Today was another long day. We began picking olives early and then received a call that a Palestinian farmer named Ismael was being denied access through Ariel settlement to his land. Ariel is home to about 20,000 settlers and is expanding. Many farmers like Ismael have been separated from their land by the settlement. Ismael has 500 trees full of olives that will go bad unless they are picked in the next few weeks, but he was told he must go the long way around—that is, hike 2 hours around the settlement and several hills to reach land that is only about 10 minutes away from his house—or not go at all. Ismael has an Israeli permit to go to his land in Ariel and has successfully traveled through the checkpoint in the past, but these days his permit isn't enough.
This morning, as Ismael struggled towards the settlement gate on his donkey-cart, some settlers in traffic taunted him, saying, “Do you take your donkey-cart to Jerusalem also?” The settlers know very well that Ismael, like most Palestinians living in the West Bank, cannot go to Jerusalem (whereas all Jews in the world can not only visit but even obtain immediate residency there if they wanted to). Rabbi Arik Ascherman from RHR came to help us lobby for Ismael’s passage, but with no luck. Next week, Ismael will apply for another permit, the same as the first, to try again to reach his olive trees before it is too late.
After saying goodbye to Ismael, Rabbi Ascherman and I drove to Marda, where a farmer was taken away by soldiers yesterday afternoon. We were greeted by Chloe and Aldo, two international volunteers whom I recognized from a nonviolence training workshop we attended together in Bethlehem my first weekend. The workshop was conducted by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led grassroots organization that enlists international volunteers to support nonviolent Palestinian resistance to the Occupation. At the training we practiced quick consensus-based decision-making in emergency situations as well as nonviolent direct action: physical action to restrain an oppressive force.
Chloe and Aldo work with ISM, and yesterday they witnessed the abduction in Marda. They said three soldiers approached their group of olive-pickers and one soldier motioned to Amid, a farmer, to get into their jeep. Amid was very frightened and did as the soldier said. When Chloe and Aldo asked the soldier what he was doing, he replied sarcastically, “I am just a maniac.” Chloe called the ISM office and took out her camera but the soldier threatened her so she put it away. The soldier drove away with Amid for 5 minutes and then returned with a bulldozer, saying he would come back that night to bulldoze all the family’s trees. Tamir, the owner of the trees, was terrified. Chloe and Aldo agreed to stay with Amid’s wife and children that night to show their support and to check on the trees from time to time.
An hour later, Rabbi Ascherman and about 50 RHR volunteers showed up to help finish picking the olives. Chloe said they carpeted the land and within half an hour the entire harvest was finished. Chloe’s eyes lit up when she described the image of 50 Israeli activists coming to the aid of Amid’s and Tamir’s families. She also related something Tamir had said to the soldier who returned with the bulldozer: “Look at the way my children are looking at you. We are supposed to be negotiating peace, but imagine how you must appear in their eyes.” She was heartened that the children’s last impression of Israelis that day had been a positive one.
According to Chloe, 7 hours or so after being taken away, Amid returned home. His clothes were dirty, his hair matted, and he looked startled. He said the soldiers had forced him to lie down in the back of the jeep to avoid being seen as they drove. They took him to an abandoned building, blindfolded him, tied rags around his limbs to prevent bruising, and then beat him. Amid, who speaks fluent Hebrew from his years working in Israel, pleaded with the soldiers, asking what he had done wrong. The lead soldier replied, “I’m not doing this because you’ve done anything wrong. I’m doing this because you’re Palestinian and I want you dead.”
The lead soldier then took off Amid’s blindfold and pointed a gun in his face, telling him to “prepare to die.” At the last minute, another soldier reminded his colleague that one of the international volunteers had perhaps gotten a photograph of them. The lead soldier got scared and let Amid go.
When I met Amid he looked exhausted but was friendly and welcomed me into his home. Rabbi Ascherman began to talk to Amid about his rights to file a complaint about the abuse. Chloe had taken down the license plate number of the jeep when it first drove away, which will hopefully be enough to track the soldiers. It is not clear that the offending soldier will face charges for his crime, since the victim was Palestinian; generally, soldiers are only reprimanded for violence against Jews or internationals.
During my time with Rabbi Ascherman, we talked about Israeli culture and how it is changing. When I came to Israel last year anticipating the warm Jewish culture I had heard about, I was shocked and upset by the ubiquitous suspicion, soldiers, and guns that made me feel far more uneasy than secure. Rabbi Ascherman assured me that although in the last few years he has seen a deterioration of the values that first made him want to live in Israel (he is originally from the United States), he also believes there is a current movement of Jewish Israelis to “return to themselves,” to return to the “strong passionate Jewish morality” that he sees as fundamental in the Jewish culture and religion.
Israeli former soldiers who, like Rabbi Ascherman, “feel that service in the Occupied Territories and the incidents [Israeli soldiers have] faced have distorted and harmed the moral values on which [they] grew up” have formed a group called Breaking the Silence. Hundreds of regretful Israeli ex-soldiers have come forward to “tell [the truth] about everything that goes on [in the Occupied Territories] each and every day.” According to former soldiers’ investigations and testimonies, incidents of abuse and army brutality like the kidnapping in Marda are no longer the exception; they have become the norm.
From what Amid could tell, the two other soldiers involved in the incident disapproved of the actions of their commanding officer, but were too intimidated to stop him. During my time here, I hope to encourage more soldiers to listen to their consciences instead of blindly following their superiors—I know that members of Breaking the Silence wish they had done so. I am personally encouraged by the recent evidence that—as in Amid’s case—an international presence can make a difference.
Rabbi Ascherman talks about the need to create “an Israel that is not only physically strong but also morally strong” in a short film documenting Israelis and Palestinians rebuilding illegally demolished Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem: www.icahd.org/eng/video.asp?menu=video&submenu=video
More information about Breaking the Silence can be found at www.breakingthesilence.org.il
Here is one soldier’s testimony of blindly following orders: www.breakingthesilence.org.il/testimony_en.asp?full=334