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In 2000, after stints in Israel and America, Fred, Sunita and the couple’s children finally made aliyah. Schlomka’s work in Israel soon took on a political bent. For two years he was the operations manager of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and for another two years he was behind a project attempting to build mixed Arab/Jewish communities in Israel. When his work in nongovernmental organizations led to him conducting tours of the West Bank for activists, journalists and diplomats, he decided to set up a company offering this service on a more formal basis, giving tourists the opportunity to see places that other Israeli tour companies actively discouraged them from visiting. “You have to see it to understand it,” he said.
What becomes clear when you are in the hands of one of Schlomka’s guides is that just to see what is happening in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, an outsider needs expert assistance. Negotiating checkpoints and segregated roads is complex enough, but even harder to penetrate is the cosmetic veneer placed around the structures of occupation, which make it easy for Israelis not to see what is happening under their noses. Land banks, tree planting, carefully routed roads and even aesthetic stone cladding mean that with an Israeli number plate, you can drive to settlements deep inside the West Bank without feeling that you have left the suburban sprawl of the major Israeli cities. The separation barrier, that 25-foot edifice of concrete that is a daily feature of life for so many Palestinians, is all but invisible.
Only under the guidance of someone like Schlomka is one likely to see both sides of the Occupied Territory, and to see firsthand the astonishing contrasts that abide so close together. I spent one night with the Feldstein family in the comfortable and prosperous settlement of Efrat, being told that it’s not a problem living close to the separation barrier because “we had walls like that along the freeway in New Jersey, and we called them sound barriers.” Two days later, I was in the Palestinian village of Beit Ummar, where an army roadblock had sealed the entrance to the village, a funeral had been tear gassed the previous day and, one night earlier in the week, settler youths had raided the town, burning three cars.
A week in the hands of Green Olive Tours provides a degree of insight into the occupation that no amount of reading could ever provide. For those with less time to spare, any one of the company’s scheduled half-day tours will provide a fascinating antidote to the usual narrative. Schlomka may not be a popular man at the Israeli Tourism Ministry, but he is adamant that the only way to understand is to see, and as long as he is taking people into the West Bank, he is doing good work. Schlomka’s passion for understanding and cross-cultural communication is indeed hard to resist; coming from a man with his blighted past, one could go so far as to call it inspirational.
William Sutcliffe is the author of five novels, most recently “Whatever Makes You Happy” (2008, Bloomsbury USA)