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Earlier this month, following the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ annual convention in Israel, J Street Rabbinic Cabinet member Rabbi Andrea London helped lead several colleagues on a three-day trip in the West Bank, with the hope of listening, and learning, and gaining a stronger sense of what is taking place in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. This week, we will share with you Rabbi London’s account of what she saw and learned over the course of each day of her important trip. You can read the second post here.
Day two began with Gerard Horton and Salwa Duaibis who run Military Court Watch, an organization that monitors the treatment of children in Israeli military detention. Gerard is a lawyer and Salwa is a social worker. Their goal is to ensure that Israel upholds the Fourth Geneva Convention to which it is a signatory. Under the convention:
As a lawyer, Gerard has a gift for articulating, in a logical and dispassionate way, what life under occupation is like for the average Palestinian. Under international law, the Israeli military is responsible for the Palestinians in the territories it administers. In reality, however, the Israeli army sees its job in the West Bank as protecting the 400,000 Jewish settlers (this does not include those living in East Jerusalem) who live amongst 2.7 million Palestinians. And Gerard will tell you that, in this regard, the Israeli military has had an excellent record overall; not a single settler was killed in 2012 and 2013; in 2014, only 5 were killed, and in the last few months of the “stabbing Intifada,” the numbers have increased, but only marginally. In his estimation, this is an impressive accomplishment for the IDF given the context: a Palestinian population that feels antipathy toward the settlers and a growing rage at the policies used to keep the pot from boiling over.
To keep the Palestinians quiet, the military has to rely on collective punishment and mass intimidation. But Gerard points out that this is mainly apparent in villages that border or are very near to the settlements. Every village has a military officer assigned to it who is known to the residents. Informants are in every village, which helps to prevent a resistance movement from coalescing. If there’s a stone throwing incident near the village, there will be a raid in the village within 48 hours and an arrest made even if the army has no idea who threw the stones. It’s important to show force in order to keep the Palestinian population from rebelling. Night raids are often the preferred method for arresting Palestinian suspects so that the soldiers don’t have to deal with riots that might develop during the day. Gerard was clear that these methods are quite effective in keeping the peace, but have a deleterious effect on the Palestinian populace.
Salwa was able to shed light on the psychological damage that’s been done to Palestinian society; people don’t trust each other because they don’t know who’s an informant, Palestinian children don’t see a future for themselves, and the population feels powerless to change its circumstances.
This is good for a military trying to control a population, but it has devastating effects on the prospects for peace.
People who despair are more likely to commit acts of violence because they see no hope for a better future.
Palestinians also don’t trust their own leadership to help them; they see the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor for the Israeli government that aids the IDF in protecting the settlers. Many Palestinians seem to agree with Netanyahu that Abbas is not capable of making peace, but don’t see how they could get better leadership.
Netanyahu exploits Abbas’ weaknesses so that he doesn’t have to change the status quo, but who does this benefit? In the short run, it benefits Israel who doesn’t have to make difficult decisions, but the long term consequences will be dire. The Palestinians are not likely to be the only oppressed population in history not to eventually overthrow their oppressors.
Later we visited the Ofer prison, where Israel holds Palestinians accused by the military of various offenses. We talked with families and learned what their loved ones have been accused of: stone throwing, attempted stabbing, incitement on Facebook.
Most of the accused will enter a plea bargain with the military court, because, by the time their case is heard, they will have already been in prison the length of the sentence they are likely to receive.
Gerard has no illusions that some of the people in prison are guilty, but believes his role is make sure that international law is upheld so that those who are charged will get a fair hearing and fair treatment while in detention. He’s also clear that if Israel is forced to comply with international law, it will make it more difficult and costly to continue the occupation.
That afternoon, we went to Bi’lin, the village where the documentary Five Broken Cameras was filmed. The film chronicles the non-violent protests that occurred there to protest the separation barrier that had been built on Palestinian farmland. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of the residents of Bi’lin and the wall was eventually moved, returning most, but not all, of their farmland. On the other side of the wall is the hulking settlement of Modi’in Illit which will house 60,000 Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) when it’s finished, making it the largest settlement in the West Bank.
While we were there we witnessed many construction cranes busily building the settlement. Iyyad Burnat, who has organized the non-violent protests in Bi’lin and who is the brother of Emad Burnat who filmed Five Broken Cameras, was our guide. Iyyad believes that a one-state solution is the only practical resolution to the conflict. He doesn’t see how the populations could practically be separated. He continues to organize weekly demonstrations in Bi’lin to protest the occupation along with several other Palestinian villages that also demonstrate weekly even though it’s illegal for more than nine Palestinians to gather for a political event.
Rabbi Andrea London is the Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet in Evanston, Illinois. She’s on Twitter at @RabbiLondon