Caught Up in Conflict – Some Notes on the Case of the Samaritan Community in Palestine/Israel


By Miri

"A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, 'Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.' Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?"
  Luke 10:30–35  

Old German woodcutting depicting the parable of the Good Samaritan

Probably not only for Christians, the first association of the term “Samaritan“, is the notion of the “good Samaritan”, a person who helps others in distress, that has its origin in a parable recounted by Jesus. But what community this good person actually originated from and what happened to his succession is usually less known. 
As a small community, Samaritans exist up until today and a Nablus tour will take you to their holiest site, the Mount Gerizim in the north of the West Bank, where half of approximately 700 Samaritans also still reside. 

Samaritans state their identity as “Israelites”, which means that they do claim the same origin as the Jews, yet they refuse to be labelled as such. They consider their worship as the true religion of the ancient Israelites, preserved by those who remained in the Land of Israel, as opposed to Judaism, which they assert is a related but altered and amended religion brought back by those returning from exile. 
During the Byzantine era Samaritans are said to have numbered as many as 1,200,000, with their communities spread over various parts of Palestine, southern Syria and northern Egypt. Due to mass expulsions and forced conversions to Islam during the Early Muslim period, their numbers shrank rapidly and left Nablus as the sole habitation for a small Samaritan community.

Group of Samaritans. From a photograph c. 1900 by the Palestine Exploration Fund
Towards the end of the Ottoman empire and especially during the British mandate over Palestine, the situation of the small and very impoverished community in Nablus started slowly to improve. 
In search of better economic opportunities, one family of the community decided to settle in Jaffa, at the time one of the economic centres of the region. This move proved to mark an important change in the history of the Samaritans as a whole, as it did not only improve the situation of said family, which eventually led to them settling down in Holon, now a suburb of Tel Aviv, but brought the whole community in touch with the new Jewish immigrants. Although no more severe incidents of hostility between the Samaritans and the local Muslim communities were recorded since mid 1800, tensions between the two communities prevailed. The new Jewish immigrants in turn, looked upon the Samaritans as close relatives, who had somehow managed to survive in Palestine during the two thousand years of Diaspora and even started to support them financially. Yitzhak Ben Zvi, who would later serve as president of the State of Israel, and who became an important ally of the community wrote during the time: “How great was the strength of this small and poor tribe, which stood up to the whole world, and none of the waves of foreign rulers could uproot it and make it unfaithful to its religion!” 

With the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Samaritan community was split between those who had remained in Nablus and those who had settled down on territory that was now part of the new state. In 1951 the leader of the latter managed to purchase a vacant lot of land south of Tel Aviv and eventually founded what is now the Samaritan neighbourhood 'Neve Marke' in Holon. 
A law that was subsequently passed included all Samaritans (including those in Nablus) into the Law of Return, granted them the possibility to become Israeli citizens, just like Jews. For the first time in Samaritan history the community thus lived within an entity that would give them equal rights and responsibilities with the majority. 
The economic situation of the Samaritans in Nablus, now under Jordanian rule, remained difficult and their relationship with their immediate neighbours continued to be tensed. The Hashemite King Hussein however, proved to be benevolent towards the community and succeeded in persuading the Palestinian owners of the land on Mount Gerizim, the Samaritans' holiest site, to sell the plot, which was thus transferred over to Samaritan ownership, where it still remains communal property. 
 
After its victory in the 1967 war, Israel took control over the West Bank, a notion that was reportedly welcomed by the Samaritan community in Nablus. Already in the same year the military administration helped to establish what was later to become Qiryat Luza, a Samaritan neighbourhood on Mount Gerizim and little by little the community moved out of their overcrowded and poorly developed quarter in Nablus. 
This development, especially if viewed within the context of more and more Jewish settlements emerging on the hilltops of the West Bank, caused anger among the Palestinian population. Being aware of this, the Samaritans went back to consult with the Nablus municipality regarding their problems, and relationships started to improve, with the municipality even starting to help the community financially. While hitherto regarded as Jews and associated with the State of Israel, the Palestinian community of Nablus slowly started to differentiate the Arabic speaking Samaritans from the “real Israelis”. 
This development was greatly aided by the fact that the Samaritans found themselves in the unique position of being able to mediate between the Palestinian residents of Nablus and the Israeli authorities and they started to intervene on behalf of their direct neighbours. Although this service was not for free and had to be repaid in the form of gifts or money, it greatly enhanced the Samaritans' reputation among the Palestinians of Nablus and finally ended their social isolation from their immediate environment. The Israeli authorities were reportedly aware of this arrangement and gave high priority to the matters that were under Samaritan mediation. 
In order to keep up the good relationships with both sides, the Samaritans refrained from any direct political involvement or activity which gained them a reputation of neutrality, which in turn led to a great improvement of their economic situation. 

Samaritans celebrating the holiday of Shavuot on Mount Gerizim
With the outbreak of the 1st Intifada, however, this position was to be put to great test. Due to their status as Israeli citizens, the Israeli army was ordered to not harm Samaritans and to treat them just like Jewish citizens. Yet in order to not be looked upon as collaborators by the Palestinian population, the community decided not only to participate in the struggle, but also to avoid the special privileges given to them by the army. This translated into putting their lives at risk during demonstrations, standing in line at checkpoints and subjecting themselves to the curfews imposed by the army upon the Palestinian residents. 
After a while the price for physically standing between the fire lines became to high and a majority of the Samaritan community of Nablus started to settle down permanently on Mount Gerizim, dividing their lives between their jobs in the city and their quiet homes on the mountain. As one member of the community stated to the Washington Post in 1991: "There, on top of the mountain, is liberty. No Arabs, no soldiers, no rocks, no curfews." 

Ironically, the problems of being caught in between the two sides only severed with the onset of a possible peace process between Israel and Palestine. The onset of the Oslo Agreements in 1993 and the possibility of a two state solutions brought with it the fear that the communities on Mountain Gerizim and Holon could once more be isolated from each other. 
1993 therefore marks the moment when the community started to engage in political activities, especially in lobbying for their own cause. Different from other religious minorities, the Samaritans do not advocate autonomy for themselves, but rather seek recognition by both sides of their special status as one indivisible group. The ultimate goal is to acquire a privileged position among the region's inhabitants, which would ensure them the freedom to cross a hypothetical Israeli-Palestinian political border in any given situation. 

The (partial) implementation of the Oslo Agreements did not alter the situation of the Samaritan community much and their attempt to stay neutral, while at the same time advocating their own cause continues until today: “Most of the time we are trying to be neutral, but both sides think that we have the influence from the other. The Jews say that we are closer to the Arabs, and the Arabs tell us the opposite”, a young Samaritan resident of Holon was quoted. 
This notion was painfully evidenced in an incident during the 2nd Intifada, when a Samaritan resident of Mount Gerizim on his way home was first ambushed and shot by Palestinian fighters who mistook him for a settler and eventually, after loosing control over his vehicle and ramming through an Israel roadblock, shot a second time by Israeli soldiers who took him for a Palestinian terrorist. As the victim of this incident stated: “This is the short story of our problem.” 

Green Olive Tours visits the High Priest in the Samaritan Museum on Mount Gerizim
What is there to be said about a community that lives in the midst of one of the most protracted conflicts of the world, whose members hold both Israeli and Palestinian citizenship, and who are expected to serve in the Israeli army, while at the same time having a seat reserved in the Palestinian Legislative council? 
The fate of the Samaritan community is as unclear as the future of the whole region and one can only hope that this small and steadfast community will succeed in preserving their own unique identity, while at the same time acting as a self-proclaimed “bridge to peace”.

To learn more about the Samaritans and to hear their story first hand, join us on a Nablus tour which will also lead you up to the summit of the beautiful Mount Gerizim.

Note: This article is greatly indebted to a thesis written by Stephen Kaufman

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