It’s been a long six-month absence since I last wrote on this blog. Last week I returned to Tel Aviv just in time for a massive storm: almost hurricane-strength winds and lots of rain. Highways were flooded and closed causing massive traffic jams, snow has blanketed the north and Jerusalem, and schools are closed. For this I could have stayed in the Northeast where the sun is shining and it is warmer than here!

In the meantime, much in this land has changed in the last six months but much has stayed the same.

Palestine was recognized as a state by the United Nations, sort-of, and Israel’s right- wing government retaliated by approving 9,000 additional housing units over the green line and moving forward on the site planning for the E-1 area which juts out into the West Bank.  The fulfillment of these actions will be the final nail in the coffin of a two-state solution. By completely cutting off Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, this new construction will remove the possibility of any part of Jerusalem being a Palestinian capital while the building in E-1 will permanently split the West Bank into two separate, non-contiguous cantonments.

As elections in Israel approach on January 22, the right-wing parties have moved much farther to the right, purging moderates and advancing extremist elements, much as the Republican Party in the US has done. The difference is that, in the US, the Democratic Party remains strong and a force to reckon with. In Israel, the left is fragmented, weak, and under assault. The center and left parties have made halting and late moves towards a unified front. It probably is too little, too late. The irony is that polls continue to show a large majority of Israeli Jews, including significant numbers who vote for right-wing parties, strongly favor a two-state solution. But the right-wing narrative of fear and extreme nationalism, and the hesitation of too many leading left-wing leaders to challenge this narrative and offer a credible alternative, seems to be carrying the day for the far right.

In the meantime, the oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and of Israeli Bedouin continues.  The latest UN report for the two weeks at the end of December listed the following statistics on violence in the West Bank:

–       63 Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces during clashes and demonstrations, including nine children in the village of Tubas. The majority were injured with rubber-coated metal bullets (2 Israeli soldiers were also injured).
–       Israeli authorities demolished over 20 Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem and the West bank, making 15 people including children homeless. The demolitions were due to lack of building permits which Palestinians are unable to obtain even for needed structural repairs to their homes, farms or businesses. In addition, multiple vehicles were seized and fields were plowed under.
–       Settlers continued their violent rampages with 15 incidents:

  •         They attacked and injured 3 Palestinians (One settler was injured by Palestinians in a rock throwing incident.).
  •         They vandalized or destroyed 230 olive trees (8,600 trees were destroyed or damaged in 2012).
  •         They burned one Palestinian home and four vehicles.
  •         They damaged 11 other vehicles by stoning or slashing tires.

As usual, violent settlers were seldom prosecuted. It is like open hunting season.

Lest you think the Palestinian residents ate taking all this violence lying down, reported that an IDF commander on the West Bank claimed that the third Intifada has already begun: “The Defense establishment has been careful not to overstate the significance of the recent – and growing – wave of unrest sweeping the West Bank, but according to IDF Ezion Sector Commander Colonel Yaniv Alalufm the third intifada has already begun.”

‘We’re no longer on the verge of a third intifada – it’s already here. We anticipate many more (clashes) from now on,’ he said.“

Click here to read the full story.

This perspective was reinforced by Yaakov Perry, a former head of the Shin Bet, who stated, “Are we on the edge of a third intifada? It is a real possibility because of the amount of despair coupled with the [political] stalemate.”

On a more positive note, several days ago I received a public letter from Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) about a victory that they and their Palestinian partners won over the settlers. The letter offers a glimpse into the Wild West atmosphere in parts of the West bank and how, occasionally, justice triumphs – if only temporarily. I have pasted in the letter below.

Dear Friends and Supporters,

I didn’t know myself how moved I was going to be last Wednesday to see Palestinian tractors from Jalud plowing their lands with the protection of the Israeli security forces.  It only happened when I stood there and realized that I had first been in this place in 2005.  On that day I came with farmers from adjacent Kusara, who were apparently renting some of the lands directly underneath the “Aish Kodesh” outpost belonging to Fawzi Ibrahim from Jalud.   Since that time, the settlers of Aish Kodesh have continuously expanded their “red lines,” beyond which Palestinians attempted to access their lands at their own peril.  Thanks to Palestinian refusal to give up hope, and RHR’s amazing Occupied Territories legal team, old wrongs have been righted. That is something worth being emotional over.

Aish Kodesh means “Holy fire.”  The settlers here are certainly full of fire, but I think that it is “Aish Zarah,” a “Foreign Fire” that God neither commands nor desires (Leviticus 10:1-2).  I have no doubt that these settlers truly believe that they are serving God. But, as someone who strongly dislikes stereotypes, and knows that not all settlers are the same, Aish Kodesh is one of the best places to find the stereotype of a religious, fanatic, and often violent settler.  Just as in the Biblical story of Nadav and Avihu, the settler’s possibly genuine but tragic belief that they are doing God’s Will has destructive consequences.

Back to 2005, I saw the farmers from Jalud peacefully plowing many of the same lands we plowed last week.  However, the farmers of Kusara had apparently crossed the invisible “red line.”  We had barely begun plowing, when settlers swarmed down the hill and attacked.  The Israeli security forces were protecting us, but suddenly turned against us.  Throwing stun grenades at our feet, they said we must leave, though promising that they would arrange another day for the Palestinian farmers to return.  That day never happened.

From year to year the “red lines” were expanded.  A few years ago I was accompanying a senior army officer who was also threatened by a settler who descended from Aish Kodesh. I see this settler from time to time, as he apparently has a “Land Development Company.”  In 2010, a settler from Aish Kodesh planted a vineyard just where stun grenades had been thrown at our feet.

Two months ago, RHR’s legal team got the Legal Advisor for the Occupied Territories to recognize Fawzi’s ownership of the land upon which the vineyard was planted, and an order keeping Israelis out was issued. Fawzi can’t repossess the vineyard yet, but there was no question regarding the rest of his land.  That land was also closed to Israelis. The only problem was that Fawzi needed army protection to actually return to his lands.  However, the army put him off time after time.  Fawzi had invested NIS10,000 in seeds to plant wheat and the investment would have been lost if he didn’t sow the wheat soon. Monday night the army cancelled again, and our lawyers got on the phone.  The army agreed that the work would go ahead as planned the next day. 

Click here for a a fuller description and pictures, but the bottom line is that things didn’t go so well.  Security forces battled settlers with tear gas and stun grenades, and arrested some of them.  However, they were no match for the determined settlers (mostly women with their babies and small children), who sat down in the fields while others attacked.  All the while they vented their anger at the Israeli forces for treating fellow Jews this way.  We also discovered that olive trees we had planted the previous week in nearby Kusara had been uprooted the previous evening, and that an elderly family living on the outskirts of Kusara was terrorized.  On Tuesday, a man travelling from Jalud to Kusara was pulled out of his car and beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized.

On Wednesday the army was better organized and Fawzi managed to plow and sow, despite the best efforts of the settlers.  In the morning, the Palestinians had also discovered several iron bars planted during the night, apparently to puncture tractor tires. All day long the settlers played cat and mouse with the security forces, and at one point tried to set the fields alight with burning tires.   

As we prepared to leave, it began to sink in that Aish Kodesh’s unchecked reign of terror and relentless expansion had been stopped and reversed. Ultimately, our work will determine to what degree there will be isolated settlements and outposts in the Shilo Valley surrounded by Palestinians exercising their rights to their lands, and to what degree it will be the Palestinians accessing isolated patches of their lands surrounded by the lands taken over by settlers.

I said “Thank you” to many of the security forces.  Quite a few seemed to share our good feeling. One, however, did not.  When I wished him a good day, he said, “I wish you a terrible day.”  I had also spoken with him and a friend of his the previous day, as they angrily said I was no rabbi, that I was helping the enemy, that all Arabs are terrorists, that all of the Land of Israel is ours, etc.  I tried on both days to acknowledge his anger.  Although I am not naïve, I asked whether oppressing people or doing justly was most likely to break the cycle of enmity.  I also offered to go over Jewish sources with him regarding the rights of non-Jews in the Land of Israel, and spoke of all of the work RHR does for the human rights of Jewish Israelis.  Yousef cut off our conversation, so I will never know whether I might have actually broken through. Sadly, that border police officer will probably continue to think that helping Palestinians is traitorous.

Many of you know that whenever we are accused of “Aiding the enemy” or being “Provocateurs,” I answer from last week’s Torah portion, the first chapters of the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh, like many before and after him throughout history, sees Moses and Aaron as provocateurs because they give the “Happy natives” strange ideas about rights.  Over the next few weeks, we will also see that things get worse for the Israelites before they get better.  Likewise, we all know that the uprootings and beatings of the last few days may be nothing compared to what lies ahead.  Settlers will do everything in their power to get those lands back. 

Some of the good feeling was further dampened when settlers rampaged in the village that night, sending one four year old boy to the hospital with head wounds.  You don’t need to understand Arabic to understand the look on his face and the terror in his voice when he was asked “Who did this to you?” and he answers “Il Yahoud”-the Jews.

On Shabbat Israelis again attacked Kusara. In retalitation, Palestinians from Kusara attempted to enter the settler vineyard on Fawzi’s land, and began breaking down the fence to the settlement itself.  There is no doubt that, after years of intimidation, tree destruction, an arson attack on a Kusara mosque, etc., the entire area is in danger of going up in flames.  We call on both Israelis and Palestinians to eschew violence.  

However, none of the above can take away our satisfaction realizing that some 120 inaccessible dunam have been sowed, and a modicum of justice achieved.

Finally, the extensive press coverage on this has focused on the skirmishes between settlers, security forces and Palestinians.  The settlers helped make this into a great story – Tree uprootings, violence, price tag, and blocking tractors. How often do we see security forces shooting tear gas and stun grenades at settlers?  At one point I said to some of the Palestinians, “Ninety nine point nine percent of the time it is the other way around.  Today, the army is battling the settlers.“

However, this is missing the real point.  When we tell the Exodus story to children they particularly focus on plagues and miracles.   As we get older, we understand that this is also a story about hope against all odds, God’s Providence, the triumph of justice, and liberation.  Perhaps we even ask whether the Egyptians had to suffer so, although they were the oppressors.  Some of us take heed of the midrash from Shir HaShirim Rabah that when the angels were singing after the miracle at the sea, God demands that they cease, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you are singing praises?” 

The real story from last week isn’t the battles that went on, or the terrible settlers that blocked and beat and sat on the ground with their babies and burned tires. There should be no great pleasure in the fact that settlers were tear gassed, and in some cases beaten or arrested. 

The real story here is that of partnership between RHR and determined Palestinians, who refused to give up hope that justice could be achieved. When the agadah asks what God has been busy with since the miracle at the sea (The answer is that God has been making matches), we are being taught that, with a bit of faith and determination, small miracles can happen.

 I am incredibly proud of RHR’s legal team that worked with our Palestinian partners to bring this about.  Thank you to the Ta’ayush volunteers who usually do not work in this region.  I was initially alone in the field on Tuesday, but you answered the call. I also note that these events took place as the Warschawski family was sitting shiva for Yehudit z”l, a tireless worker for justice and reconciliation, and the daughter of one of RHR’s founders, Rabbi Max Warschawski z”l. I am sure that Yehudit is smiling.