VBernstein, Noah Saul
VBernstein, Noah Saul

How I spent my summer vacation in the West Bank

When I first found out that I would be working for Israel’s Civil Administration, a branch of the nation’s Ministry of Defense, my instant reaction was, “Never heard of it.”

Noah Saul Bernstein

But as a recent participant in the Israel Government Fellow Program — which gives people from the diaspora an opportunity to intern with the Israeli government — there I was, working on an Israel Defense Forces army base in the West Bank for 10 months and getting an in-depth look at one of the country’s most controversial government branches.

The Civil Administration was established by the Ministry of Defense in 1982 with the purpose of administering and coordinating civilian and humanitarian needs in the West Bank.

As a result of a 1995 Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, three temporary distinct administrative divisions in the West Bank were created.

Most civil authority in Areas A and B (about 40 percent of the West Bank) have been handed to the Palestinian Authority, while the C.A. is responsible for the other 60 percent, Area C.

But even though the C.A. is one of the main authorities in Area C of the West Bank, its work is often non-transparent and rarely publicized. Access to information for Israelis, the international community working in the West Bank and the Palestinians living in the region is truly nonexistent.

Hardly any communication is distributed — be it in Hebrew, English or, most importantly, Arabic, therefore, somewhat deliberately, neglecting community needs in the West Bank. This reality has consequences, most notably for the communities living in the dark under C.A. administration.

I worked at the C.A. headquarters, and my first meeting was at the International and Foreign Affairs Branch, housed in an old Jordanian mental hospital in Beit El, north of Jerusalem. In that meeting, I was tasked by my supervisor, Lt. Col Avi Shalev, a tall, gentle-toned native of South Africa, to build, develop and initiate a new transparency agenda.

And so it was that I, a 24-year-old American volunteer with no experience in developing communication initiatives was assigned with promoting C.A. humanitarian projects in the West Bank.

My work consisted of visiting project sites and shadowing humanitarian aide organizations that collaborated with the C.A. in the region. Then I would write and distribute reports in English on project implementation to non-governmental and international organizations, foreign delegations, consulates and the Palestinian leadership.

Lacking any clout — but also unrestricted by army politics and hierarchy — I made my rounds in street clothes. No combat uniform, no M-16 hanging off my shoulder, no diplomatic pass or NGO identification card. And that proved to be the key component in truly grasping the realities on the ground in the West Bank.

Moreover, my experiences exposed not only obvious complexity in the region, but, sadly, how the C.A., the Palestinian Authority and the international community

have somehow forgotten who they work for.

A couple of months ago, for example, I accompanied the C.A. and 10 members of EMPA (a European Union committee on energy, environment and water that makes recommendations to the EU) to a local Palestinian tomato farm near Jericho. The EMPA delegates had come to the West Bank to analyze the ecological, economic and political disaster of what they thought to be Israel’s oppressive water policy.

However, the Palestinian tomato farmer explained that he drew his water from a nearby spring, which had been depleted (due to a drought in recent years) and polluted (by improper dumping, by wastewater drain-off, and by people using it for bathing and washing dishes).

When the farmer wanted to submit an application for a new well on his land, he did not know to whom he should address it. He tried the Palestinian Water Authority, but they rejected his request because his farm was situated in Area C of the West Bank, therefore the responsibility of the C.A.

But when he asked the C.A. for assistance, the C.A. was unresponsive due to legal technicalities involved with promoting individual water-well projects.

Finally, he asked local NGOs and even the members of the EMPA delegation for assistance. They, too, were unresponsive, citing funding issues as well as their role as mainly observers.

Sadly, no new water well has been built, and the tomato farmer continues to struggle with access to water for agriculture and for his workers and family. How much longer can the C.A., the Palestinian leadership and the international community overlook the need to address genuine progress?

At the core of all of this: Authorities in the West Bank have forgotten who the client is. They have forgotten who they work for.  Politics, bureaucracy, complexity and apathy win out. With this mentality, the status quo in the West Bank might last another 43 years.

But we are capable of making real change on the ground through better organizational policy.

The Civil Administration must focus less on writing hyperbolic reports aimed at diplomats and the international community. It must communicate directly with the Palestinian residents in the West Bank in Arabic.

This will allow Palestinian farmers to have the right information to take care of their families, their land and their basic humanitarian needs. Because the C.A. has eight district offices throughout the West Bank, it has the manpower to distribute informative pamphlets directly to the people. Happily, a C.A. website, which will concisely disseminate policy and procedures, is in the early stages of development.

Palestinian leadership must refrain from turning a blind eye to its own people while simultaneously rejecting project development if it in some way is being spearheaded by Israel.

I imagine that even P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayaad would agree that playing the political blame game is no way to build real institutions from the ground up, in the  hope of establishing a state.

Most importantly, the international community, humanitarian aide organizations and the C.A. must integrate and synthesize their work in a more coordinated manner.

Squandering humanitarian aide projects because of inefficient procedure, ideology and political interests has gotten us nowhere.

Now is not the time to “manage” the conflict. Now is the time for a moment of truth — a moment that might not last much longer.

Noah Saul Bernstein completed his 10-month service as an Israel Government Fellow in June. A San Francisco resident between 2007 and 2009, he is starting to study for his master’s in public policy and Judaic studies at New York University.