THE GOOD JEWS IN THE OCCUPIED WEST BANK

jews against the occupation

Israeli Jews take on settlers
Mel Frykberg

AWARTA, occupied West Bank – Away from the media spotlight that focuses on the widening chasm between Israelis and Palestinians, a group of Israeli humanists is quietly working to break down barriers with their Palestinian neighbors.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), has been used as a human shield, arrested, and beaten up several times by Israeli security forces while defending Palestinians. He has also been stoned by Palestinians who mistook him for a settler.

Every year during the Palestinian olive season in the autumn months, Palestinian farmers have been subjected to escalated violence by some of the half-million Israeli settlers who live in illegal settlements scattered all over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Much of the Palestinian farmers’ land has been expropriated by the Israeli authorities for enlargement of settlements and to establish new ones.

The Israeli government recently began laying foundations in 12 settlements for new buildings, while other construction continues in a total of 34 settlements.

Areas around the settlements have been declared closed military zones by the Israeli military.

Groups of vigilante settlers, often protected by Israeli soldiers, have set fire to swathes of Palestinian agricultural land, cut down trees, beaten up farmers and killed some of their livestock.

Israeli and international supporters of Palestinian farmers have been arrested by Israeli soldiers for allegedly breaching the closed military zones, and attacked by settlers as well.

The settler violence is part of an established “price-tag” policy in retaliation for every small settlement outpost evacuated by the Israeli army.

Ascherman and RHR have been in the forefront of fighting for justice for disadvantaged groups both within Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Each year during the olive season Ascherman leads a group of rabbinical students, and Israeli and international volunteers to accompany Palestinian farmers as they try to harvest their olives. IPS joined them as they accompanied Palestinian farmers to their olive groves in the northern West Bank villages of Awarta and Jit.

Hellela Siew, 65, an Israeli now resident in the UK, travels to Israel each year to partake in the olive harvesting.

During a previous harvest she had to be taken to the hospital after she was hit over the head with an iron bar by an Israeli security guard from one of the nearby settlements. On another occasion settlers threw stones and human excreta at her and other volunteers, while shooting into the air.

“I’m an Israeli and Israel is my country and I don’t like what the occupation is doing in my name,” Siew told IPS. “I come here because this is what I must do. I don’t fear the Palestinians, I fear the settlers. In fact I feel more comfortable with the Palestinians than I do with many Israelis.”

German-born Suzanne Moses, 80, fled the Nazis as a child after her mother perished in the Auschwitz death camp. After years as a refugee in various countries she settled in Israel as a young woman.

Moses has been volunteering on the olive groves for years. She spends back-breaking hours in the scorching sun picking olives “because I love olives,” she jokes.

“Seriously, I’m against the occupation. I don’t like the settlers and I’m actually very worried about civil war in the future. The settlers are armed, and even if there was an Israeli government willing to evacuate the settlements, the settlers won’t leave without a fight,” Moses told IPS.

Shy Halatzi, 23, is a physics and astronomy student at Tel Aviv University who served in the Israeli military. This was his third trip to the West Bank to pick olives.

“I had never been to the West Bank before apart from visiting the Dead Sea. I was a bit apprehensive at first as I wasn’t sure about safety. But I wanted to understand the Palestinians better and see their perspective. Israelis don’t really understand what is happening here from our media.

“If every violation against Palestinians was written about, it would fill a book. I feel my presence here is small compensation for what my countrymen are doing,” Halatzi told IPS.

The volunteers included some refuseniks, or young Israeli conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in the Israeli military and are prepared to go to prison for this.

But despite the dedication and commitment of these volunteers the settlements continue to grow, and the settlers continue to be a law unto themselves.

IPS asked Asherman if he thought that his organization has made any difference. “Today Palestinians are able to access some of their land at times. Ten years ago this was almost impossible. The Israeli military also provides more protection from the settlers than previously.

“I’ve also noticed a change in some Israeli hawkish Labor Party supporters from the kibbutzim who used to be farmers themselves. Despite their politics they can relate to the struggles of the Palestinian farmers,” Ascherman told IPS.

“I strongly believe we are helping to break down stereotypes and build dialogue. I was blown away several years ago to find out that one of the Palestinian guys I was working with belonged to Yasser Arafat’s Presidential Guard, some of whose members have carried out serious attacks against Israelis.”

“He was equally blown away to find out that I was an Israeli rabbi. I’m not so naive as to believe that in the future he wouldn’t consider violence. However, I think he might have a new perspective should he reach that junction,” said Ascherman.


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4 Comments

  1. October 27, 2009 at 10:59

    you know if the US mainstrem media showed equal (dream on) coverage of events like this, no matter how small, then a moer blalanced opinion might take form. but alas this is not what america wants

  2. Dianne Foster said,

    October 27, 2009 at 21:22

    irish4palestine – I so agree with you. There is such an emphasis on polarizing things, creating the idea that the entire Muslim world is united in its hatred of Americans and Israelis. Anywhere this does not appear to be so, it is treated as the exception that proves the rule.

    Coming as I do from early American settlers, I could see that harmony with the native Americans rarely lasted long. It was once attributed to the innate evil of the “savages”. Looking back, you can see their desperation. You would think that the modern world provided enough historical examples to help inform people. But since the process of taking Palestinian land is ongoing and since disputes about water and oil are also ongoing, I feel I cannot expect much truth from those who benefit from leading the otherwise neutral public. I admit this is a cynical and despairing view, but for the moment it is all I have.

    When the fine people who help the Palestinians with their olive groves are gone, there may or may not be peace. But it will only come through the determination to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Sadly, even secular Israelis are sometimes motivated by myth as much as anyone. The myth is that they have more right to all the land than do the Palestinians, so far as I can see. While it makes them confident, it also hardens their hearts. From that comes the rest. By destroying a source of livelihood, the sometimes ancient olive groves, they assert that the Palestinians have no standing, no prior rights. Turkey was helping Palestinians to find their old land deeds, and they immediately got in trouble with their ally Israel. Too much truth was inconvenient.

  3. October 28, 2009 at 05:19

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  4. October 28, 2009 at 08:19

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