Settlers Hurl Stones at Us
Posted by rabbibrian on January 24, 2010
Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I was with a group of Israeli human rights activists from Taayush, when we were violently attacked by three masked Israeli settlers hurling stones our group. I have read many reports and seen video footage of violent settler attacks on Palestinians and Israeli peace activists. Experiencing something personally, seeing it with one’s own eyes, is so much more powerful than reading about it.
The attack on us occurred at the end of a day of providing protection to Palestinian shepherds in the South Hebron Hills, a weekly activity of Taayush activists. On the way back to Jerusalem, we stopped at the site of an illegal outpost just outside Kiryat Arba. The Israeli army dismantled this outpost but Israeli peace activists including those involved in Peace Now’s Settlement Watch suspected (correctly) that settlers had already rebuilt some structures and were living there. It is extremely difficult to get reliable information about the settlements as the settlement movement and the government conceal the data. Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program has done important work uncovering the hidden facts about settlement activity, often courageously entering settlements, to document the reality. Peace Now and other friends in the Israeli peace movement askd Taayush to stop at this illegal outpost, on our way back to Jerusalem and to take photos of any settler activity there.
We stopped on the side of the road and made our way through a Palestinian village up to the hilltop. On our way up, a Palestinian resident told us that settlers smashed all the windows of his car earlier in the week. Later we would hear many stories from Palestinian residents about violent attacks by settlers.
We move quietly, if the settlers see us they will prevent us from entering. As soon as we reach the hilltop, a young boy in a blue sweat shirt who seems to be aout 14 or 15 years old, starts screaming and hurling curses at us. He immediately pulls out his cell phone and notifies his community of our presence. Another young man with a kippah and payos (side curls) appears with a videocamera which he places a few feet away from the face of one of the leaders of our group and follows us around.
We walk fast as our task is to document the rebuilding of the outpost. Our goal is to take photos and leave; we are “armed” with video cameras. Followed by these two young men, who are joined by several others, we take photos of two rebuilt wooden structures. Then three masked settlers appeared, two with black masks and the third with his head covered by a white scarf. Each of them is carrying a large stick. All this has happened within a matter of a few minutes.
The three hooded settlers begin hurling stones. Within less than a minute, one of the stones, struck Keren, a Taayush activist and she falls to the ground screaming from shock and pain. This only encouraged the settlers who intensified the barrage of stones. With my video camera I tried to get photos of the young men as they threw the stones but at the same time I was watching the stones themselves to avoid getting injured and to warn others. They continued to hurl stones at us as we retreated from the outpost.
Thankfully, Keren gets up and is able to retreat with us, holding some tissues to stop the blood from the wound. Immediately, when the hooded settlers appeared, one of the leaders of our group called the police and then made repeated calls emphasizing the danger we were in. Despite these repeated calls, the police they didn’t show up until the settlers and their stones had driven down from “their” hilltop. One of the Israelis commented on the amount of time it takes the police to provide us with protection compared to their immediate response when they are called by settlers.
When the police and army finally show up, they are mostly uninterested in interrogating or detaining the stone throwers, and focus almost exclusively on removing us from the area. The settlers, who were there illegally even under Israeli law, and who regularly attack the Palestinians in the village below, received protection from the army, while we, mostly Israeli Jewish citizens who were documenting an illegal settlement, were told to leave. Why was their “right” to be there protected while we were forced to move. More importantly, if this is an illegal settlement, how come the army and the police hadn’t prevented them from re-establishing the settlement.
In this incident all the hidden dynamics and obfuscation about the settlement process are uncovered. These inhabitants of “illegal outposts,” just like the inhabitants of the settlements, have the full support and protection of the State. Periodically Israel demolishes an “illegal outpost,” as they had in this site a few weeks earlier, but it is no more than a charade directed at the international community, particularly the U.S. No sooner has the outpost been demolished, it is re-established and/or others created. Israeli government officials then tell the Americans and the world that they have removed so many outposts, as Ehud Barak, did recently, as part of their efforts to promote peace with the Palestinians. It is all smoke and mirrors. While some leaders of the settlement movement and government may be embarrassed by the violence of these “hilltop youth,” they implicitly enable their activity. They turn a blind eye to these “illegal” outposts because it serves the interests of the State that wants to clear the area of the South Hebron Hills of Palestinian villages so that it can create a contiguous area of Jewish settlement connecting south to the Negev.
The State of Israel is complicit in the harassment and violence against Palestinian shepherds and in attacks on Palestinian villagers, attacks that are far more frequent and vicious than the attack to which we were subjected. These attacks are all part of an effort to clear the area of Palestinians.
About half an hour after the attack, when several army trucks and police are on the scene, a police commander arrives and shows us a document declaring the area to be a “closed military zone” and tells us to leave. On the bus down to South Hebron, Yehuda, one of the Taayush activists, had told me that the army prepares these closed military zone orders ahead of time to be used whenever and wherever necessary. The members of Taayush ask why we must leave but the “illegal” settlers stay. Curtly, he replies that the commander has complete discretion as to who must leave a closed military zone and he has decided that we must leave. They stay and we leave.
Following the stone throwing, once the police arrived, more settlers appear. I was struck by the appearance of two young women settlers and particularly by a young man who couldn’t be more than twenty, a gun strapped over his shoulder, pushing an infant in a carriage. I was drawn to this young man. He seemed so innocent and young and I was touched by his care for his child. Despite this, he was part of a violent community that has settled on stolen land with the aid of the overwhelming power of the Israeli military. His community terrorizes the residents of the village as they believe that this land was given by God to the Jewish people.
There is a Jewish phrase that a mitzvah leads to another mitzvah and transgression to another transgression. As I stand there, I think of this phrase. This settlement, like all the settlements, are in their very essence violent communities established on the land that belongs to others enabled by the power of the Israeli state army. It is not surprising that such acts of violence provoke resistance, including violent resistance, leading to a never ending cycle of violence.
The actions of this young man and his community are dragging Israel and his innocent infant into a frightening cycle of violence. The only way to break the cycle is by a totally different approach; an acknowledgement that there is a another people living on this land and that Israel must figure out a way of living with them, even celebrating the opportunity of living with them, instead of trying to remove them from the land and imposing it’s presence on them by power. Israel has opted for the “iron wall,” it has not tried the path of reconciliation, of shared existence, and these young people are implicitly being encouraged by their elders to continue that cycle of domination, repression and violence.
The activists of Taayush, although small in number, represent a more hopeful alternative. They accompany Palestinian farmers every week as they graze their sheep, protecting their right to their land. They are a Jewish-Palestinian partnership, Israelis and Palestinians striving together to end the Israeli occupation and to achieve full civil equality through daily non-violent direct-action. Their mission and their actions embody a vision where Jews and Palestinians share the land as equals. The activists are clear that they only come when the Palestinians invite and only respond to requests from the Palestinians for assistance.
Before we came to the illegal settlement we had spent time some three hours in three different locations with Palestinian shepherds. Our group accompanied Fad’l Mahamra and his family. The interaction between the Taayush members and Fadl, his wife, Mahamra and their children was very moving. We all interacted with his kids and they graciously made us tea. Despite the obvious disparity between us in power and privilege, there was a beauty and peacefulness as we spent time with them and their flock of sheep on the hill opposite the settlement of Carmel.
When we arrived, the army warned Fad’l that he could not graze his sheep on the other side of the hill closer to the settlement, even though it is his land. It was his choice not to challenge this injustice that day. Had he chosen to do so, we would have readily supported him. As a result of our presence Fad’l was able to graze his sheep on land that he would be unable to access without us. This protects his claim to the land and also enables him to sustain his livelihood.
Back to the illegal outpost: In the screaming matches between the activists and settlers, I notice the use of religious sources by the secular activists. One of them quotes “and you shall love the stranger” another quotes the prophet Amos. Beneath the surface in Israel there is a civil war brewing between two different visions of Judaism and Jewish identity. Although I am a rabbi, I identify completely with these secular Israelis and reject the religious vision of the settlers.
As we leave the outpost and walk through the Palestinian village, Shuki, young Israeli man who I met on the bus, says to me, “I read about this kind of behavior by settlers, but I never quite believed it. Seeing it with one’s own eyes is so different.” He impresses me as a very mild and gentle man, yet he was enraged by the encounter with the settlers. It shook him to his core. The fact that the settlers wore masks infuriated him.
And I have also been changed by what I have just seen with my own eyes. I have seen the frightening possibility of yet another generation or more of this cycle of violence and I have also seen another more hopeful possibility in the courageous and inspiring commitment of the Israeli activists. Whether Israel will turn from the cycle of violence and begin to consider what it means to live with Palestinians as opposed to imposing our will on them, will determine whether that young settler and his infant and the Palestinian young people in the village will inherit a life of war, suffering and bloodshed or the possibility of a life of security enriched by the interaction between two sacred cultures and peoples that live on this land.
The activists of Taayush give me some hope that this may be possible but as one of them said to me, I doubt it will happen in my lifetime. I hope he is wrong. Keyn Yehi Ratzon/InshAllah/May it be God’s (and our) will!