Out Loud

  • "Special Security Areas" and Severed Grape Vines: An American Jew's view from the ground of Area C, the West Bank

    07 October 2011

    MorielRothmanI've heard the stories a thousand times. Palestinian families cut off from their land, "hilltop youth" descending from their settlements to frighten and hurt Palestinian farmers, the Israeli military standing idly by: reminders that in these parts, "justice" is just for Jews.

    In college in the States, I studied Middle Eastern politics. I’ve read dozens of books on the history of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. I read the news regularly. I have spoken to many Israeli and Palestinian peace activists about their experiences. I've heard the stories a thousand times- but until last week, I had never set foot inside the West Bank.

    Last Sunday, I began my first week of work at an Israeli human rights organization. On my way in, I ran into Quamar, the Palestinian director of the organization's legal division, and Amiel a man with a dignified mustache and a bright smile who I recognized from a demonstration in East Jerusalem the week before.

    After greeting one another, Quamar told me they were headed to the area around the settlement of Karmei Tzur, in Area C, to look into cases of Palestinian farmers being denied access to their land.

    Following the 1994 Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C. Area C, approximately 60% of the territory, is home to both the majority of non-urban Palestinians and all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to Btselem in 2010, settlers control 42.8% of the land in the West Bank, or approximately 71% of Area C. The rest of Area C is under complete Israeli civil and military control. This arrangement was slated to change as the peace process progressed. The lack of progress in the peace process meant stagnation in the facts-on-the-ground as well. To this day, Area C remains under complete Israeli rule.

    "Can I come?" I asked.

    Quamar and Amiel looked at each other and shrugged, "Why not?"

    I hopped in the car, and before I could say "Palestinian Declaration of Independence at the United Nations," we were in the West Bank.

    "Wait, that's it?" I asked, "No checkpoint-ing, no border-crossing, no nothing?"

    Rationally, I knew that riding in a car with yellow plates and light-skinned occupants was synonymous to a free pass, but it still felt strange. If I had looked down for a second as we sped through what looked a lot like a toll-booth in the States (if toll-booths were manned by heavily armed guards), I would not have known that we had entered the West Bank at all. Israeli flags and soldiers were everywhere, along with shopping malls and Levi Jeans Trucks and Egged Buses: in other words, the West Bank looked just like any suburb of Jerusalem.

    We arrived in the village of Beit Umar, right below the settlement of Karmei Tzur (Karmei Tzur, like most settlements, is on a hilltop, and was built in the middle of Palestinian farmland). We were greeted by a number of Palestinian farmers, who began in quick, rural-accented Arabic to explain their situation.

    "This fence you see? This is a Shab"am," we were told by Issa, the unofficial spokesman for the six or so farmers, "Shetah Bithoni Miuhad (A Special Security Area)." This Shab"am, designated by a fence which partially barbed-wire, partially electronic, was created along with a number of other Shab”amim throughout Area C during the early parts of the Second Intifada. It extends much farther than the actual borders of Karmei Tzur. As a result, sections of many Palestinian fields are now located behind the fence. In 2006 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Palestinian farmers must be allowed access to their land within the Shab"am. However, despite the court's ruling, villagers are still routinely prevented from accessing their land during the necessary times for proper agricultural practice, and are instead granted access, as Quamar put it, "according to the mood of the army."

    "This, where we are standing," Quamar explained to me, "is what we call 'De Facto Shab"am.'" In other words, in the area outside of the Shab"am itself, the army and settlers often behave as if it too were part of the Shab"am, although it is not "legally" declared a Special Security Area.

    In the middle of the conversation about the Shab"am, another farmer, Ahmad, began to speak:

    "Here, in 2002, one of the settlers beat me, as I was working in my field. And the soldiers? The soldiers they sat and laughed…"

    He started to cry.

    Surprised at our conversation's spike in emotion, I swallowed and looked down at my feet. I felt acutely aware that I, in all likelihood, looked quite similar to the person who beat Ahmad: blue eyes, light skin, dark hair, bearded. A knit yarmulke.

    Everyone stood silently for a moment, and then we followed Ahmad down to his field. There I realized that Ahmad had told us of the event in 2002 as context, as a backdrop for his latest round of suffering.

    "They cut all of them," he told us, between sobs, and gestured to his grape vines, which clung to their metal cages, brown and withered. The bottoms of all of Ahmad's vines had been cut by a settler one week ago.

    "The army stopped him, the settler, and found grapes in his car. They know who it was, but they won't do anything…"

    As if on cue, we saw two Israeli soldiers striding down the hill towards us. One was Russian, and the other Ethiopian. Both Russians and Ethiopians have struggled to assimilate in Israel. Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data, but it did strike me as interesting that two representatives from the most marginalized groups in Israeli society (besides Arabs) were those who had been tasked with guarding this settlement.

    The soldiers were just kids. I looked at their guns, guns which had once inspired a feeling of awe and admiration in a younger me, and I was afraid for a moment. The fear was jarring, but it passed quickly. I knew that arrests were unlikely and violence was nearly impossible: not just because we weren't doing anything wrong, but mostly because some of us were Israeli citizens.

    Indeed, the soldiers didn't say anything at first. They simply stood and listened to our conversation. But after a few minutes, the Russian-Israeli soldier told us we had to leave a certain area of the field.

    "Do you have a written injunction saying that?" Amiel asked.

    "No, but…" the soldier began to reply.

    "OK, so if you don't have an injunction, then it is not forbidden," Amiel said, and motioned to the rest of us to follow him. We climbed over a stone terrace, and walked into the "forbidden" field. The soldiers said nothing.

    We were shown another field of grapes. In this one, the settlers had come, two days after slitting Ahmad's vines, to tear down all of the grapes from this second field. Then they stomped on them. The field was littered with squished purple grape skins- the vines were bare.

    "What happens… now?" I asked, knowing the answer I would get, but hoping, nonetheless, that this case would be different, that a team of lawyers and activists could somehow bend the rules of occupation.

    "We can try to help," Quamar said quietly, "but the deck is stacked against us." According to the Israeli legal organization, Yesh Din, between the years of 2005 and 2010, over 90% of cases filed by Palestinians against Israeli settlers were thrown out because of "an unknown perpetrator" or "lack of evidence."

    The settlers of Karmei Tzur have no motivation to reprimand one of their own-- let alone fine or punish him. And the army? "They sat and laughed." Or perhaps, they felt the same mixture of anger and sadness that I felt. But regardless of how individual soldiers felt about the attack on Ahmad’s field felt, it is the upper echelons of the army and government, and not individual soldiers, who make policy. Thus the result will be the same as usual: the army will not help Ahmad or the other farmers receive compensation.

    I stood there, in the middle of a field of flattened grape-skins, looking back at the two soldiers, still watching us. Ahmad stood alone by his withered grape vines, rubbing calloused fingers over the corners of his eyes. With his eyes closed, he resembled my grandfather. And the following thought crept into my head: I am witnessing a slow motion nightmare.

    The injustices (destroying grape vines and other crops, verbal intimidation, limited access to land, occasional physical abuse) are benign compared to other international cases of human rights violations, and even compared to the levels of violence in other parts of the West Bank. But these injustices are combined with constant fear and humiliation, and colored by a pervading sense of helplessness. Thus calling it a sort of nightmare doesn't seem exaggerated: it feels like the kind of dream where your world crumbles in slow motion, and you stand frozen, unable to move, or act, or even call out.

    What I witnessed was not an exception, it was part of the Israeli rule: in Area C, Palestinian farmers are regularly intimidated and bureaucratized off their own land. The lives of Palestinian farmers in Area C are heavy with fear, and contain little hope for justice: in what reads like a cruel joke, the only courts or civil authorities that Palestinians in Area C can turn to are those of the occupying Israeli military.

    Before leaving, we asked “I,” one of the farmers, what he thought would happen following the Palestinian Declaration of Independence at the U.N. He responded:

    "Nothing will change for us."

    I am, like most people, unclear about what the practical implications of the Palestinian Authority’s U.N. bid will be for people like Issa and Ahmad who live in Area C. On Saturday, Al-Quds reported that Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas intimated in a meeting with Tony Blair that if Palestinian efforts at the U.N. fail, the Palestinian Authority may cease to exist. Abbas was quoted in Al-Quds saying that the PA will have to “make a decision about whether the time has come for Israel to fulfill its responsibilities as an occupying power."

    In other words, Areas A and B of the West Bank, currently governed by the PA (A) or under “joint” Israeli-Palestinian security control (B), may, in terms of their status, become like Area C is now. It is hard to imagine a peaceful scenario in which Israel is obliged to assume Area C-esque civil and security control over all of the major Palestinian cities.

    Whatever happens with the United Nations bid, I can only affirm what I see as the essence of Issa's statement: top-down politics have slim chance of succeeding in ending the occupation on their own. And ending the occupation should be an urgent priority not only for those appalled at its injustice, but also for anyone who cares about Israel’s security and continued democratic existence.

    A massive paradigm shift is desperately needed from many angles. One of those angles is American Jewry.

    So to my fellow American Jews, many of whom feel, like I do, a deep and powerful connection to the people and the land of Israel, I ask the following: whether you are Left or Right, young or old, religiously observant or secular, next time you are in Israel, take a morning and go to Area C for yourselves. Go to Halhul and Beit Umar, or to other parts of the West Bank. Go with a group, or on a program, or send me an email, and I'll go with you. And if you are unable or unwilling to go yourself, I ask that you read essays like this one, or others detailing the realities of occupation, with an open mind and a vulnerable heart.


    Moriel Rothman was born in Jerusalem and raised in Ohio. He recently graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, and is now back in Jerusalem as a New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellow.

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  • Comments by Sara Ozacky-Lazar at Tuba-Zangariya

    06 October 2011

    October 6 is a day of great pain for my generation that went through the Yom Kippur War and lost our best friends. But it is also a day of modesty, when we lost our illusions and we perceived in the cruelest way that it was impossible to solve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors with military might, and that it was not possible to live here and triumph using the sword. Since then, 38 blood-soaked years of war have passed as well as attempts to pave different paths to peace and reconciliation.

    So once again it is October 6 and the eve of Yom Kippur, and once again we witness inexplicable violence, arrogance, blunt and harmful designed to light up a flame, which is alien to us.

    Over the past summer a different spirit swept the country blowing aside for the moment differences of nationality, religion, class and gender and generating a feeling of a rejuvenated Israeli identity struggling for joint values and respecting all men and citizens.

    The despicable act carried out here at a mosque in the heart of Tuba-Zangariya is aimed at murdering this spirit, to rekindle hatred and fear, to sabotage the path to peace and tolerance and mutual respect, and perpetuate the vicious circle of destruction and bloodshed, and sow despair and dread.

    We have come here, representatives of dozens of organizations, and rank and file individuals, to tell you that we support you and that today we are all Tuba-Zangariya. We do not distinguish between praying in a mosque or a synagogue, between Muslim and Jew, between religious and secular and between men and women.

    We have come here to protest this crime and call on Israel's law enforcement authorities to find the guilty parties before they can repeat these crimes, and root them out of society and punish them with the full force of the law.

    In the name of NIF, I apologize to the residents of Tuba-Zangariya, and the entire Muslim community in Israel. NIF is the leading and most important organization in the struggle for democracy and civil rights in Israel, and in efforts to protect religious pluralism and freedom of opinion and expression, and NIF places at the top of its agenda creating a society based on joint living and equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

    We will continue to work harder to bring back Israel's human and democratic character and to prevent the descent of all of us into the abyss of darkness in to which those who perpetrated this act of terror on the mosque are trying to drag us.

    These are days of asking for forgiveness and I ask you for your forgiveness. These are days of soul searching and that is what I am doing up here on the stage together will all of you - we have not done enough to prevent this act, we were not alert enough t the danger and we did not warn about it in a loud enough voice.

    We must work together more strenuously to erase this disgrace and to prevent its recurrence and to protect the image of God and man.

    Because we are all citizens of this land which is so extremely dear to us, and because we all live together in this country and the same sunshine illuminates our way ahead and is the source of our lives. We will not let these people drive us apart and make hell of our lives.

    Thank you all the residents of Tuba-Zangariya for welcoming us here today at such a difficult time for you. We hope to return here again and again in better times. 

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  • Window to a New World

    05 August 2011

    Last Saturday night, at the demonstration in Jerusalem, I looked around and I saw a red river flowing in the streets. There were thousands of people there, people who haven’t raised their voices for years, people who had lost all hope for change, people who had closed themselves off inside their troubles and despair.

    It wasn’t easy for them to join the rhythmic shouts of the young people with the speakers. Maybe it was the embarrassment of someone who isn’t used to raising a voice in public, a person who is afraid to shout out loud and even more afraid to shout out as part of a large group. For a few moments I felt that we, the marchers, looked at ourselves with a fair degree of wonder and some uncertainty, not entirely sure of ourselves,  or in what is bubbling up from within us: are we really “the masses,” an angry mob, fists in the air, like we saw recently during demonstrations in Tunis, Egypt, Syria and Greece? Do we really want to be that kind of mob? Do we really mean what we’ve been shouting rhythmically, “R-E-V-O-L-U-T-I-O-N”? And what will happen if we are “too successful,” and the fragile bands of this country start to crack? And what if this protest and the heat turns into anarchy?

    But after a few steps something happens, gets into the blood. The rhythm, the movement, the togetherness. Not a threatening, faceless “unity,” but rather unity-not-unison, mosaic-like and messy, like a family, with a strong feeling of—here we are, doing the right thing. And then the shock comes—where were we up to now? How did we let this happen?

    How could we have made peace with the fact that the government we elected has turned out healthcare and our children’s education into luxuries? How could we not have shouted and screamed when the Finance Ministry crushed the social workers, and before them—the disabled, the Holocaust survivors, the elderly and the retirees? How, for years, could we have pushed the hungry and the poor to soup kitchens and to charitable organizations for a life of humiliation, how could we have abandoned foreign workers to the people hunting and chasing them? How could we have abandoned them to trafficking in workers and women? How could we have made peace with the destructive displays of privatization while at the same time breaking down everything that was important to us—solidarity, responsibility, mutual assistance and a feeling of being connected to another nation?

    It is well known that there were many reasons for this apathy, but the deep split surrounding the question of the occupation, in my view, is the thing that disrupted more than anything the control and warning systems in Israeli society. Our evil and diseased qualities as a society rose to the surface, and we—perhaps because of our fear to stand, eyes wide open, opposite the full reality of our lives—we enthusiastically dedicated ourselves to all kinds of people who would dull our senses, who would cause us to suppress the reality. Sometimes we looked at ourselves: some of us really liked what we saw; some of us were appalled. But even those who were appalled said, “well, that’s the way it is.” They called it “the situation,” as if it were fate or a heavenly decree. In addition, we allowed commercial television to fill up our collective consciousness and to dictate for us the terms of our fights for survival and predation, to split us apart from one another and to denigrate anyone weaker than us or different and “not pretty” and not rich. It has been many years since we have spoken to one another, and certainly many years since we have listened, because how—in this atmosphere of “catch what you can”—can we do it without trampling one another, without violence. Isn’t this what they’re telling and showing us, in every possible way—that it’s every man for himself?   

    And the more we exhausted ourselves with unending denials, so we have become better fodder for control and manipulation and stupidity, victims of a subtle and effective “divide and conquer.” And thus, from money to money, from money to power, and to the press, our dealings with critical questions took a dive and became questions like “who loves this country and who hates it,” “who is faithful to it and who is a traitor,” who is a “good Jew” and who has “forgotten that he is Jewish.” Every rational discussion has been buried in a thick dough of kitsch and sentimentalism, the kitsch of patriotism and nationalism, the kitsch of self-righteousness and of victimhood, and slowly the ability to analyze soberly what is going on here became blocked, and at the end of the day Israel finds itself acting and behaving—towards its own citizens —in complete contrast to the values and the world view that were once its very soul and its inimitability.

    But here, all of a sudden, and in contrast to all the predictions, something is rising up. People are waking up, opening up to something that isn’t entirely clear yet, where it is all going, and there are no words yet precisely to describe it all, or completely to understand it, but it is becoming more clear and crystallizing while calling out these slogans, which are all of a sudden blossoming from a cliche into live feelings, “The Entire Nation Demands Social Justice!”, “We Want Justice, Not Charity” and other sayings taken from other times, and once in a while there is a feeling in the air that there is a path to recovery, to mending, and this forgotten thing comes back to us,  our self-respect, of the individual Israeli and of Israelis as a whole.

    There is an unbelievable power, a power which is also a bit deceiving and intoxicating, in this awakening. It is enticing to be swept away by euphoria— and in the renewal of youth—that the new movement has inspired. It is easy to err with the misconception that once again, we are destroying an old world to the very foundations.  But that’s not exactly right: the old world wasn’t all bad. There were great accomplishments, too, some of which will make it possible for the current protest movement to achieve some of its goals, as well as the freedom to express these desires. Therefore, this struggle must use entirely different language than struggles we’ve had here previously. Above all, it must be based on dialogue; it must be inclusive rather than exclude people, ideological and not sectoral and opportunistic. It shouldn’t be “every tent for itself.” This is the way for the protest movement to maintain the widespread public support it currently enjoys. A certain amount of vagueness by the protest movement makes it possible for every group within the movement to hold different and opposing political opinions and beliefs but still—for the first time in decades—to form a common human, civilian platform, and even to feel pride about being part of this community. Who in Israel can allow himself to relinquish these precious resources?

    This protest movement and the waves of aftermath offer an opportunity for people who haven’t spoken to one another for decades finally to speak to one another. Different layers of society who are far removed from one another. Religious and secular, Arabs and Jews. Inside this process of identifying what unites us, there can also be a renewed dialogue between right and left wing, a discussion based on reality and more empathetic—for example, the left’s apathy with regard to people who lost their homes in Gush Katif, the settlers’ open wound—the type of discussion that could salvage what’s left of our mutual responsibility, something that a country in our current state cannot afford to let go of. In other words, if the spirit behind this movement really is to be found in the words of Amir Gilboa—“All of a sudden a man wakes up one morning and feels he is an entire nation and he begins to move,” then the movement must now continue on and sing, “and he said ‘shalom’ to everything he met.”

    It is easy to criticize the steps of this young movement. And in general —it is always easier to find reasons to say “no” than to get up and make bold, brave steps. But anyone who listens to the mercies of the protesters hearts — not only on Rothschild Boulevard, but also in south Tel Aviv, in Ashdod, in the lower socio-economic neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Haifa and Ma’alot-Tarshiha—understands that we may have opened a window here to a new future. The time is right for such a process, and surprise surprise!—there are people, at long last, who are joining the fight. Maybe that’s what one young woman meant when she came up to me at a demonstration in Jerusalem and said, “look! The leadership is still terrible, but the people aren’t anymore.”

    Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth.

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  • We're Fighting for the Soul of Our Community

    09 August 2011

    The Washington Post published this weekend two articles related to Israel that, at first glance, may appear unrelated, but are as good as an example as I have seen of late of the disconnect between Israel and the American Jewish community.    

    On Sunday, the Post ran "Israelis stage massive economic protests," which details the strength of the public voice of debate and dissent in Israel.  Though opposition opinion has sadly been under siege of late in Israel, there nevertheless remains a culture in Israel that promotes and respects the airing of differing views.  In the picture that accompanies the story, one can see an Arabic language sign, indicating the willingness and ability of Israeli Arabs to participate in these protests.  Not only does this provide a remarkable juxtaposition with protests throughout the Arab world, but it also reminded me of an article from the previous day.

    In Saturday's "Theater J incident illustrates larger dialogue on Israel at Jewish institutions," the Post demonstrated how the vibrant protests and debate underway in Israel are simply not possible in the American Jewish community.  Although Israelis were debating economic policy, rather than settlements, such political protests are also commonplace in Israel.  Yet in the American Jewish community, we no longer seem able to practice our Jewish religious (and artistic) heritage, which is rooted in honest debate and disagreement -- indeed, the Hebrew word for "struggle" is at the core of the Hebrew word "Yisrael."  

    Theater J's Director, Ari Roth, summed this issue up best in the Saturday article when he said, "Look at what we’re doing: We’re fighting for the soul of our community. We are enacting dramas, and the subject is the embattled soul of the Jewish people. It’s a community and a people that are split and torn, and we sit on the seams of that divide and we need to reflect that schism: that person who looks deeply at himself, and is divided."  That is the essence of the word "struggle," the core of what the community should be celebrating, not censoring.

    Sadly, it would appear that those who have pushed to marginalize the Peace Cafe and other brave efforts byTheater J have abandoned both the teachings of their culture and the lessons being taught by Jews and Arabs in Israel: if you believe that what you stand for is just, you should not be afraid to defend it against those who disagree. Perhaps this indeed is the best evidence of all that the settlements and related policies put under the microscope by Theater J are simply indefensible.

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  • The Rat Race And The March Of Folly

    29 July 2011

    ShlomoSwirskiThe wave of protests that are splashing over Israel represent, first and foremost, the middle class' recognition – at long last – that it is powerless to hold its own in the mad competition that has been forced upon it: military service involving the loss of three years of income, college studies, the purchase of a decent condominium, the high cost of raising children, and the high cost of basic foods. The mad competition, in turn, is the product of the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few – the top ten percent of income earners, and among them, the top one percent and the top .1%. The increasing wealth at the top enables a small minority to determine new standards in every area of life: a one-family dwelling with a yard or a condo in a prestigious new city tower in Tel Aviv; kindergartens that purport to increase children's IQ, elementary schools for the gifted, arts and sciences high schools, private colleges, and luxury consumer goods.

    Young middle-class people, aware of the new standards, realize that this is a race they cannot win, a race that turns them into rats caught in a maze. In the 1960s, American students called it the rat race.

    For its part, the government of Israel washes its hands in the ideology of the free market and is willing, at most, to admit that there are a few "market failures." But ideology is a matter of geography, and in our case, the free market ideology stops at the border between Israel and the West Bank. On the other side of the Green Line, the government – like all recent governments of Israel – continues to take the initiative and lead the largest national civilian project undertaken in Israel since the 1967 war – the settlements. This ongoing undertaking is a march of folly not only because it costs a huge amount of money: it also guarantees the continuation of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

    It is an undertaking involving huge expenditures to which there appears to be no end. Perhaps the construction of homes need not be taken into account, as persons living in the settlements would still have needed homes had they chosen to remain within the Green Line. However, a home in a settlement is less expensive for the settler but very expensive for every other Israeli: settlements involve expensive infrastructures, expensive by-pass roads, a separation wall, armored transportation, generous public services, income tax and municipal tax breaks, development subsidies and housing purchase assistance.

    The real costs are higher still: special military installations built to protect the settlements and their access roads, military activity in which all units of the infantry need to take part, and special budgetary outlays in times of increased hostilities. Since the first Intifada, the defense budget has received additional allocations for "events in the territories" amounting to $13.5 billion.

    Who pays? Tax-payers, and, among them, members of the middle class. The same people called upon to patrol and to scout and to fight – the middle class, which is the backbone of the Israel Defense Forces.

    So what do we have here? We have a state of Israel with a split personality, a two-faced state. On the Israeli side of the Green Line, it says to the middle class: "It's not my job to correct the situation," while on the occupied side of the Green Line it says: "I'll do it! I'll do it! I'll initiate. I'll invest. I'll build. I'll take care of you." What we have is a highly pro-active state on the east side of the Green line and a free market state on west side of the Green Line. A democratic state with a free market here, and an occupier state with state socialism for settlers there.

    The rat race and the march of folly. Has Israel reached the breaking point?

    Shlomo Swirski is the Academic Research Director of the Adva Center, which provides policy analysis and public education on issues of economic inequality in Israel.

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Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

By Daniel Sokatch and David N. Myers

13 January 2014