Just Back from Observing Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel
I recently returned from a trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories where I observed some of the work done by Rabbis for Human Rights. Now having seen this work up close, I am even more convinced of the importance of the work not only for those individuals whose rights are protected but for the entirety of Israeli society. Please join me in supporting this crucially important work by clicking here to donate.
In this first of two emails, here are some of the highlights of my trip....
High Court Hearing
On my first full day in Israel, I attended a hearing of the Israeli High Court regarding the school in Jahalin which was constructed out of used tires and built, in part, by RHR volunteers. The school was built illegally because the Civil Administration of the Occupied Territories would not issue a permit. There was a demolition order issued but it had been stayed while a resolution was negotiated. Unfortunately, a Settler group, Regavim, appealed to the High Court to order the state to enforce the demolition order.
RHR hired a lawyer to represent the Bedouin whose children attend the school in Jahalin. Only two of the Bedouin community leaders were allowed into Israel to attend the hearing. Parents of the children were not granted permits. My impression was that the judges did not want to make a final decision on the appeal by the Bedouin because they would have been forced to order the school demolished. Instead, they seemed to push the Government to agree not to demolish the school without providing 30 days notice. The Government's attorney needed time to consult with his client. Should the Government agree, the Court would probably remove the restraining order against the demolition, but 30 days notice would give RHR and the Bedouin time to seek another restraining order. As to the appeal by Regavim, the Court decided to give its decision after reading the file. We've just learned that the High Court rejected the appeal by Regavim to enforce the demolition order. For more information click here.
On my second day, I travelled to Hebron. The day before, there were some protests in Hebron which resulted in violence. The Palestinians were unhappy that the Israeli Government had included the Cave of the Patriarchs on a list of Israeli preservation sites. As this location, where it is believed the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah) are buried, is in the center of the Palestinian city of Hebron, the Palestinians interpreted this as a sign that Israel never intends to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Under the Oslo Accords, unlike most West Bank cities, Hebron was split into two regions, H1 and H2. H1 makes up 80% of the city and is under the control of the Palestinian Authority. H2, which comprises the historic center of the city is under the control of Israel. The reason for this split was the presence of 500 Jewish Settlers in downtown Hebron among 150,000 Palestinians in the entire city.
I toured Hebron with a leader of Breaking the Silence, a group comprised of former Israeli soldiers who feel the need to speak out about abuses they have witnessed committed by Israeli Defense Forces. We were accompanied by a young Israeli woman, who despite living in Jerusalem, 30 minutes from Hebron, had never visited the city before.
Above the Cave of the Patriarchs sits an old building built as a mosque and a monument to the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs (the Tomb of the Patriarchs). Today, it is physically split between a mosque and a synagogue with separate entrances for Jews and Muslims. The main road and market of Hebron is right outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs. When we arrived, I was shocked by the dead silence of the downtown center of Hebron. It is a ghost town. Our guide explained that the IDF had decided that way to keep the 500 Jewish Settlers safe among 35,000 Palestinians in H2 was to physically separate them. Of course, the Settlers had taken over buildings located among Palestinians and as close to the Tomb as possible. So the IDF declared the main road closed to all Palestinian traffic - by car, foot or any other means. Other roads, Palestinians are allowed to walk on, but not drive. Later, the IDF shut all stores on the main road. What once was a thriving downtown area, now echoes with silence. Except, of course, the Settlers are allowed to walk and drive wherever they please.
As we walked through town, our guide explained that there are still Palestinians living in H2, but that they live almost entirely in their homes. In many cases, they can't use the street outside their front door, so they must punch a hole through the back or climb in and out through the roof. The Israeli woman, who had never seen this before, said it reminded her of South Africa.
South Hebron Hills
On Tuesday afternoon, I travelled with RHR Executive Director Rabbi Arik Ascherman to the South Hebron Hills where RHR helps Palestinian farmers/shepherds who have been expelled from the caves they have lived in for generations. In some cases, RHR has been able to appeal these decisions and get the farmers returned to their caves, at least temporarily. Many of these subsistence farmers not only face future expulsion, but must deal with harassment from Settlers who seek to drive them off their land so the Settlers can claim it for themselves.
Everywhere we went, farmers living in caves or tents with almost nothing greeted Arik as an old friend and offered us their hospitality. [Not realizing how much tea and coffee I was drinking, I ended up not sleeping that night, but that's another story.] They were so grateful there were people, especially Israelis, who were willing to help them. RHR provides legal assistance to fight these expulsions. As Arik explained to me later, if groups like RHR were not working in the West Bank, many of these Palestinians would have nothing to judge Israelis by other than the actions of the occupying forces and Settlers.
As we were talking with the residents of the Palestinian cave village of Susia, we were able to spot shepherds from the Jewish Settlement of Susia drive their flocks onto Palestinian land to eat the trees of the Palestinians. We phoned the police and drove around to get a better view and to record the trespass on video. While we were waiting for the police to arrive (and hopefully remove the Settlers from Palestinian land), another settler on an all terrain vehicle raced towards us. When he reached us, he started yelling at our group. He clearly didn't like that we were recording the movement of the settlement's flocks or that we had called the police. I later found out that he is known in the region to be prone to violence. He told Arik that as God had given his people this land, it would be justified for him to kill the Palestinian with us. Eventually, Arik (and the presence nearby of the Police) were able to calm him down. The Police told the Settlers to move their flocks, but did not remain to ensure they did. For more information on the work of RHR's legal department in the West Bank, click here.
My trip to Israel was a whirlwind of experiences. I was astonished by what I saw, not only the incredible challenges facing the human rights community in Israel, but also the spirit of those involved in this crucial struggle for the future character of Israeli society. Please help us support this incredibly important work being done by Rabbis for Human Rights. Click here to donate and please consider making a recurring donation and forwarding this email to your family and friends.
Please stay tuned for the second email outlining my recent trip. It should be out in a few days.