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Where Arabs and Jews Live in Harmony

Givat-Haviva-197 Birthright-PLUS students from North and South America walking and talking with veteran Kibbutz Metzer member Dov Avital (in blue polo shirt)

Kibbutz Metzer is a very short walk from the 1949-brokered Armistice Line, the up to 1967 border with Jordan that is known these days simply as 'the Green Line'. This term is a nickname stemming from the fact that a pen of that color was used to mark the line on a detailed map when the agreement was brokered in Rhodes in 1949.

"In our area that line was drawn specifically in order to be livable with, on either side," explains present day kibbutz veteran Dov Avital. "Some of the land we are on in this vicinity was owned by Palestinian villages but in an exchange of land brokered with the Jordanians, they received the Dotan Valley and the State of Israel, the nearby region to here known as Wadi Ara."

Avital was addressing a group of American, Brazilian and Argentinian students participating in one of the newly-created five-day programs of Birthright-Taglit (known as Birthright-Plus), this particular program created and run by the nearby veteran educational center of Givat Haviva.

All of the students, graduates of the ten-day Birthright-Taglit tour to Israel, had opted to remain in the country after their standard Birthright trip with peers from their own countries. The thirteen students meeting with Avital at Kibbutz Metzer had chosen the Birthright-Plus option focusing on Israel's Arab citizens, the West Bank Palestinians as well as the Givat Haviva projects promoting shared communities.

Situated on the eastern edge of the somewhat narrow central region of Israel, Metzer was settled in 1953 by a group of pioneers from Argentina, members of the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement who, as much as wishing to settle in Israel, also wanted to flee the Peronist authoritarian ideology in the country of their birth.

The founder members of Metzer had trained as fishermen in Argentina, having had dreams of setting up a fishing village on the shores of the Mediterranean. However, the Israeli government at that time wanted to prepare a defense line for the newly-born state and they found themselves being sent elsewhere … albeit the Israeli coastline is only, as the crow flies, about twenty kilometers across from the high-rise buildings of coastal towns such as Hadera and Netanya clearly visible from the more elevated areas of the kibbutz.

"There was no water source for the kibbutz but the neighboring Arab Muslim village of Meiser had a well and they allowed their new kibbutznik neighbors to use their pump to get water. If they hadn't done that, then there would have been a very different story to be told. Basically, they understood that all those who fought against the Israelis ended up as refugees," explains Avital, a member of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in his native Uruguay.

"Although obvious there were, and still are, huge differences between the two communities as far as religion, culture, attitudes to gender, very extremely diverse basic norms one can say, the Arabs accepted the facts on the ground …the Jewish neighbors were here to stay."

As both Kibbutz Metzer and Meiser village developed physically, so did the bond between the two communities and although sometimes rocky, somewhat like the surrounding landscape, in general they upheld good inter-community relations and individual friendships. Meiser families visited the petting zoo of the kibbutz, weddings and funerals attended in each other's communities, the Arab youth playing soccer with their Jewish peers in the kibbutz – the only one of the two communities, by the way, surrounded by a high fence.

"We get on well," states Avital, the Business Innovation Manager of Metzer Industries, where over one third of the workers are from local Arab Muslim villages and nearby Arab city of Baka al-Gharbiya. "We have always believed, and continue to believe, that when a neighbor is in need, you help."

"Here in our factory you will not hear someone say 'stupid Jew' or 'stupid Arab,' here it is just stupid," joked Avital, a highly-respected peace activist in the past who also participated in many official and unofficial meetings with Palestinians – many of the former meetings attended as an IDF officer where he served in the reserves until the age of sixty.

A large 'Welcome to Metzer' sign in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Spanish and Russian adorns the large bright yellow, metal front gate and guard hut in the fence. Just over the fence close to the gate is the sprawling kibbutz industry, some houses of Meiser village maybe fifty paces away, the tall minarets – and loudspeakers - towering over both the Arab homes and those of the neighboring kibbutz.

Looming on the nearby horizon are enormous cranes and scores of three to four floor blocks of apartments, the outer neighborhoods of a new Israeli city in the making named Harish. When completed the city, the last rows of housing on its eastern side within fifty meters of the Green Line and sitting on a hill right opposite, the ten thousand Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank village of Kafin.

The security fence, constructed in 2003, snakes its way between, also up and over, hillocks running between the two.

Neither the Arab nor Jewish residents of Meiser and Metzer are too excited about the new Israeli city under construction that has already swallowed up huge areas of natural forest, destroyed rare flora and fauna and forever changed their landscape. The new city is also fast approaching the edges of their individual agricultural lands - creating equal apprehension with regard to the government expanding the city further in the future at their collective expense.

"Meiser is named after a servant of the wife of Mohammad who is buried in the village and the founder members of the kibbutz took a similar-sounding name in Hebrew although Metzer means more of a stronghold or border," explains Avital, before adding that "the mosque of Meiser is the only one I know that was designed by a Jewish architect!"

Cooperation between Meiser and Metzer, and after the war of 1967 between those two communities and the Palestinian village of Kafin looking down on their Israeli Jewish and Arab neighbors, was held up as an example of a workable relationship between diverse communities on either side of the Green Line. The line, divide, border is marked only by a meter-high concrete cone here and there.

Meiser, Metzer and Kafin became known as the Triangle of Coexistence until a devastating lone Palestinian terrorist entered the kibbutz just before midnight in November 2002, brutally slaying a young mother, Revital Ohayon and her two toddler sons, and Yitzhak Drori, a kibbutz member who had heard the shots and was running to help. Also murdered was a lady from a nearby agricultural settlement who had been visiting friends at Metzer that fateful evening.

"The second intifada (2000) saw horrendous acts of terror throughout Israel (many of which were in Hadera and in the region of Wadi Ara very close to Metzer and Meiser village), and the Israeli government decided to build a security fence, the course of which is in the vicinity of Metzer/Meiser/Kafin. They did not intend building it on the 1949 line, but well into the West Bank, cutting off the Palestinian Kafin villagers from their olive orchards and other arable land," explains Avital.

"When the Palestinians in Kafin realized this situation, as did we, we came together in order to campaign for the fence to be moved west, closer to our land – even taking some of it - as we believed that if it was necessary to build a fence in the name of security, then an equal amount of land be appropriated from either side. Why should our neighbors pay a higher price?" he asks before adding, "There was no need for them to lose their livelihood – we wanted security, not new enemies."

The quiet demonstrations held under olive trees along the divide between Metzer-Meiser and Kafin eventually caught the attention of the Israeli Defense Ministry and a meeting was brokered, to be held at Metzer, between representatives of the ministry, the Palestinian mayor of Kafin and the Israelis, the meeting slated for 11th November, 2002.

However, at midnight the day before, Sirhan Sirhan from the Palestinian city of Tulkarem entered the kibbutz, murdered in cold blood five Israelis and managed to escape the kibbutz. He was killed a year later in the West Bank town of Jenin during a skirmish with Israeli soldiers.

Instead of attending a three-way meeting to discuss a more acceptable and usable spirit of 1949 security fence, the Defense Ministry personnel, together with thousands of Israelis, attended funerals for the terror victims.

The funeral of Yitzhak Drori was attended also by members of the neighboring Arab communities and Palestinians from Kafin.

"That murderous action was carried out not just against Israelis but also against Palestinians who wanted to work with Israel to find solutions to the conflict," said Dov Avital with great sadness. "Our joint efforts at peacemaking brought about this tragedy but it is also clear that at some time we are going to have to sit down and make peace with former combatants. During my army service I was a combatant and as a civilian, fought for peace."

Immediately after the murders, Avital became the official spokesperson on behalf of his community and also took over the position of kibbutz general secretary, the job undertaken by fellow member and friend, Yitzhak Drori, before his murder.

"This shocking, unforgivable attack will not change our way of life or belief that we must keep the light of humanity, understanding of each other, mutual respect and wish to live in peace, alive," he concluded with conviction - but an almost audible heavy heart.

With many a difficult question put forward by the Birthright-Plus group Avital gave honest answers, often laced with cutting humor, a form of self-preservation having had to deal with being the representative of his community for so long.

"Since we first began with our protests about the course of the security fence and for a long period after the terror attack, I was constantly being interviewed by media from Israel and all over the world – ABC, BBC, CNN – you name it, they were here. I will never forget a Japanese journalist who commented that he was so impressed by the fact that when we spoke about the Palestinians of Kafin, they were addressed as our neighbors," he concluded.

The students joined Avital for a short walk around the kibbutz, visiting the building – a former kindergarten – where the young mother tried so desperately to protect her children. The sound of children's voices emanates from behind nearby trees, a young boy emerges, passes the group without so much as a glance at the students.

A short distance from there, a large boulder sits on high beside a lily-laced pond – the names of the terror victims in large black letters on the rock face.

Avital points out, in the near distance, a wide sandy patrol track running alongside the security fence. It was eventually built with only a slight change from the originally intended off-the -Green Line route and can be seen traversing the hills, a large swath of Palestinian Kafin arable land on the Israeli side.

An Israeli army jeep, patrolling the fence, suddenly appears on the horizon, kicking up clouds of choking dust from the dry, sandy track. The jeep quickly disappears between the hills. However, the dust cloud lingers on – eventually re-settling on either side of the divide.

Dov Avital hands over his Metzer Group (drip irrigation systems) business card. Underneath three circles in blue and green, one circle balancing on the other two, is the inscription: "METZER, moving forward, making a difference."

Maybe this writer is reading too much into the card, but could it be that the designer was thinking of three communities, Metzer, Meiser and Kafin, a more than delicate balancing act but hopefully moving forward to make a difference … one drop, or drip, at a time?

Dana Mandler, a Givat Haviva staff member – as is this writer - accompanied the overseas students for the duration of their program. "In summarizing the visit to Metzer, the students expressed surprise at the ability of the community to exhibit such resilience and compassion, especially in light of the horrific act of terror they experienced," she commented.

Always with us ... memorial to the Metzer victims of terror

 

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Monday, 18 October 2021

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