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During this last week, settlers from Bat Ayin destroyed over 100 fruit trees belonging to the Palestinian town of Khirbeit Safa.  For the last few months there has been regular violence and harassment against residents of Safa following the murder of a boy from Bat Ayin.  The man who committed the murder had been apprehended quickly, but revenge attacks against the entire village continued.

The Palestinian farmers have been consistently prevented by the Israeli Army and Border Police from working their fields, which lie between Safa and Bat Ayin.  This is contrary to an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that the IDF should not order Closed Military Zone’s that prevent Palestinians from agricultural work.  The Border Police and IDF have issued Closed Military Zone’s over the fields of Safa on an almost continual basis since the beginning of April.

IDF and Border Police pushing Taayush activists

IDF and Border Police pushing Taayush activists

This morning members of the Israeli-Palestinian group Taayush, along with other activists and internationals attempted to accompany residents of Safa onto their farmland.  Israeli soldiers and Border Police numbering at least 30 were already there when we arrived, and immediately proclaimed a Closed Military Zone.  Initially they said that if the Israelis and internationals left, 3 residents of Safa would be permitted to stay and work.  This number quickly went down to zero whereupon they resorted to force in trying to remove us from the area, shoving and grabbing men, women and children.  The activists and Palestinians non-violently resisted and a number refused to leave, resulting in 15 Israelis being arrested.

arresting Taayush activist

arresting Taayush activist

In the course of the struggle, Border Police threw people to the ground, grabbed people’s throats, and one Israeli had her arm twisted behind her back causing a serious sprain.  One Palestinian man who was thrown to the ground, bloodying his face, had his leg broken through IDF aggressiveness.  I overheard one Border Policeman say to a distraught Palestinian, “stop the theater”.

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As we left the fields and entered the town of Safa, the soldiers and Border Police followed and said we also had to leave there.  The Border Police escorted our cars to the entrance of Beit Ummar.  When we got out of our cars, they presented us with another Closed Military Zone order for Beit Ummar.  They also claimed that our driver had entered “Area A” by coming so close to Beit Ummar.  In fact, although the IDF has put a sign up at the entrance that Beit Ummar is “Area A”, it is actually “Area B” as can be seen on all official maps.  Furthermore, our driver is not an Israeli citizen, but has Jerusalem residency, which grants him the right to enter “Area A” if he wanted to.  Our driver was threatened with arrest under these false charges.

The Police then took his ID and said we would have to come to the Etzion Police Station to get it.  We all went to the station, where we found our members who had been arrestted earlier.  We were all detained at the station, totaling 30 people.  Two of those who had been arrested told me that after their arrest the Border Police brought them to the station.  However, along the way, two Border Police stopped the vehicle, took out 3 activists and proceeded to beat them.  One was punched in the face, another was hit on the head with a baton, and a third was hit and was pulled by his hair.

They wanted to file a complaint against the officers who did it, who made a countercomplaint.  Our group was not told why were being held or given any information.  We were in the police station for 3 hours before we were all released without charges.

A video clip I took of Border Policeman twisting Taayush activist’s arm

(All Photos Taken by Mairav Zonszein)

On this last Saturday, June 6, Taayush members started the day by going to Safa.  Honestly, after last week’s violence I wasn’t that eager to go, but as Amiel said, for that reason, “the people there need us the most.”

We went to the fields where the villagers of Safa pick grape leaves.  Upon arriving we discovered that the army had declared a “Closed Military Zone” on the lands they use for agriculture.  Not only was the land off-limits, we were told that the order was in effect until June 21, over two weeks.  By that time, many of the grape leaves may no longer be usable.  Furthermore, this goes against an Israeli Supreme Court ruling stating that the Palestinians should not be prevented from accessing their agricultural lands.

The IDF, in trying to make their own job easier, is essentially punishing the Palestinians for the settler attacks against them.

After we photographed the military order for a Closed Military Zone we left.

Our next activity took place in the village of Susya, in the South Hebron Hills.  The Israeli-Palestinian group Combatants for Peace had organized a group of about 100 Israelis, Palestinians and internationals to erect a structure along-side the developing illegal outpost ‘Givat HaDegel’.

The land the outpost is on is unquestionably Palestinian.  The owner has documentation, the IDF did not dispute it, and Israeli news confirmed it.  Nevertheless, the IDF is allowing the settlers from the settlement of Susya to build there.

Back in January I wrote about the developments at Givat HaDegel. A couple months after that, I saw that they had started to build a cement floor.

Cement floor at Givat HaDegel

Cement floor at Givat HaDegel

On this Saturday, when we ascended the hill, I saw close-up that a full building had been constructed.

G HaDegel

The Combatants for Peace and the people that joined them built what was essentially a ‘sukkah’, and covered it with the colors of the Palestinian flag.  Immediately soldiers started to dismantle it.  After a short time they declared a Closed Military Zone.

Palestinians waving their flag and colors after their 'sukkah' was dismantled

Palestinians waving their flag and colors after their 'sukkah' was dismantled

I cannot say that I was surprised by what happened.  However, Givat HaDegel is not on the government list of illegal outposts, which has 26, far short of the actual number.  Also, Israel’s Channel 2 news had a brief piece on the event, but neglected to even mention the settler’s construction.

There is something very wrong here when it is regarded as radical action for people to go to their private land.  It is somehow normal here that the land owner is not allowed onto his own land, and that the IDF is used to keep him off, while permitting Israeli citizens to build on it.  This is the situation Palestinians find themselves in.  The Israeli police and military have authority over them, but only work to protect Israeli citizens, even when they are committing crimes.

Ezra Nawi

Ezra Nawi… If we had 20 Ezra Nawis, the Occupation would be already finished.  Ezra is one of the righteous men, that thanks to them, we are not yet [destroyed like] Sodom and Gomorrah.                  (Yehuda Agus, Taayush Activist)

If there was one face that represents the efforts of Israeli activists for coexistence and human rights, it would be Ezra Nawi.  A plumber by trade, Ezra is a Jew of Iraqi origin who has been involved in progressive causes and politics since childhood.  Around 1999, Ezra began dedicating his energies and passions to human rights in the Palestinian Territories.

I have found Ezra to be a warm and generous person.  He is welcoming to the newcomer and is ready to give them his attention and respect.  Even in the most difficult situations, Ezra uses humor and grace to put others at ease.  A recent documentary, “Citizen Nawi”, captures the passion and dedication of the man.

Recently, Ezra has been convicted of assaulting a soldier, a charge rejected by those who know him.  He is currently awaiting  sentencing in July.

I have invited a few experienced activists to share their experiences with Ezra and the importance of his role among Israeli human rights activists.  At the end are a few thoughts that Ezra himself shared with me.

David Shulman (Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; author of Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine.)

Ezra Nawi is probably the most courageous person I have ever met. I have seen him in countless moments when settlers violently attacked him and other peace activists, Palestinians and Israelis; his presence of mind, steadfastness, and clarity always got us through such times. He is that most unusual of human beings– a person of profound inner gentleness and moral principle, selfless and creative in finding ways to help the Palestinian shepherds and farmers of the South Hebron hills. It is largely to Ezra’s unremitting efforts that these people are still living on their lands in the face of constant efforts by the Israeli state, the army, police, and rampaging settlers, to dispossess them. Ezra is utterly committed to non-violent protest in the Gandhian mode; he is an inspired force for goodness and a reason not to lose hope in human potential to do the decent thing. But I don’t want to give the impression that he is some kind of saint:  he is an earthy, full-blooded man, certainly capable of anger and capable of verbally expressing his contempt for the (indeed contemptible) soldiers, settlers, and policemen who have turned the lives of the south Hebron Palestinians into a living hell. Although I have an instinctive dislike of “heroes,” and abhor hero-worship wherever I meet it, I have to say that in my eyes, and in my experience, Ezra Nawi is heroic in the finest sense of the word– the sense of an ordinary human being who puts himself at risk, even great risk, in order to do what is right in the service of those who are suffering, oppressed, and in need.

Anat Rosenwaks (Taayush Activist since 2001)

Ezra Nawi. For several weeks I have been trying to decide what to write. Where do I start? There’s so much to say about Ezra, but it’s difficult to convey who he is to those who have never met him. Why have such a diverse group of people been willing to make such an effort to prevent his imprisonment?

I remember when Ezra joined Ta’ayush. Everyone was talking about the Jerusalemite plumber – not the usual activist. Unique in his appearance, (always wearing an interesting hat) Ezra is charming, charismatic and fully devoted to human rights and political activism.

Recently, on the eve of the holiday Shavuot, there was no “official” activity in the South Hebron area, or in any other place in the West Bank. Most people in Israel were resting or getting ready for the holiday. But Ezra, like always, was in Tuba, a small village in the South Hebron Hills next to the illegal outpost of Ma’on. A few days earlier, a young woman from the village was taken to the emergency room in Jerusalem. Ezra, who has supported her family for years, picked her and her father up from the checkpoint and hosted the father for 2 days in his apartment. Ezra then drove them back to their house when she was released.

For many of the families in the South Hebron area, Ezra is the first one to call when they are in trouble. He’s always available, willing to help at almost anytime of day. He speaks fluent Arabic and never hesitates before getting into his car to drive to the place he’s needed, or make phone calls to “half of the world” just to help someone who is stuck at a checkpoint.

Ta’ayush activity has changed tremendously since Ezra joined us and his influence in the improvements in the situation in the South Hebron area is enormous. Without him, for example, there would be no international activists staying permanently in one of the villages.  Without Ezra, the school children of Tuba might still be using a very roundabout way to school, in order to avoid passing next to the violent settlers.  Without Ezra the farmers of Gawawis, a small village that was occupied by settlers, may not have been able to return to their lands. Without Ezra, the people of Tuwane, who without Ezra, might still be attacked by settlers from the Ma’on outpost every Friday night, and have no access to a great part of their lands.

Ezra is welcome in any Palestinian town or village, and as a result, unwelcome by the police and army. They have tried to stop his activity in many ways, by arresting him so many times, searching his car and apartment.  They try to frighten him by saying that the settlers are angry and want to harm him. And now, he has been convicted on false charges. It was his word against the word of two policeman.

I hope Ezra will not go to jail. But even if he does, this will not stop his activity or break him. He is a strong man, and has the support of all his friends in Israel, Palestine and all over the world.

Amiel Vardi (Professor of Classics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

One of the main reasons Ezra is such an important person is his personality.  I mean, he is really easy prey for them [his detractors], being of Iraqi origin and being a plumber.  Most of us activists come from well-established jobs.  He is more vulnerable because of this, and, of course his declared homosexuality makes him especially vulnerable, and it’s used against him.  It’s used by the settlers and it’s used by the police against him all the time.

So this is one thing that makes Ezra a special case.  Another thing is, that Ezra is the only one of us that really has good relations day-to-day with the Palestinians.  It’s not only a question of knowing the language, which is, of course, in his case superb; it’s knowing the habits, understanding what is behind the words, learning them really deeply and getting their approval.  They trust him, like they trust none of us.  And as such, he is the best activist I can think of.

We get into quarrels very often about the way things should be done.  Sometimes perhaps, we are right and he is wrong, but very often his intuition is so much better than ours, simply because he understands the Palestinians so much better – I couldn’t think of any activity in all the region from Jerusalem south without the help of Ezra.  This is true not only for Taayush, but for all the organizations, The Physicians for Human Rights, The Rabbis for Human Rights, Yesh Din, all depend on Ezra.  And this is why for us Ezra is the most important issue at the moment.

Ezra in his own words

“If you can see what is going on there (in the Palestinian Territories), you have to get involved.”  Ezra believes that if people ‘realized the price and the pain’ that comes from Israel’s actions in the territories, they would want to change the status quo.  He says that A large problem of the occupation comes from its less visible elements.  For example, “The dehumanization of Arabs and increase in Israeli nationalism.”

Ezra exclaims “Jews have been leaders in liberation and rights movements all over the world, in Russia, Iraq, apartheid South Africa and in the United States.  How come here (in Israel) this hardly exists?”

Despite the setbacks and overwhelming odds, Ezra says, “There is no reason to be depressed or ashamed about the situation.  Only the people who do nothing should feel that way.”  His advice, is “think pink”.

To Help Ezra, please visit: http://supportezra.net/

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I had some excellent video footage today, but unfortunately some settler youths stole my camera.

This morning members of Taayush went to Safa, the village right next to the settlement of Bat Ayin.  The settlers of Bat Ayin have a reputation for being particularly violent and extremist.  Today they did not disappoint.

I was with two other Taayush activists, along with two older Palestinian women and a young girl who were collecting grape leaves.  I noticed up above us on a ridge there were three IDF soldiers surveying the area and watching us.  Suddenly, across on another hill we saw 15 to 20 settler youth (aged 14 to 20s) running toward us screaming.

The Palestinian women started to run away as the settlers approached.  When the settlers reached us, I was immediately struck in the face, and they tried to pull my camera from my hands.  Other settlers were throwing rocks at the women as they fled.  Settlers continued to hit me and another Taayush activist and they managed to take my camera, with which they then used to hit the other activist.

They then continued running in the direction of the Palestinians, and came across the car of Ezra, a veteran activist.  The settlers then flipped the car onto its side, cracking the windshield.  They kept on running away from us after this.  By this time, the three soldiers I had seen earlier arrived.  They yelled at the settlers, and half-heartedly chased after them.  I followed them and said the settlers had stolen my camera.  One of the soldiers then started yelling at me, threatening to arrest me unless I backed away.

The soldiers then went off as well, and soon a group of Palestinians gathered by Ezra’s overturned car.  A few minutes later, about 10 IDF soldiers arrived, who stood around, some of them joking with each other.  After initially telling Ezra they would help right his car, they then changed their mind and said the Palestinians with us (most of whom were children) should do it.  The Palestinians brought a tractor to turn the car over.

Palestinians righting Ezra's car

Palestinians righting Ezra's car

While they were working on his car, another 10 to 15 border police arrived, all of them carrying fashioned wooden sticks.  They said it was a Closed Military Zone, and that we had to leave the area.  After Ezra’s car was turned right-side-up, we all started to leave.  After we walked for a few minutes, the border police began yelling at us to go faster, and ran at us with their sticks raised.  They started shoving us and pushing us with the sticks, and the Palestinians started running away.

By this time additional Taayush activists had joined us and a few them became distressed by the aggressive behavior of the border police.  As we were leaving amidst the ensuing clamor, one of the border police suddenly grabbed a Taayush member in a chokehold and wrestled him to the ground.  Other police held him down, one of whom kicked him in the head.  He was arrested as was his girlfriend who was trying to shield him.  Two Palestinian boys, no more than 12 to 14 years of age were arrested as well for supposedly throwing stones.  However, I had not observed them doing anything except moving along with everyone else during this melee.

Palestinian boy held for arrest

Palestinian boy held for arrest

I was disturbed by the interaction of the border police and army with us and the Palestinians.  They were not taking action against law-breakers, but against the victims.  There seemed to be no order or law at that time.

The rest of the day consisted of trying to lodge a complaint with the police regarding the settler’s assault on us and the Palestinians.  That in itself proved surprisingly difficult.

We first went to the nearest police station which happened to be in the settlement of Kiryat Arba.  We were told to wait outside the gate.  As we stood there in the heat for 45 minutes, a group of settler children aged 8 to 12 gathered around throwing rocks and glass bottles at us.  The guard on the other side of the gate told them to be careful because they ‘could hurt someone’. This mild rebuke was followed by a volley of eggs thrown at us.  One 12 year old threatened to drop a cement block on us – “if only it wasn’t Shabbat.”  All this time we had been doing nothing aside from waiting outside the gate of the Kiryat Arba police station.

Soon afterward a few officers arrived and let us inside.  We told them we wanted to lodge a complaint, and we were led to a room to wait in.  A few police came in and out of the room, but told us that we could not lodge the complaint with them.  Finally we left, skeptical that any help would be forthcoming after almost two hours of stalling and inaction on their part.  We were then  escorted out in a police car because we feared the settler children and adults with them might attack us.

We then drove on to the police station of Gush Etzion.  We managed to get one guard’s attention through the locked, barred doors of the station, only to recognize him as one of the border police who was present back at Safa a few hours earlier.  He coldly stared at us and then walked away.  We were clearly not going to get any help there either.

These two police stations were indifferent to the crime committed against us, and would not help file a report or help me find my stolen camera.  The tolerance the police and army has for illegal outposts seems to extend to tolerating other illegal and even violent behavior from the settlers.

Today Taayush members went out to Hebron.  We were accompanied by a new friend, whom I shall call Y.  Not long ago, Y finished his service in the IDF.  Although coming with Taayush for the first time, he had been out with a couple of other groups, learning more details about the situation in the Occupied Territories.

However, his first real learning experience took place while in the army.  He had been a soldier in Bil’in, the site of regular protests against the construction of the Separation Barrier which often end in violence.  Y said that his time there raised questions for him about the morality of what the army was doing.

To begin with, he wondered about the path of the wall, which went right through the middle of a grove of olive trees, instead of around it.  Then there was the attitude of some of his fellow soldiers who said “we have the power, no one can tell us what to do.” They were angered by the challenge to their authority, and often responded with brutality.

Y recounted one instance when a settler woman told the soldiers that someone had thrown a stone at her.  The army’s response was to go to the Palestinian village, and line everyone up.  Most of the Palestinians there were children, and Y said he started to feel like the  ‘bad guy’.

While off-duty as a soldier, Y began to join the Bil’in protesters and see the conflict from their side.  One day he was called up by an officer and told that he would no longer serve with them because of his activities.  The rest of his service was spent as a ‘jobnik’, doing secretarial work.

I admire Y’s standing up for his convictions, and refusing to ignore the reality of what he and his fellow soldiers had been doing.  He told me he considers himself an Israeli patriot, and I believe his values have proven it.

Yesterday morning members of Taayush split up into two groups.  One group went to Khirbet Safa, and the other group – which I was in – went to Umm Zeitouneh.

Havat Ma'on

Havat Ma'on

Umm Zeitouneh is a valley between the outpost of Ma’on, and the barn that is shared by Ma’on and the settlement of Susya.  The settlers from Ma’on have a history of violence against Palestinians, and our goal was to try to prevent any attacks on them.  We were accompanying Palestinian shepherds from the village of Tubah who had brought their sheep out to graze.  Some of the young shepherds, boys of 14 and up, had in the past been attacked by settlers on their way to school.

Two young Palestinian shepherds

Two young Palestinian shepherds

Luckily however, the sheep’s grazing passed without incident.

Sheep grazing

Sheep grazing

Later on, the group that went to Khirbet Safa met up with us and we all went to see if there had been any additional building on Hill 26.  Upon arrival, we could see that the whole area was a mess.  Building materials and garbage were strewn around, and there was a spot with used toilet paper.

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There had been some small changes made, but no new structures had been built.  There were a few teenage boys from Kiryat Arba hanging out in their ‘hut’, and upon our arrival one of them pulled out a video camera to record us.  Minutes later, a group of soldiers arrived.  They did not speak to us, but rather with the teenage settlers.

We waited for the arrival of an order for a Closed Military Zone, which would compel us to leave the area or face arrest.  In the end, 7 cars from the army, border police, and police arrived.  There were more police and soldiers than Taayush members and settlers combined.

Soldiers and police around the settler's structure

Soldiers and police around the settler's structure

A Closed Miltary Zone was declared and we were told to leave.  The police officers said that the settlers would also have to leave.  They had said this on previous occasions and the settlers were permitted to remain.  This time, however, the soldiers did actually make them leave.

Young settlers being escorted away

Young settlers being escorted away

To be sure, while we were made to leave by threat of force and arrest, the settlers left through urging and polite escort.  Also, it seemed likely the settlers would return after an hour or so.  Nevertheless, they did actually have to leave their illegal structure for the first time.  Hopefully this has helped to establish a precedent, so in the future whenever we have to leave, they will as well.

For an account of Taayush activities yesterday in Khirbet Safa, check out IbnEzra’s blog

Today members of Taayush went to help the Jabari family with agricultural work in Hebron.  The Jabari home is near the settlement of Kiryat Arba, and not far from the ‘House of Contention’ further inside the city.  This location has made the Jabari’s a frequent target for harassment by settlers.

Palestinians and Taayush members gathering plants

Palestinians and Taayush members gathering plants

After meeting with the family and drinking coffee, Taayush members, some local Palestinians and a few international volunteers went to a small field nearby owned by the Jabari’s.  We quietly collected plants to feed their goats until a group of soldiers, border police, and regular police showed up.

Palestinians working with Border Police in background

Palestinians working with Border Police in background

They said we had to leave and they were declaring a ‘Closed Military Zone’ on the area we were working on.  While we had been working there had been no problems, there were no settlers present, and we were on the Jabari’s land.  Still, the police showed up in force to make us leave.

Soldiers, Police and Border police.  Itamar Ben-Gvir on the left

Soldiers, Police and Border police. Itamar Ben-Gvir on the left

One settler by the name of Itamar Ben-Gvir came up with the police.  Ben-Gvir is a former Kach member and a radical right-wing settler.  He was standing with the police, telling them to arrest us, as they were preparing to remove us from the area.  After a short time, the border police came forward and started pushing us away from the field.  Meanwhile, Ben-Gvir was standing inside the Closed Military Zone, on the Palestinian’s land.

Today’s action by the Israeli soldiers and police seemed particularly unjust.  We have a man who needs outsiders to help him safely work on his own land, and when it is done peacefully and without any interaction with settlers, the army and police force them all to leave.  The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that Palestinians should be permitted to work their own lands, but the IDF and police choose to flout this ruling when it suits them.