AWARTA, West Bank — Away from the media spotlight that focuses on the widening chasm between Israelis and Palestinians, a group of Israeli humanists is quietly working to break down barriers with their Palestinian neighbors.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), has been used as a human shield, arrested, and beaten up several times by Israeli security forces while defending Palestinians. He has also been stoned by Palestinians who mistook him for a settler.
Every year during the Palestinian olive season in the autumn months, Palestinian farmers have been subjected to escalated violence by some of the half-million Israeli settlers who live in illegal settlements scattered all over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Much of the Palestinian farmers’ land has been expropriated by the Israeli authorities for enlargement of settlements and to establish new ones.
The Israeli government recently began laying foundations in 12 settlements for new buildings, while other construction continues in a total of 34 settlements.
Areas around the settlements have been declared closed military zones by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Groups of vigilante settlers, often protected by the IDF, have set fire to swathes of Palestinian agricultural land, cut down trees, beaten up farmers, and killed some of their livestock.
Israeli and international supporters of Palestinian farmers have been arrested by Israeli soldiers for allegedly breaching the closed military zones, and attacked by settlers as well.
The settler violence is part of an established "price-tag" policy in retaliation for every small settlement outpost evacuated by the IDF.
Ascherman and RHR have been in the forefront of fighting for justice for disadvantaged groups both within Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Each year during the olive season Ascherman leads a group of rabbinical students, and Israeli and international volunteers to accompany Palestinian farmers as they try to harvest their olives. IPS joined them as they accompanied Palestinian farmers to their olive groves in the northern West Bank villages of Awarta and Jit.
Hellela Siew, 65, an Israeli now resident in the UK, travels to Israel each year to partake in the olive harvesting.
During a previous harvest she had to be taken to hospital after she was hit over the head with an iron bar by an Israeli security guard from one of the nearby settlements. On another occasion settlers threw stones and human excrement at her and other volunteers, while shooting into the air.
"I’m an Israeli and Israel is my country and I don’t like what the occupation is doing in my name," Siew told IPS. "I come here because this is what I must do. I don’t fear the Palestinians, I fear the settlers. In fact I feel more comfortable with the Palestinians than I do with many Israelis."
German-born Suzanne Moses, 80, fled the Nazis as a child after her mother perished in the Auschwitz death camp. After years as a refugee in various countries she settled in Israel as a young woman.
Moses has been volunteering on the olive groves for years. She spends back-breaking hours in the scorching sun picking olives "because I love olives," she jokes.
"Seriously, I’m against the occupation. I don’t like the settlers and I’m actually very worried about civil war in the future. The settlers are armed, and even if there was an Israeli government willing to evacuate the settlements, the settlers won’t leave without a fight," Moses told IPS.
Shy Halatzi, 23, is a physics and astronomy student at Tel Aviv University who served in the IDF. This was his third trip to the West Bank to pick olives.
"I had never been to the West Bank before apart from visiting the Dead Sea. I was a bit apprehensive at first as I wasn’t sure about safety. But I wanted to understand the Palestinians better and see their perspective. Israelis don’t really understand what is happening here from our media.
"If every violation against Palestinians was written about, it would fill a book. I feel my presence here is small compensation for what my countrymen are doing," Halatzi told IPS.
The volunteers included some refuseniks, or young Israeli conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in the IDF and are prepared to go to prison for this.
But despite the dedication and commitment of these volunteers the settlements continue to grow, and the settlers continue to be a law unto themselves.
IPS asked Asherman if he thought that his organization has made any difference. "Today Palestinians are able to access some of their land at times. Ten years ago this was almost impossible. The IDF also provides more protection from the settlers than previously.
"I’ve also noticed a change in some Israeli hawkish Labor Party supporters from the kibbutzim who used to be farmers themselves. Despite their politics they can relate to the struggles of the Palestinian farmers," Ascherman told IPS.
"I strongly believe we are helping to break down stereotypes and build dialogue. I was blown away several years ago to find out that one of the Palestinian guys I was working with belonged to Yasser Arafat’s Presidential Guard, some of whose members have carried out serious attacks against Israelis.
"He was equally blown away to find out that I was an Israeli rabbi. I’m not so naive as to believe that in the future he wouldn’t consider violence. However, I think he might have a new perspective should he reach that junction," said Ascherman.
(Inter Press Service)