Readers of the Bible are no doubt aware of the Divine promise made to the ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that their descendants would inherit the land of Israel.
The heart of the conflict in the country Israel\Palestine is the land. Palestinians have been unsuccessfully resisting, violently and otherwise, the 100 year old Zionist enterprise, the political return of the Jews to the land. Each round of violence leads to further losses of land by the Palestinians to the Israelis.
Rabbis for Human Rights has for the past twenty years been working to help Palestinian farmers in the West Bank assure access to farm lands under dispute with the Jewish settlers in the area. Radical settlers have colonized the hills of Judea and Samaria, where there is a concentrated Arab population of 3-4 million Palestinians. They do so under the auspices of the Israeli occupation of the area since the 1967 war, rejecting all proposals to divide the land between the two religious-ethnic groups and their nationalist movements. They have this rejection of political compromise in common with Hamas.
Working in the area is difficult and complex since it is the focus of massive propaganda efforts by both sides and their supporters. It is at the heart of the religious narratives of the three major world religions, and at the crossroads of three continents. Israel/Palestine has become the home to more journalists and “do-gooders” per head than any other conflict zone on earth. A huge amount of foreign money has been poured into the area in the competition for control of the land, much of it going to corrupt local politicians.
Nevertheless, the injustice to Palestinians in the area under Israeli rule is blatant and, as rabbis, we feel it our religious duty to counter the powerful lobbies of fundamentalists, both Jewish and Christian, in our work with the Israeli authorities. Our understanding of Torah is that it demands justice and equality before the law, and that the land was promised to the Jewish people on condition that those are the values by which it is ruled. These are the values we preach and teach within Israeli society, referring in particular to the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and its promise of justice, peace and equality before the law. They also inform our actions on the ground, in accompanying Palestinian farmers to their fields, and in challenging land grabs in court and with the I.D.F. legal advisor’s offices (of the military occupation).
We sometimes feel that our work is Sisyphusian but there have been significant victories, for instance the return of hundreds of the South Hebron cave-dwellers to their homes and lands a decade ago, recent reversals of settler take-overs, with army acquiescence, in the villages of Susiya, Bir El Id, and Krayiut, and an important Supreme Court decision in 2006 criticizing the army for “punishing the victim” by declaring areas under dispute closed military zones rather than protecting Palestinian farmers in the fields from settler aggression. The highlight of our yearly activities is the olive harvest, when we organize bus loads of Israeli peace-oriented activists to accompany Palestinian harvesters to their fields.
These activities aim to break barriers between the groups and assert solidarity with those suffering under the ongoing occupation, as well as resisting the continuous pressure of the more extreme elements amongst the settlers to grab more land, and block any possibility of a political solution to the conflict. What is true in the agricultural areas of the Palestinian territories is also the case in those urban areas, such as East Jerusalem and Hebron, still under Israeli control. Here we work in coalition with other human rights groups to resist and protest take-overs of Palestinian homes (for instance in Sheik Jarrah and Silwan) and home demolitions.
The methods used by the settlers, with government and army collusion, is to prevent use of land over time for security (terrorism is a very real concern as the recent murders in Itamar show) and other reasons. Ottoman law, which applies in these areas, allows that land not used over a period of ten years can then be declared “state land” which is then often handed over to the settlers. This has been the method used through the 40 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and, (until the Israeli withdrawal) Gaza.
This activity cannot, of course, solve the complex political and security reality on the ground, but it nevertheless creates a basis for cooperation and trust between people on the two sides. With outside help and goodwill (i.e. parties who are not automatically programmed to favor one side or the other but truly are “honest brokers”), this basis can be built upon.
We pray daily for sanity here and a political solution which will bring justice and peace to the region. We believe our small contribution is important as one of many which may, with G-d’s help, turn things around from violence and hate towards healing and life.