Between a rock and a hard place

A man in religious garb gestures and smiles

Priest Husni Cohen gestures as he talks of the Samaritan community. Dwindling numbers and an unstable political situation have left Samaritans, one of the world’s oldest religious communities, in fear of their survival. 

Jaclynn Ashly

Priest Yousef Cohen, 70, slowly limped along the quiet streets of Kiryat Luza, a Samaritan village nestled atop the green slopes of Mount Gerizim in the Nablus district of the occupied West Bank.

The priest’s labored gait tells its own story. It is one that encapsulates the predicament of this small community, in many ways caught directly between the Palestinians and Israelis around them.

The Samaritans are a small ethnoreligious group of about 800 people. They can trace their lineage to biblical tribes that lived on this land more than 3,000 years ago and adhere to a religion closely related to Judaism.

The population is split almost equally between Mount Gerizim – known to Palestinians as Jabal al-Tur – in Nablus and Holon, a coastal city in Israel.

Their unique identity has its advantages. Those in the West Bank carry three official national identities: Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian.

But it also brings with it confusion and sometimes danger.

In 2001, at the height of the second intifada, Yousef Cohen was driving a car with an Israeli license plate through Nablus city on his way back to Mount Gerizim.

Unknown to the priest, confrontations had erupted in the city that day between Palestinians and the Israeli army.

Owing to his Israeli number plates and his Samaritan dress, Palestinians mistook him for an Israeli settler and opened fire on his car. A bullet struck his leg and caused his foot to slam down on the gas pedal.

A few meters ahead was an Israeli roadblock. Priest Yousef – as he is known – attempted to swerve but could not control his leg. He approached the roadblock, barreling toward soldiers at full speed.

The soldiers shouted for him to stop. But when he failed to do so, they assumed he was a Palestinian and shot him in the same leg, again.

“So he got shot by a Palestinian and an Israeli within just five to ten minutes of each other,” Abdallah Cohen, a 24-year-old Samaritan from Kiryat Luza village, told The Electronic Intifada.

Between two worlds

Not surprisingly, Priest Yousef’s story is frequently told in the community. According to Abdallah, it underlines the community’s unique position in the decades-old conflict – a tiny community straddled between two worlds.

The Samaritans in Nablus speak ancient Hebrew during their religious activities and ceremonies. In their day-to-day lives, however, they speak Arabic and identify with their Palestinian nationality.

They also speak modern Hebrew.

Samaritan children begin learning ancient Hebrew at 6 and have one year to memorize the last 15 verses of the Samaritan Torah.

The Samaritans believe they are direct descendants of the ancient Israelites and have continuously remained on the land since biblical times.

They believe Mount Gerizim is the holiest place on earth.

During the Byzantine era, the Samaritan population was around 1.5 million. But after centuries of conflict and conquests, their numbers fell to fewer than 150 by the 20th century.

The Samaritans began moving gradually to Mount Gerizim from Nablus city during the first intifada which started in 1989 to avoid getting caught up in confrontations between Palestinians and the Israeli army.

According to Priest Husni Cohen, the Samaritans seek to be impartial and aim to create a “bridge between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

But “it’s very difficult when we see that the Palestinians are not free,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “I’m not against the Israelis, but it’s impossible not to be pained by what is happening to Palestinians.”

The Samaritans generally support a two-state solution to the conflict, Priest Husni says.

However, for the younger generation, this solution is no longer so clear. Abdallah, Priest Husni’s nephew, says he is “not sure” about the two-state solution.

“We have two IDs, so we live with both the Israelis and Palestinians. We have a lot of friends from both sides,” he said.

“I honestly have no idea what the solution should be,” Abdallah added. “We are such a small community, so I don’t know what kind of effect we could have.”

Abdallah points out that having good relations with both Palestinians and Israelis is also essential for the security of the small community. “If we side with the Palestinians or side with the Israelis, we will be worse off,” he said.

With half the community residing in Israel, Abdallah says, Samaritans depend on being allowed to travel if they can visit Mount Gerizim.

It is split between Area A – part of the West Bank nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority – and Area C, which is under full Israeli control.

“So there are a lot of consequences for us when it comes to choosing a side,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “We would be throwing gas on the fire. It would put us in danger and not really do anything to positively affect the conflict.”

Being a bridge is an attractive proposition, Abdallah said, “but this bridge is very shaky.”

“They think we’re Jewish”

Ranin Cohen, 19, is enrolled at An-Najah University in Nablus, studying to become a teacher. All of the Samaritan youth in Kiryat Luza attend university in Nablus.

Although most Palestinians in Nablus are aware of the Samaritans, she still faces misunderstandings from the larger Palestinian community.

“Some of the other students ask me if the Samaritans believe in God, and some think that we’re Jewish,” she explained.

Despite such misapprehensions, Ranin told The Electronic Intifada that she enjoys teaching the other students about her beliefs and culture.

In rare cases, she has experienced hostility from other students. Once, she reported an incident to the university’s principal, who then made educating the students on the Samaritans part of the morning announcements.

A young man and woman smile at the camera

Abdallah and Ranin Cohen both study in Nablus. With a two-to-one gender disparity, Samaritan men are increasingly looking outside the community to marry.

Jaclynn Ashly

More generally, Palestinian society embraces Samaritans, according to community members. Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, provided scholarships to Samaritan students to study overseas and reserved a seat in the Palestinian legislative assembly for the Samaritan priest Saloum al-Kahin, though that ended when al-Kahin died.

“Not many people know about us in the West Bank – except in Nablus,” Abdallah Cohen said. “But in Nablus we have good relations. They believe we are the real Israelites and modern Israelis are not authentic Israelites and instead converted to Judaism.”

“They are very proud to have us be part of their community and culture,” he said.

“First time I had a gun pointed at me”

Abdallah told The Electronic Intifada that widespread unfamiliarity with Samaritan culture in both Palestinian and Israeli societies had at times proven dangerous.

In 2015, when a wave of unrest hit the West Bank for several months, Abdallah was coming home from a driving lesson in a Palestinian car in the evening.

He asked the driver to drop him off at an Israeli-only road near the Huwwara military checkpoint into Nablus – the main point of entry into Nablus city and a flashpoint of tensions between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and settlers.

Abdallah exited the vehicle with a flashlight, riling Israeli soldiers stationed nearby.

“Two soldiers started running towards me with their guns drawn,” he remembered.

Abdallah shouted at the soldiers that he is a Samaritan. But a gun drew closer to his face.

“At this point, when I felt like my whole life was condensed into this soldier’s finger, I lost myself. I started screaming that I am a proud Israeli. Don’t shoot. I’m allowed to be here,” he said. “I was so scared and just said anything that would get him to put the gun down.”

Abdallah had forgotten his Israeli ID card at the time, but when he pointed out his Hebrew name on his Palestinian ID, the soldiers allowed him to explain himself.

“The soldiers in this area are always being rotated,” Abdallah noted. “So they were new to this area and had no idea who the Samaritans were.”

“It was the first time I’ve had a gun pointed at me. It changed a lot of things, and made me realize how vulnerable we are at this point in our history.”

Fears for the future

The tiny community fears for its future, and not just because of the political situation. Of more immediate concern is the gender disparity, with one woman for every two men, according to community members.

This disparity has forced some Samaritan men to look outside the community to marry. Priest Husni said that about 25 Jewish women, 19 Christians and three Muslims have converted to the Samaritan faith over the years.

Men have also begun using online platforms to meet potential wives in Eastern Europe, with about 15 women from Ukraine converting to the faith and moving to Kiryat Luza.

Priest Husni told The Electronic Intifada that he is also “worried” about the use of social media among young Samaritans. “Facebook and Twitter are too free,” he said, and these technologies were bringing Samaritans down a “dangerous road.”

“When we become modern, we also start to lose our religion. So we as Samaritans must be very careful. We must safeguard our culture,” he said.

This is not a complete rejection of modernity though. He was keen for The Electronic Intifada to send him photos of himself to upload on his Facebook page.

Abdallah, however, disagreed with his uncle. “Technology opens us up to the rest of the world. I think my uncle is afraid that traditions will enter from the outside - like maybe we will start to adopt the Christmas tree.”

“But the positives outweigh the negatives,” he said. Opening itself up to outsiders, for instance, can assist in the diversification of the community – a challenge that has long faced the small religious sect, whose dwindling gene pool has resulted in birth defects.

Meanwhile, the community is not immune to the ever-expanding illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli settlement of Har Bracha, with a population of about 2,500, is located near Kiryat Luza.

The community members are careful how they navigate the realities of Israel’s colonization of Palestinian territory. Their small numbers leave them exposed to future threats.

“The settlement is continuously expanding,” Abdallah explained. “So if one day it reaches our neighborhood, we really don’t want to have any problems with them [settlers]. Or at least we hope they understand that we don’t want any issues with them.”

“Of course we are worried about this,” he added. “We are concerned about the future of our community.”

Jaclynn Ashly is a journalist based in the West Bank.