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RHR2010: The Most Pressing Human Rights Issues In Israel

RHR2010: From the Frontlines - Perspectives on RHR’s Work in the West Bank

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

Breakout session: From the Frontlines: Perspectives on RHR’s Work in the West Bank, featuring Rabbi Yehiel Greinimann, RHR Israel.

Rabbi Yehiel Greinimann begins with a word of Torah from Perek ha-Shalom, a text which tells us that the world stands on three things: on din (law/judgement), emet, truth, and shalom, peace. Another voice argues that justice, truth and peace -- they're all one thing. If justice is done, truth is done, then we have created peace. The prophet Zechariah adds, "in all places where there is justice, there is peace -- and wherever there is peace, there is justice."

Grienimann is the field director for RHR in Israel, and manages both American volunteers and Israelis who come from all walks of life. "We don't fool ourselves that we can end the Occupation or create change in a big way," he says. "In a big way the solution has to be political. But we're trying to educate by action, by engaging people in meeting Palestinians, in trying to redress wrongs, trying to affect the Israeli public." "The underlying assumption, which you hear from Palestinians all the time, is that if there's going to be peace, you have to have justice." Of course, figuring out what justice is -- that's the hard part.

The main work that Rabbis for Human Rights does in the West Bank is accompanying Palestinian farmers on their harvest and the legal stuff around access to land and dealing with settlers. (See A rabbi struggles to protect his Palestinian flock.) And we're going to talk about that. But first he wants to offer a few grounding remarks -- and then we're going to talk about a Bedouin project -- and then we'll get to the olive trees.

We always tell volunteers that we're non-confrontational and non-violent, he tells us. But he wants to be clear that "to me, human rights include the rights of the Jews as a people in addition to the rights of the Palestinians as a people....Human rights is inclusive, not exclusive." It's important not to dehumanize settlers, to dehumanize people on the right -- as well as not dehumanizing the Palestinians I'm meeting with, he says.

He talks about Gandhi's writings about ending the British Occupation of India -- the need to respond with love and compassion. Working in the field, it's easy to forget that.

But first, he wants to tell us about a project with the Bedouin. He shows us a slide of children standing under a corrugated-metal roof, labeled "Bedouin kids in Hal el Achmar summer camp, July 2010." A while back, kids came from Operation Groundswell and wanted to build something; Greinimann called the folks at ICAHD, and he learned that there was a desire in Han el Achmar to build a school.

The people here are from a Bedouin tribe which was displaced when Ma'ale Adumim was built. All along the fast roads which connect Jerusalem with the settlements, Bedouins are encamped, Greinimann tells us. Their nomadic way of life has mostly come to an end. These Bedouin are considered refugees; the school for their kids is supposd to be the UNRWA school in Jericho. When Greinimann called Jericho, he learned about Han el Achmar (he draws us maps of the settlements, villages, and roads.) The Bedouin who live there in Area C (the technical term for this part of the West Bank) cannot build a school without permission from the civil administration, and the civil administration sees the Bedouin in that area as needing to be relocated to slums on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

So 20 volunteers came, and they made contact with the local sheikh, and they learned that the community wanted to build a school but the civil administration refused to give permits to build in Area A. (Besides, the Bedouin have no technical right to live there.) The families no longer send their kids to Jericho; they can't afford taxicabs, and the buses won't stop on the fast highway which now runs past the Bedouin community. They started to build a school -- the tin shack depicted in the first slide we saw.

"How does this intersect with human rights? It's all about human rights," Greinimann tells us. RHR volunters built the school, and 60 kids now go there. "We built it illegally, as an act of civil disobedience," he tells us. Italian activists raised money to send someone to teach the Bedouin to build out of old tires and the local red mud (rather than corrugated metal, which is hot in summer and cold i winter). A demolition order has been issued against the school, but the whole encampment has a demolition order against it; even so, it's become a center for learning. Americans have come to teach English. RHR ran a summer camp there. Physicians for Human Rights have set up a clinic there. Four teachers from the Palestinian Authority come every day, and the Bedouin kids come barefoot from across the encampments -- many of them were illiterate! -- to learn every day.

The security officers from Ma'ale Adumim went to the civil administration and complained: "The Bedouin are setting up a permanent camp; what are you going to do about it?" They pushed for a court hearing. RHR got an informal promise from the army that the school could function for another year, but that year is now over. Meanwhile, the settlers' organization (their subtitle: "Saving the lands of the nation." Their objective: to keep Palestinians from building) went to court, but RHR lucked out -- the judge kicked the case out. So the school still stands. He shows us a photograph of the school (it looks like an adobe house, as one might see in New Mexico) and then shows us a photograph of how it was built -- we see the tires filled with sand and rocks, piled into walls, and then covered and insulated with even more mud.

The next subject that Greinimann talks about is the olive harvest. During the last few years, he tells us, the more activist settlers have begun burning olive trees. Not the settlers from Kfar Adumim. Most of those who are burning trees are second-generation settlers, some of whom follow nigh-messianic gurus who incite, "Show the Arabs -- we're still getting revenge for the Holocaust!" In the Samaria area and in the South Hebron Hills, RHR has connections with villagers. RHR lobbies the army and the police, RHR has lawyers who specialize in land rights issues, and this goes on all year; but the craziest time of the year is the olive harvest. In 2002, the army was instructed to protect Palestinians during the olive harvest, and they've been doing "a half-hearted job," Greinimann says.

October 15 of this year was the worst incident. He shows us photographs of settler arson: olive trees burnt and blackened. It's a way of punishing Palestinians, he tells us, and the ideology of these groups is often hate ideology influenced by Kahane -- these are not mainstream settlers, but extremists, and the more mainstream settlers tend to be silent. A large area of trees has been destroyed. (See Ha'aretz for more context: Current West Bank olive harvest most violent in years, defense document reveals, and B'tselem's report 35 tree vandalism cases in 6 weeks.) The RHR called the police, the army, the fire brigade. The soldiers came; the police took a long while to arrive; the fire brigade arrived from Nablus. But the army stopped the fire engine and wouldn't let it in, for "security reasons," so the fire went on for another two hours." The trees will grow back, he tells us, in four or five years. Olives are hearty. But there will be no harvest this year, and that is the primary source of income as well as a primary source of food.

He shows us slides of Hebrew graffiti on Palestinian homes, graffiti which promises revenge. He tells us that many of these radical settlements are funded by American Christians who support the retaking of this land in order to bring the coming of Jesus. (He recommends Gershom Gorenberg's The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.) He shows us slides of Palestinian women holdng a sign reading "No fear, no tear, we will stay in our land" outside of a burned school storeroom which was vandalized, presumably by settler arsonists. He tells us he can't count the number of times he's called the police department and the police haven't come. When someone asks how that can be true, Greinimann explains that this is a military occupied zone; that the police will claim, "this isn't our jurisdiction;" that the army will claim, "don't call us, you're Israeli, get the Palestinians to call us," but when the Palestinians call, the army may refuse to help them. "The role of the police isn't clear," Greinimann says.

"An example of the absurdity: they will tell you, a tree was burnt, a tractor was damaged -- people do this to harass the olive harvest. They get told, send the person to the police station. The person gets to the police station but is told that Palestinians can't enter and is told to wait outside. It's only when we hear about it -- and this hapens every day! -- and we arrive to talk to the police that they get their act together. But a lot of these files gather dust."

He shows us a photograph of a child planting a tree in Arab Susya -- land which was returned, alongside the Jewish settlement in Susya. The settlers uprooted Palestinian trees in order to declare it state land; but when that was successfully challenged, the Arabs who moved back in replanted their trees, and we see a photograph of that. We see RHR working with a group of laywers called Yesh Din ("There Is Justice") to help replant olive trees. The man standing in the photo with a shovel is Baruch, a scribe, a sofer sta"m, from Mea Shearim (the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.) The man kneeling and planting the tree is Mohammed, a Palestinian man. "The reality of who comes out to volunteer -- a lot of diehard social Zionist, kibbutz members, secular people who don't want to be involved in groups which they feel are anti-Israel. And we get religious people! And we even get one or two settlers who are disgusted by what the other settlers are doing."

It seems clear that we could spend all day learning about the work RHR is doing in the West Bank. I'm glad we got the relatively happy story of building the school for the Bedouin kids; the destruction of the olive harvest was known to me, but this story wasn't. All in all, I'm really glad that RHR exists in Israel and that they're doing the good work they are doing -- and I'm glad to be a part of its American counterpart organization, doing this work and this learning here today.