Monday, April 18, 2005

Israeli Attacked by Settlers

Yesterday I made the mistake of going to the dentist, one of my phobias. The fear aroused in me released a flood of emotions that had been building over the last few months. Out came feelings of anger and sorrow that I had been suppressing for fear that they might interfere with my work here. Out came uncertainties about my work based on reactions I’ve received from friends back home who feel my writing has become extremist, one-sided, and offensive. Criticism from friends is always hard for me to hear and has made me question what I’m doing here and whether my steps towards forming a more concrete and perhaps radical opinion about the situation here are doing more harm than good.

My worries and emotions have put me in somewhat of a daze, but today woke me up. I went to accompany farmers plowing in As-Sawiya with Rabbis for Human Rights. Yesterday several farmers were attacked on the village’s land below the outpost. One of the victims was my friend’s mother, the one who had welcomed me warmly, fed me, and told me her story. Hannah was present during the yesterday’s incident and wrote about how the villagers, many of them back to plow on their land for the first time in 4 years, had gathered the courage to go that day because the army had promised them protection from settlers. But the soldiers came several hours late, by which time settlers had already come down, shoved and threatened the family, and kicked their donkey.

Today was calmer than yesterday; we didn’t see any settlers, which was not surprising since there weren’t many Palestinians either. Either the absent farmers had managed to finish their plowing already, or they were too scared to come back. We split up to accompany the few farmers who were present, but my group had little to do, so we sat under a tree to talk, rest, and wait. It was an interesting group: an elderly British man named John from Christian Peacemaker Teams, an Israeli activist in his forties named David, my friend Luna, and me. I began telling Luna about my recent insecurities about what I was doing, and pretty soon the four of us were engaged in a discussion about Zionism and the past 80 years of Israel/Palestine’s history. John offered what struck me as a balanced account of the violence committed on both sides between the 1920s and 1970s, while David and Luna felt it was unproductive to focus on Arab violence because it was a reaction to the far greater crimes committed by early Zionists and the Israeli governments that followed. I found myself on John’s side, saying that a massacre is a massacre, regardless of what was done to provoke it, and it’s important to acknowledge the suffering on both sides, even if they are not equal.

We all agreed, though, that it was not useful to see the past and present as just “a complicated and ancient problem” that can only be resolved through mutual respect and understanding. Israel is a superpower, using the fourth strongest military in the world
[1] and billions of American tax-dollars a year to occupy and colonize Palestinian land while denying Palestinians basic human rights and civil liberties. Israelis are certainly also suffering to the extent that they fear terrorist attacks, but their fear is incomparable to the suffering of those living under the constant threat of death, imprisonment, and losing their homes or livelihoods. I don’t think it is useful or fair to equate the two, or to be “balanced” in speaking of the violence committed on both sides.

I used to take every opportunity to tell Palestinians that most soldiers are committing crimes because they are afraid, not because they are evil. I wanted Palestinians to understand the soldiers and other Israelis, to feel their pain and respect it. But I no longer believe that peace will come simply from mutual understanding and friendship. There’s no harm in introducing Palestinians to sympathetic Jews and Israelis, but the burden is not on them to make peace and open their hearts. Peace and reconciliation will begin when the forgotten or ignored injustices and atrocities are acknowledged and dealt with justly.

At one point during our discussion under the olive tree, I realized that I had read about David before—he had been attacked in Yanoun village, the site of frequent settler violence and the place where I am headed tomorrow. David told me his story:

After October 2002, it was clear that Yanoun needed a constant presence of internationals or Israelis. I stayed in the village with other Israeli activists for a whole month, and then some internationals came in our stead and we came up occasionally on Shabbat when settlers were most known to attack. One Saturday I learned that the two internationals in the village had been kidnapped by Avri Ran—an extremely dangerous and influential local settler with an almost cult following—and one of his followers. The internationals were stripped of their shoes and jackets in the pouring rain and made to march through the outpost on plant needles and rocks. They were then forced to lie on the ground face down in the mud for a long time before Avri finally let them go. When I met them 2 days later I learned that Avri had taken the camera of one international and thrown it on the ground near where they lay. It was a very expensive camera and I suggested that we go up to the outpost to try and find it. The army agreed to accompany us.

We combed the area, but there was no sign of the camera. As we were leaving, I saw Avri and his friend approaching. I immediately stood between them and the internationals, thinking they might be more reluctant to hit me, a Jew, than the others. I was wrong. They beat me repeatedly with the butts of their rifles all over my body. The four soldiers who had accompanied us were a few meters away; they watched in silence. I tried to defend myself and remain standing but at one point Avri got me full on in the face, tearing my nose and crushing part of my skull. I cried out for the soldiers to help me but they were afraid. I was bleeding profusely.

When Avri finally let me go the soldiers walked with me down to the village. The settlers continued to throw stones at me, and I tried to dodge them. I was in the hospital for some time and the next time I saw Avri and the soldiers was in court. The state was supposedly prosecuting Avri, but it didn’t feel that way. Avri spoke with big eyes and words in a way that almost entranced the court. He is truly psychotic. He also must have amazing connections, because when I asked the prosecution about the photographs the army had taken of me and the other internationals after the incident he didn’t know what I was talking about; apparently the army had lost the photos. One of the international witnesses had written a sworn affidavit about the incident, which was also mysteriously dismissed. The only witnesses were me and the soldiers. Three soldiers flat out lied, denying that Avri had done anything. Only one soldier corroborated my story, but the judge didn’t believe him and let Avri off. Avri has killed people in the past and is likely to do it again. He is very dangerous, but the justice system and army are protecting him and his followers. Sometimes I think he’ll come to Tel Aviv and kill me or my son because I have tried to expose him.

I watched David as he spoke, calmly and gently, smiling occasionally as he sat with his face in the sun. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever want to hurt such a person. His scar is still visible along the left side of his nose, but he’s otherwise fine and sound. I don’t think I could recover from such a traumatic experience with the patience and courage that he has exhibited.

David maintains close friendships with many of the villagers in Yanoun and was one of the first to hear about the most recent settler attack in Yanoun 5 days ago. According to David’s sources, as night was falling four Palestinian men on a tractor were surrounded by six armed settlers who had dug a large hole and piled up the extra dirt next to it. The settlers asked the villagers if they had cell phones, and they said no. The settlers then made the Palestinians stand behind the dirt pile so that they would be invisible from the road. Night fell. Suddenly, one Palestinian’s phone rang—he had lied—and he went to answer it. A settler charged him and destroyed the phone, but could not be sure if the caller had heard anything or not. The settler called another group and told them not to come to do what they had planned—he wanted to abort the mission. The four Palestinians ran off into the darkness as fast as possible, back to their village. They—and David—suspect the settlers intended to kill and bury them in the darkness, leaving no trace of what had happened. Maybe that phone call saved their lives.

It was horrible to hear David and his friends’ stories, but it brought things into focus: my writing is extreme because what is going on around me is extreme. My opinions cannot remain uninfluenced by what I’ve seen—anyone who could remain neutral while witnessing such discrimination and injustice would have to be either amoral or insane. So I will admit to becoming increasingly radical, but I will not apologize for it. The nature of my writing is due to the reality it relates, not the way I wrote it.

[1] The International Institute of Strategic Studies estimated Israel’s military strength to surpass that of all other countries except the US, the USSR, and China, Time (October 11, 1982); Some Israelis rank themselves third; As cited in Chomsky, Fateful, p. 6.

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