Tuesday, 7 September 2010

West Bank Settler Says He'd Sacrifice Again for Peace

AOL NEWS September 7, 2010

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
TEKOA, West Bank (Sept. 7) -- From his kitchen window in this West Bank settlement south of Bethlehem, Seth Mandell enjoys a spectacular view across the rolling biblical landscape of the Judean desert toward 2,000-year-old Herodion, the stunning hilltop palace and tomb of King Herod.

If the peace talks launched in Washington last week between Israel and the Palestinians deliver on their promise to conclude a peace deal within a year, it's a view Mandell might have to give up sooner than he planned. His hilltop community of some 15,000 is about five miles from the pre-1967 "Green Line" border between Israel and the West Bank. It is also four miles beyond the 400-mile-long security barrier, which was erected by Israel to stop suicide bombers and will likely become the basis of a future border with the emerging Palestinian state.

"Tekoa is on the wrong side of the security fence," Mandell, a resident of this eclectic community since 1999, tells AOL News. "If you told me that the destruction of the village of Tekoa would mean that tomorrow we would have peace in the Middle East, we would all leave -- all but a small minority. We are willing to sacrifice for peace. The whole country is willing to sacrifice for peace, except for a minority of ideologues."

Mandell does not say that lightly, for his sacrifices have already gone deeper than most. In May 2001, Mandell's son Koby, then 13, was brutally beaten to death in a cave near his home along with Yosef Ishran, 14. It was during the height of the Palestinian intifada, with terrorist killings and Israeli reprisals almost every day. The two friends had skipped school to go hiking in the picturesque valley that leads from this hilltop down to the Dead Sea, but political circumstances transformed a schoolboy prank into a deadly tragedy.

"For myself and for my kids, this is really our home," says Mandell. "This is where Koby grew up. I still have relationships built on what happened to Koby. Even though Tekoa has grown considerably in the last couple of years, I walk into the grocery store and I still know most of the people there. On an emotional level, we are woven into the fabric of this village, of the people here. More than the material loss, which I think we'll be compensated for, it would be a ripping apart of a whole lifestyle. It's more than a bunch of houses, more than a bunch of families, it's almost a unique organism that is unable to be duplicated."

"That'll be the real sense of loss. There is no place like Tekoa. It's a place where you can be yourself, be as intensely religious as you want, and yet be as laid-back and tolerant as you like. That's a big loss for my kids, a big loss for my wife and I. Not as big a loss, however, as losing my son," he reflects.

Mandell, a former Hillel campus rabbi from College Park, Md., and his wife Sherri, a writer and poet, stayed on in Tekoa after the murders. They decided to channel their grief into helping others and created the Koby Mandell Foundation, which every year provides support for more than 800 women and children bereaved through the sudden death of a loved one in a terror attack.

After more than two years without major terror attacks, Camp Koby, the flagship summer event of the foundation, this year opened its doors to children bereaved in other circumstances of sudden death, such as traffic accidents and heart attacks. The experiment was a huge success, says Mandell, with the newcomers easily mixing with the terror family victims, many of whom have been coming to Camp Koby for five years.

"I thought the era of terror attacks was in abeyance, I thought there was a lull. God willing, we're still in the lull," he says.

But now Mandell is preparing to contact the seven children orphaned in last week's attack by Hamas gunmen on a car driving through the West Bank, which killed four residents of the Bet Haggai settlement, including a pregnant woman and a kindergarten teacher for children with special needs.

The attack reinforced Mandell's belief that the willingness of most Israelis to compromise for the sake of peace is not reflected on the Palestinian side.

"Every time there's been a threat of peace, then war breaks out. Every time there's a concession made by the Israelis it has ended up with an intifada or attacks," he says. "I see no evidence that making concessions in terms of land has any peaceful effect. If it did, things would be different."

"I'm completely pessimistic. I don't think the framework necessary for a peaceful resolution exists. There's not enough agreement on the essential issues," he says.

On Sunday, Mandell's pessimism was echoed by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, who declined to attend the ceremonial opening of the peace talks in Washington. Lieberman bluntly told supporters of his Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home") Party that the leaders in Washington were "peddling illusions."

"It must be understood that signing a comprehensive agreement in which both sides agree to end the conflict and end all of their claims and recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is a goal that is not achievable in the next year or in the next generation, so any historic compromises or painful concessions won't help," said Lieberman.

Lieberman himself lives on the next hill north from Tekoa, in the West Bank settlement of Nokedim. The foreign minister, an avowedly secular immigrant from the former Soviet Union, comes from a political culture light years away from Mandell's liberal American upbringing. But the two share a bleak assessment of the current peace process, where settlements loom as only one of a host of intractable differences.

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