Three Israeli groups working for justice for Palestinians

5 December 2002

I came to Jerusalem in taxis yesterday, taxis in the plural because the Israelis do not allow a taxi to come from Gaza into Israel, so one goes to the border with Israel where there is a checkpoint (the only one between Gaza and Israel) and then another to Jerusalem. Palestinians and visitors like me have to walk a few hundred yards between the Gazan and Israeli sides. Not so the settlers. They go straight through on roads linking the main road network in Israel to the Gaza settlements. Only Israelis can use these settler roads.

I am meeting up with the other three members of the current group of observers whom British Quakers have sent to Palestine for three months. It is very depressing to find that here in East Jerusalem, within a quarter of a mile of St Georgeís Cathedral and its hostel, where I am staying, Palestinians are being forced out of their houses to make way for Israelis. Some are trying to hang on, living in shacks on their land.

This morning we went on a tour to see the settlements which now more or less ring Jerusalem. As part of their policy to seize more and more land from the Palestinians, the Israeli government is pursuing a policy of demolishing Palestinian homes. Our guide was a very well informed young Israeli Jewish lady working for a group doing all they can to stop these demolitions (ICAHD - the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions).

The Israelis want to be the majority in Israel/Palestine, but the higher birth rate of the Palestinians will ensure that they are the majority population by the end of the decade. The Israelis are making the Occupied Territories into Bantustans isolated by settlements and roads. In South Africa, Bantustans were mini-states with a degree of local autonomy. However they were still dependent on and largely controlled by SA. Some South Africans who have come to live in Israel are quoted as saying that the apartheid here is much worse than it ever was in SA.

The isolated Palestinian areas are subject to what ICAHDís founder, Jeff Halper, has named Israelís Matrix of Control. This has two aspects: 1) the geographical isolation of Palestinian areas by the strategic building of settlements and roads to them, and 2) a very extensive system of military and administrative controls. Laws and regulations discriminate strongly against the Palestinians, who are disenfranchised from elections to the Israeli parliament, though Arabs resident in Israel are able to vote in such elections.

Since 1967 Israel has expropriated 24% of the West Bank, 89% of Arab East Jerusalem, and 25% of Gaza for settlements, military installations, and roads. This process is continuing apace. More than 200 settlements have been constructed in the Occupied Territories. The latter are frequently referred to as prisons. There is some truth in this description in that the Palestinians are subject to severe movement restrictions. In some ways prisoners in the UK are better off than many people in the Occupied Territories. The prisoners can count on getting enough good quality water and adequate food.

The average per capita use of water in the settlements is twice that in largely bourgeois Tel Aviv and five times that of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. A number of Palestinians are without water for three days a week during three months of the year. Palestinians in one village were getting water for two hours a week, while in a settlement close by, water was being used freely to keep lawns green. The prison analogy is apt in so far as that, though Israelis are not physically present in all of the Occupied Territory land, they are deployed strategically in a way that allows them to control the Palestinian majority. For a viable Palestine to be established, the stolen land will have to be restored to the Palestinians.

The military aspects of the Matrix of Control include roadblocks and checkpoints which severely restrict movement of Palestinians and their produce within the Palestinian areas and between the Occupied Territories and Israel. There are regular military strikes on buildings in the Occupied Territories. These are on Palestinian infrastructure, such as security establishments or administrative centres, commercial premises and homes. Although the Israeli military commonly claim that their operations are directed at people who have attacked Israeli military personnel or civilians, many Palestinians killed or injured in the attempted extrajudicial executions are civilians.

The Israeli military coerce Palestinians into becoming collaborators by often making the issue of licences and other permits conditional on the provision of information about individuals who might be a threat to Israelis. Arrest and administrative detention of Palestinian men for months or years without charge or trial are common. It is difficult to assess the profound psychological effects of these measures to undermine the Palestinian population by fear and mistrust.

The two aspects of the Matrix of Control, the geographical and the military/administrative, have wreaked havoc on the Palestinian economy. In the view of ICAHD, there cannot be peace in Israel-Palestine until the Matrix of Control is completely dismantled - just as all aspects of apartheid had to be abolished before a political solution was possible in South Africa.

Qalandia checkpoint, north of Jerusalem

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6 December 2002

We met Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Peace, a small and courageous group who protest against the injustices suffered by Palestinians. They also work on behalf of disadvantaged Israelis, contesting government policies which are leading to unemployment and poverty. This is what he told us.

We have been created in Godís image and must emulate God. Growing up in the US, Arik was taught that Jews are concerned about human rights and justice, values which he says are still important to the majority of American Jews. For Israelis but not for Palestinians, Israel is a lively democracy where one can express oneís opinions.

Rabbis for Human Rights started in 1988 in the first intifada. They are concerned with the human rights of Israelis and non-Jews, womenís rights, the treatment of foreign workers, economic justice, and justice in the Occupied Territories. RHR is the only group in which rabbis from different persuasions are working together, according to Arik.

Twenty years ago Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza, was the developed-world country with the smallest gap between the rich and the poor; now it has the second most unequal distribution of wealth. Israeli policies since the start of the second intifada have ruined the Palestinian economy, and economists say there will be no improvement in the economy of Israel, Occupied Territories excluded, until there is peace.

RHR members have demonstrated and campaigned against demolition of houses in the Occupied Territories and on behalf of 700 people who were evicted from their cave dwellings. They are also speaking up for Bedouins whose land has been taken.

Arik said that the work of the rabbis is not fun. They are working with the deepest, darkest corners of the Israeli human psyche. They risk being attacked by Palestinians and by extremist Israelis. These Rabbis believe that they are Godís partners in making the earth a better place. They are sustained by knowing that, through their efforts, some people are still in their homes, and other people have healthcare who would not have it otherwise.

The current intifada has caused a large reduction in the number of Israeli peace workers, though there has been some recovery in the past nine months. Causes for the intifada are plain to see, such as house demolitions, unemployment, frustration and humiliation at checkpoints, villagers being allowed water for two hours a week when running water is used to keep grass green in the settlement next door.

He quoted to us from the Talmud a passage that he wishes the government and the military would honour: "If someone is going to kill you, get up earlier to kill him. // If you could have stopped him by any other means, you are a murderer. // If a strong man is going to kill you if you donít kill a third person, you must submit to being killed."

Some olive trees have been cut down on grounds of security, but most tree destruction has nothing to do with security. During the present intifada at least fifteen thousand trees have been destroyed in the Occupied Territories as collective punishment and economic warfare. It is good that people in the US have sent $100,000 for replanting of olive trees. Israeli army and police have, on occasion, made efforts to protect Palestinian farmers and to stop settlers stealing ripe olives off trees belonging to Palestinians.

Arik went into Jenin after the demolitions and killings in April 2002. Blocks of flats were reduced to rubble, to powder. He feels the army did what it could to reduce civilian deaths and yet protect itself after 13 soldiers had been killed. (A newborn baby needing treatment got through to hospital in the middle of the military operation.) 120 Israelis were murdered by Palestinians in the month before ĎDefensive Shield.í The intifada has hardened Israeli opinion.

The problem is how to get out of the present situation. Current Israeli military policy is based on the assumption that, if you hurt civilians enough, Palestinians will stop killing Israelis. But human rights are human rights everywhere. Arik said that most Israelis think that the army is behaving immorally in the Territories. However, a large minority favour expulsion of all Arabs from Israel and Palestine. He supports the two state solution, monitored by an international force.

I asked Arik about the boycott campaign being conducted in other countries. He favours targetted campaigning, including boycotts, of for example Caterpillar, the manufacturer of the bulldozers used to demolish houses.

Tank on devastated agricultural land
near Netzarim settlement and army base, Gaza

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26 December 2002

Visited the Physicians for Human Rights office and clinic in Tel Aviv. A large number of doctors give of their time to work voluntarily with PHR. As a result, many thousands of patients are treated each year who would not otherwise receive medical attention. There are about 20 administrative staff and more are needed. It is a bigger organization than Rabbis for Human Rights, but the humanitarian motivation of the two groups is similar: both are beacons of hope in a land where racism and brutality are so evident.

To quote from their brochure: "Physicians for Human Rights believes that members of the medical profession bear a moral and practical responsibility to use their status and professional knowledge for the benefit of all: to strive for human rights in general, and the right to health in particular."

PHR was set up in 1988. Since 1990 it has operated mobile clinics in the West Bank, working in cooperation with Palestinian medical organizations. Its aims are to provide medical care where provision is inadequate, and to build bridges with Palestinian communities. PHR does all it can to ameliorate medical neglect and human rights violations in the Occupied Territories.

It has a volunteer-run open clinic for migrant workers in Tel Aviv most days of the week. Israelís health care provisions for these people are inadequate, and PHR campaigns on their behalf.

Since 1997 PHR has organized visits of doctors and lawyers to assess conditions in prisons and detention centres, and it strives to reduce medical neglect and other human rights violations, which are widespread in the prison service.

Whenever it can, the organization works through the courts to try to obtain justice - particularly with regard to health care - for Palestinians, migrant workers, and prisoners.

Finally, two quotes about work for human rights:

"I learned I had the indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that Iíd even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way. Others did not seem embarrassed by such thoughts, or anyhow never voiced them of their own accord. But I was different; what Iíd come to know stuck in my gorge." - Albert Camus, La Peste.

"There exists an international citizenry, which has its rights, which has its duties, and which promises to raise itself up against every abuse of power, no matter who the author or the victims." - Michel Foucault.

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