The community of Har Amasa lies just south of the Green Line, at the geographic intersection of the Southern slopes of Mount Hebron, the Judean Desert and the Northern Negev. From the lookout point outside the village gate, which is the next stop on your walk, you will be able to see the Great Rift Valley to the East, and the southern city of Arad in the distance. This is where the desert begins. To the West, Har Amasa is surrounded by the greenery of Ya’ar Yatir, the largest planted forest in Israel.
Though located on the Israeli side of the border, Har Amasa’s proximity to the West Bank and to the city of Hebron – some twenty kilometers to the North of here – make it a veritable border village (Yishuv Kav Tefer). As such, this is where daily interactions between locals occur: Cooperation that is not dictated by governments, not manipulated and sculpted by political agreements, not governed by UN resolutions. Rather this is where real people, who share a common space, and face the same regional issues of everyday life, come together.
One of the members of this community, Dudu Benshabat, has devoted the last twenty years of his life to dreaming up a regional “Abrahamic” or “Semitic” identity, which he calls Eretz Shem, or the Land of Shem. In essence, he envisions a united Arabic-Hebraic local community. Working towards that goal, Dudu does not wish to obliterate or blur religious or cultural differences between the local Palestinians and Israelis. Instead, he hopes to celebrate and emphasize them, to incorporate the unique traditions of both sides into a cross-border, multicultural tapestry of cooperation. Such a reality, he claims, must stem naturally from the most essential common denominators.
As a first step, Dudu looks at the shared linguistic heritage, believing that speakers of Semitic languages share a “common code,” or similar assimilation of values. “Among the people who think in, and speak, these languages, there exists a qualitative closeness, which surpasses cultural divides and gives birth to the opportunity of creating a joint ‘Parent Identity,’” he argues.
In many ways, this outlook constitutes a paradigm shift in thinking of the path toward peace between the peoples of the region. The prevailing premise, which has guided the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, is that a territorial solution will lead to the end of the conflict and bring upon an era of calmness and cooperation.
Consequently, maps and borders have been at the center of negotiations. Yet, Dudu believes that this emphasis fails to incorporate cultural differences and divergent religious beliefs, as well as the substantial inequalities in infrastructure and living standards. He thinks that in striving to create a “New Middle East,” as Israeli President Shimon Peres once put it, we skipped over many principles of equality and social justice that should be the cornerstones of a peaceful resolution. Economic cooperation, which Dudu sees as crucial to joint life in the region, needs to be at the forefront, and replace the existing model of Israeli-run plants and factories which rely on cheap Palestinian manpower.
He thus realized that only sincere cooperation and mutual benefit – fueled by the energy of local entrepreneurs on both sides – might establish a peaceful dynamic that could bring about the end of the territorial conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “We believe,” he writes, “that it is possible to dream. That if we reverse the order of priorities and begin by advancing the authentic needs of inhabitants of the region, we will reach a more forgiving solution to the political-territorial conflict between the two nations.”
With this Abrahamic message in mind, Dudu and his friends set out to make their dream a reality. Understanding that there exist different state entities, with distinctive bureaucratic and legal systems, their vision is expressively apolitical. It does not presuppose optimal political cooperation or arrangements. Rather, it takes the agency out of the hands of leaders, and offers a grassroots example of interaction. At the end of the day, the creation of a “user-generated” collaboration will act as an example for the leaders who sign agreements.
The feeling of belonging to one unique and united entity, based upon values that open practical economic opportunities for both Israelis and Palestinians, is extremely empowering. Ultimately, the project wishes to bring together locals from the surrounding Bedouin villages, the Palestinians communities of Yatta, Samoa, Halhull and the cities of Hebron and Bethlehem, as well as Jewish villages and settlements from the area.
Want to get involved? Read on about the various projects that are part of the Eretz Shem initiative.
Mishy Harman / over 1 year ago