dipping below the Church of the Nativity, I ask Ahmed what he is looking for in his future.
“Peace and security,” comes his response. “To come and go with our cars, to see our children, to live in our country without problems… We’re not looking for problems. We’re looking to be able to feed our children, that’s all.”