General, Justice in Israel-Prawer, Occupied Territories, Press Releases

Urgent letter: Cellular warning service not available in Bedouin communities

No Comments 30 July 2014

Yesterday (July 29th 2014), Rabbis for Human Rights and other organizations promoting rights for Bedouins in the Negev sent an urgent letter to the Home Front Command, protesting that the cellular rocket fire warning service is not available in unrecognized Bedouin communities.

The disturbing situation in which communities lack both protected areas and sirens  is difficult to remedy in the immediate future, but it seems that the absence of a cellular warning is an easier matter to fix, and it’s all the more puzzling that the system is not programmed to provide warnings to citizens of these communities. “Disputes over planning issues are no reason to disregard human life,” argue the signatories to the letter: Rabbis for Human Rights, the Forum for Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, and AJEEC-NISPED. Continue Reading

General, Occupied Territories, Reflections from RHR Rabbis & Staff

When justice blinds: by Rabbi Arik Ascherman

No Comments 30 July 2014

This op-ed  originally appeared on Rabbi Ascherman’s Times of Israel blog.

IDF soldiers search for terror tunnels. PHOTO: IDF Spokesperson unit CC-Wikipedia

IDF soldiers search for terror tunnels. PHOTO: IDF Spokesperson unit   CC-Wikipedia

By: Rabbi Arik Ascherman

I believe that we Israelis are justified in defending ourselves against Hamas rockets and tunnels, and I strongly suspect that in the process of doing so we have unnecessarily committed grave breaches of international law and my understanding of Jewish morality. I don’t see any contradiction between these two beliefs. I fervently hope I am wrong about the latter, but find that increasingly unlikely.

That is why, based on mounting credible evidence that is simply impossible for any person of conscience to ignore, ten Israeli human rights organizations wrote to the Israeli Attorney General and Military Advocate General acknowledging that although we do not have all of the facts, we demand that they conduct an urgent real-time review of military strategy and rules of engagement. In a separate letter, twelve Israeli human rights organizations expressed our concerns about the humanitarian crisis occurring as a result of the collapse of Gaza’s water, electricity and sewage infrastructures. An additional joint letter demanded that previous agreements regarding the evacuation of the wounded be honored. With mounting evidence that even those who agree to flee their homes have no safe place to go to, we demanded safe corridors of passage. (The Rambam also stipulates that when a city is under siege, there must be an escape route – Mishna Torah Melakhim 6:7.)

Our moral foundation must be an even-handed concern for all human beings. We must cease to be “lawyers” for “our side,” selectively organizing the facts to our own advantage. If we work hard enough, we can find a way to cast doubt on or write off almost any fact, figure or story. At some point, we must become lawyers for humanity. In fact, our Jewish responsibility demands that we first and foremost hold ourselves to our own values. We must not content ourselves with non-specific condemnations of violence on both sides. We must be concrete.

Needless to say, Rabbis For Human Rights has frequently and consistently condemned Hamas terror, and expressed our empathy with Israeli citizens under fire, including RHR rabbis and their families. We have prayed for the moral and spiritual well being of our soldiers, including some RHR rabbis, and their children and grandchildren currently serving in Gaza. We grieve with the families of fallen soldiers.

We also grieve with the Abu-Jame family of Gaza. Last night I heard Dr. Yasser Abu-Jame of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme clearly state that Hamas has committed immoral acts of violence, and describe the bombing of the home of part of his extended family, killing 25 family members and a guest. Some nineteen of the dead were children, and another five were their mothers and grandmother. I won’t repeat the descriptions of what the bodies looked like. As best as we can deduce, the house was bombed because the guest was Ahmad Suliman Sahmoud, a member of Hamas’ military wing. Perhaps there is an additional explanation. Perhaps this was a stray bomb. Perhaps there was an arms cache in the building. Perhaps the guest was a ticking bomb, and not killing him would lead to the imminent death of other innocents. Perhaps the Israeli army didn’t know there were non-combatants in the building…..

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we have the absolute right to kill somebody coming to kill us (Sanhedrin 72a), and the obligation to kill a person about to commit murder. However, we ourselves have committed murder if we could have stopped the potential murder in any other way, and we cannot intentionally kill an innocent third person, even to save our own lives (Sanhedrin 74a).  Not everything is permissible, even in a war of self defense.

International law addresses an additional complication that is not directly addressed in the Talmud. When non-combatants are harmed while striking at a legitimate military target, there is no exact formula for determining whether the strike violated international law’s stipulation of “proportionality.” Nevertheless, IF this was the intentional bombing of a populated family home because the guest was a wanted person, and even if there was an arms cache underneath, the all too murky stipulations of international law become much clearer.

IF the facts are as they appear to be, I state clearly as a rabbi, the president of a human rights organization and as a human being, “This act was morally wrong. We are better than that.”

That is what we are asking the army to investigate immediately what we cannot. It could be the difference between life and death tomorrow. The Abu-Jame bombing may be one of the most publicized cases, but it is far from an isolated example. We know that the Israeli army is accompanied by lawyers almost every step of the way. However, as one former member of the international legal division explained to me at the time of the first Gaza war, the lawyers of the division point out clearly to the army when something is patently illegal, but increasingly see that their job is to find a way of permitting anything the army wants to do if it can be considered a “grey area.” I don’t find that acceptable.

In my previous blog post, I wrote of spiritual myopia. Ironically, one of the greatest sources of spiritual myopia is justice. As I said at the outset, Israel is absolutely justified in defending herself against rockets and tunnels, even though Pirke Avot 5:11 teaches that, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied,” and even though a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to protecting ourselves in the long run. Israel warned Hamas countless times of what would happen if the rockets did not stop. Israel immediately accepted the Egyptian cease fire plan. Even if Hamas has legitimate demands such as lifting the blockade, they could have agreed to a temporary cease fire in order to work out an agreement. We feel justified in employing batteries of lawyers to exploit loopholes and vagaries in international law because we are blinded by our deep conviction that justice is on our side, and we are the victims.

We are not alone in this. If one speaks to most Israelis or Palestinians and dare to suggest that they are victimizers, they will be outraged. “How dare you say I am a victimizer? I am the victim!” We fail to realize that we can be a victim and a victimizer at the same time.  Our victimhood and the fact that justice is on our side do not give us permission to ignore moral red lines.  In fact, the fact that our cause is just means that we must be all the more vigilant regarding our own actions. Those of you who are familiar with the Hartman Hagaddah may have seen the comment by the late 19th/early 20th century Rabbi Shmuel Tamerat. He says that the reason why the children of Israel are ordered to stay in their homes when the angel of death passes over Egypt is because, even when one’s cause is just, contact with violence corrupts.

“At that moment they might merely have defended themselves against evil-doers, but in the end defenders become aggressors” (Commentary to Exodus 12:12) …”Your abstention from any participation in the vengeance upon Egypt will prevent the plague of vengeance from stirring the power of the destroyer which is in you yourselves” (Commentary of Exodus 12:20-21).

Too often, our deep sense that our cause is just leads to responses to concerns about the rising number of Palestinian children we have killed such as, “I feel badly, but it is Hamas’ fault. They brought this upon themselves and they use their citizens as human shields. What about the Israelis under fire? We accidentally and regrettably kill non-combatants, while they try to. We even try to warn them to leave their homes in time.” This is mostly true, but we are still obligated to honor our own moral red lines.
Regarding intentionality, there is no direct evidence that the bomb that killed 25 members of the Abu-Jame family was part of a policy to kill civilians, although it seems that those who authorized the attack must have known that non-combatants would be killed. However, as much as we can hope that there is no such policy, we can’t say even that with certainty.

There are too many statements by senior military officials and politicians about the “Dehiya Doctrine,” stipulating that only disproportional violence serves as a deterrent. There are too many soldiers’ testimonies about what they did or were ordered to do in previous Gaza wars. In recent days, there have been halakhic rulings issued permitting the unrestrained harming of non-combatants. Rabbi Dov Lior has even said that it is permissible to destroy Gaza entirely. This is simply “Khilul haShem,” the desecration of God’s Name. As part of the “Tag Meir” coalition, we are asking people to call upon Israel’s chief rabbis to clearly condemn these rulings. We know that many soldiers feel more obligated to obey their rabbis than their commanders.

I have already indicated that things get more murky, also in international law, when non-combatants were not the target, but “were in the way.” Here, international law speaks of “proportionality.” What is the importance of the intended military target vs. the harm to non-combatants? How certain is it that there really is a weapons pile under a particular residential home, and how certain is it that non-combatants will be harmed? How many non-combatants are we talking about? Are there alternative ways of dealing with the military target? Does the fact that we are thankfully protected by the Iron Dome diminish the importance of taking out rocket launchers and stockpiles? What about the evidence from some military experts indicating that, even if we wipe out 100% of Hamas’ rocket capability, they will be able to restore it in a very short amount of time? Can we fire at a hospital when somebody is firing at us from within?

These questions are military and legal, but also spiritual and moral. Not everything that is legal is just. We must listen to the lawyers and the generals, and respect that some information must be kept secret, even if that can serve as an excuse also to withhold “inconvenient” information. However, the debate must be taken out of the military command bunkers and closed cabinet meetings and brought to the public. As Rabbi Heschel taught, “In a democratic society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Pictured: Palestinians find refuge inside central Gaza City’s Church of St. Porphyrius, July 22, 2014. Photo: Anne Paq/

Pictured: Palestinians find refuge inside central Gaza City’s Church of St. Porphyrius, July 22, 2014. Photo: Anne Paq/

After the war, there must be an independent and transparent Israeli investigation. No army can be expected to objectively investigate itself. The code between “brothers in arms” is simply too strong. As we brace for another U.N. Human Rights Commission investigation we should remember that the Goldstone Commission might never have happened if Israel had heeded the request of Israeli human rights organizations for an independent and transparent Israeli investigation. Then attorney general Manny Mazuz rejected our request, but then called for one on the day he was leaving his position, and therefore lacked the authority to carry it out. Again, I will thankfully recite Hallel if all of our suspicions prove to be unfounded.

The goal is not to weaken or delegitimize our own country, but to strengthen her by helping ourselves to live by our own values. I know that Israel is far from the worst human rights violator in the world, even if there are plenty of people and organizations out there who would make it seem that way. I know that in many parts of the world doing what I do freely in Israel would be a death sentence, yet it seems that the U.N. Human Rights Council spends more time criticizing Israel than the rest of the world combined. None of that justifies deflecting questions about our human rights record with, “Go live in Gaza!” or “Go live in Syria!” or “Look what the U.S. has done in Afghanistan.” Police states like Syria are certainly not what I compare us to. Neither is the U.S.

As an Israeli rabbi, I hold my people and my country to our own Jewish values, as I understand them. As a human rights activist, my responsibility is to demand that Israel uphold international law, even if those around us do not. Like the former president of our High Court, Aharon Barak, I acknowledge that holding ourselves to our own principles is often like fighting with one hand tied behind our back. I reject the idea that this is somehow suicidal. I know that many Israeli soldiers have paid the ultimate price for upholding the value of “purity of arms,” now much maligned and termed by some as “not Jewish.” Yet, like Barak, I believe that our values make us stronger in the long run.

What are those values? Almost two thousand years ago our sages paid attention in the midrash to the Torah’s seeming repetitiveness in recounting that on the eve of his reunion with Esau, “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.” (Genesis 32:8) Believing that there are no superfluous words in the Torah, they taught, “Jacob was greatly afraid that he might be killed. He was distressed that he might kill others.” The vast majority of Israelis and Jews the world over firstly want to avoid being killed, but also want to avoid killing. The rubber hits the road when we live in the Middle East, are in real danger, have more power than all of our adversaries combined, and there are all too many ways of saying, “Yes, but…” or, “We are sure that our leaders are doing the right thing.” Even as the canons roar and the missiles fly, we pray for God’s help to put our own values into practice.

This post originally appeared in Rabbi Ascherman’s blog on the Times of Israel.


General, Occupied Territories, Reflections from RHR Rabbis & Staff

Whose Land is it? A year for us to get things right in the Holy Land

No Comments 29 July 2014

As part of Rabbis for Human Rights’ series featuring the reflections, both human rights related and not,  of our staff and rabbis during Operation Protective Shield, Yonatan Shefa, RHR’s assistant director of human rights in the Occupied Territories, challenges us to see the Sabbatical year as an opportunity to achieve a deep, lasting and just peace.   Continue Reading

General, Occupied Territories, Reflections from RHR Rabbis & Staff

Promise: Can we see the light amidst all the darkness?

No Comments 27 July 2014

 As part of Rabbis for Human Rights’ series  featuring the reflections, both human rights related and not,  of our staff and rabbis during Operation Protective Shield, Yonatan Shefa, Assistant Director of Human Rights in the Occupied Territories for RHR, challenges us in this very personal piece to live up to God’s promise to the Jewish people by destroying the cancer that seems to be eating away at us. Continue Reading

General, Occupied Territories

Not for Security Experts Only: The morality of targeting hidden rockets as a case example of the need for public discourse in times of challenging security questions

No Comments 26 July 2014

Although we at Rabbis for Human Rights are not experts in security, we believe the need for public discussion around complicated, challenging security questions is of the utmost importance, especially now when lives could be at stake. “Proportionality” is one of these difficult grey areas, and the loss of civilian life during the targeting of hidden rockets — when those rockets may quickly be replaced — is one example of  a moral quandary we believe must be addressed within public discourse.


Israeli artillery attacking Gaza, Israel-Gaza Border, 21.7.2014 PHOTO: Yotam Ronen/

Israeli artillery attacking Gaza, Israel-Gaza Border, 21.7.2014 PHOTO: Yotam Ronen/


Even though we are not security experts, we are not exempt from asking questions about what is being done in our names. As a country we justify bombing civilian buildings in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, claiming that Hamas is hiding underneath them. But preliminary data  implies that Air Force’s “hunt” for hidden rockets (which are not ready for immediate launch) will not stop rocket fire on Israeli civilians, while it continues to kill many innocents in Gaza.

The Hamas rocket stockpile hidden underneath bombarded civilian buildings is quickly replenished after each military operation, and is not substantially depleted, while masses of innocent Gazan civilians are killed during the hunt for the rockets, which has doubtful security value.

Strikes on hidden rocket sites make up a large proportion of total Air Force strikes in Gaza and are apparently responsible for a significant portion of the injury (and death) of noncombatant Gazans.

The size of the rocket inventory does not influence the number of rockets fired – a partial decrease in the inventory will not decrease the number of rocket launches in the short term, and in the long term the stockpile will be replenished, because only a miniscule portion of it is launched each day in a given time.

The principle of proportionality:

It is clear that during war, forces are permitted to strike military targets, and forbidden from intentionally attacking noncombatants. The difficulty arises, both according to international law and our moral code, when there is danger of harming civilians while attempting to strike a legitimate military target. Here, international law is a bit tangled with vague definitions of “proportionality” – does military benefit justify possible harm to noncombatants? The definition of benefit is quite relative, and we sometimes feel helpless and voiceless in the face of generals and security experts. However, nobody is exempt from asking these critical questions – with the necessary modesty – because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a democratic society, there are a handful of guilty people, but we are all responsible.” This is the reason that the human rights organizations sent a letter to the Attorney General and the Military Advocate General asking them to examine in real time, while the current military operation is still taking place, those incidents that raised our concern that disproportionate harm is being caused. We are hopeful that, if it becomes clear that these concerns hold water, it will be possible during the current operation to change military conduct and save lives while the fighting continues.

The hunt for hidden rockets – a very partial solution for the very short term:

On the matter of hunting for rockets: A significant portion of the strikes in Gaza are against what the IDF Spokesperson calls “hidden launchers” or “hidden rockets” – rockets not ready for immediate launch towards Israel. For the most part, these actions strike residential buildings, which, according to intelligence information (which occasionally turns out to not be true – link in Hebrew), have rocket launchers in the building or beneath it. Despite Israeli claims of significant damage to Hamas’s rocket inventory, military and intelligence estimates claim that it is impossible to eliminate Hamas’s rocket launching capabilities with these kinds of strikes. Even according to the most optimistic scenarios, at the most, the goal is “severely harming their rocket launch and production capabilities,” according to Major General (res.) Amos Yadlin. Our history of similar operations, which is repeating itself once again, teaches that the rocket stockpile of terror organizations is quickly replenished [link in Hebrew], despite Israeli claims of success in reducing it. This is of course even more now that Hamas has the ability to produce rockets on its own [link in Hebrew]. Even Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin’s ambitious goals are to decrease Hamas’s abilities to rehabilitate their rocket system after the conclusion of the operation.

Here is another quote which makes this point clear: “I estimate that despite the closure of tunnels, they are somehow managing to transport things from Iran, but they also have not insignificant independent production capabilities,” explains Yiftah Shafir, from the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and head of the Middle Eastern Military Balance project, who also served for many years in Intelligence and in the Air Force, from which he was discharged as a Lieutenant Colonel. “It’s true that many of their factories have been destroyed, but they have significant independent production capabilities” (quoted in Shay Levi and Shimon Ifergan’s July 9, 2014 article in Mako – link in Hebrew).

During past operations, the IDF claimed that it eliminated the majority of Hamas or Hezbollah’s rocket inventory, but this inventory was replaced within a short time. For example, the military analyst Amir Rapaport wrote during Operation Pillar of Defense that the Fajr missiles had been “exhausted almost completely. Maybe completely” [link in Hebrew]. Apparently this was incorrect information, or if it was correct, the stock was easily replenished. Uri Dekel, also from the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), talks of, at the most, “limiting the process of rehabilitating and replenishing the rocket stockpile,” with Egyptian assistance.

From this we learn that bombarding buildings suspected of hiding rockets and launchers will not significantly harm the rocket inventory (or will do so only in the short term), but it will without a doubt kill many innocent residents of the Gaza Strip.

The high proportion of strikes on hidden rockets out of total IDF Air Force strikes:

It appears that most of the airstrikes, at least until the Shuja’iya incident, were against buildings suspected of storing “hidden launchers.” For example, the relatively detailed announcement by the IDF Spokesperson from the morning of July 10, states that, “Since the start of the operation, 785 terror targets in Gaza have been attacked, including 19 weapons production and storage warehouses, 24 military compounds, 100 terror tunnels, seven means of visual observation, 513 hidden launchers, two war rooms and 79 senior officials.” (emphasis ours).

IDF soldiers search for terror tunnels. PHOTO: IDF Spokesperson unit CC-Wikipedia

IDF soldiers search for terror tunnels. PHOTO: IDF Spokesperson unit CC-Wikipedia

What could be a more legitimate and proper target than launchers for rockets that are falling on Israeli civilians, launchers which severely violate international law? However, even if there is nothing more just than destroying weapons directed at civilians, the doctrine of proportionality obligates us also to question the security benefit of destroying launchers which will reappear within a short period of time. This does not decrease the legitimacy of destroying the rockets themselves, but does decrease the justification of harming so many noncombatants in the process. Even if we tell ourselves that the injured noncombatants were not the target, and even if placing launchers within the civilian population in Gaza is itself a severe violation by Hamas of international law, we know in advance that bombing buildings which are suspected of containing hidden launchers (which is often only a suspicion) has a high likelihood of killing noncombatants.

The “knock on the roof” procedure and other alerts, according to many reports, amount to a five-minute warning, which is not always sufficient to evacuate people from buildings; Hamas also pressures and threatens residents to not leave their homes. In this situation, examination of the military-security benefit to Israel vs. the killing of innocent civilians leads to the conclusion that it is very difficult to justify this kind of strike. International humanitarian law also allows strikes only on military targets or targets serving the other side for military purposes, and only in accordance with the principle of proportionality. Here, we cannot uncritically accept statements which assuage the conscience that the launchers turn the homes into legitimate targets.

In conclusion, the main question being asked is: Is it morally acceptable that dozens and even hundreds of innocent men, women and children are being killed in the Gaza Strip for the purposes of decreasing the Hamas’s rocket inventory for a very short period of time, after which it will be quickly replaced? There is significant doubt that these processes contribute as much to our security as is claimed by the IDF Spokesperson.

Even if we are not security experts, we are obligated to demand from those experts answers to the difficult questions about the true ratio of costs and benefits, and about what alternatives exist. We should not underappreciate the knowledge of security experts and perhaps they have answers to some of our questions. But when we are talking about very complex moral questions of the highest order, and when there are good reasons to ask whether security experts made the right decisions, security experts are obligated to release all unclassified information, including the information on costs, benefits and alternatives, from the basement of the IDF compound in Tel Aviv to the public in order to allow public discourse on what is being done in our names.


Human Rights organizations in an urgent call: Gaza Strip civilian infrastructure is collapsing

Joint letter by Israeli Human Rights organization to Attorney General and JAG

Urgent letter to state demands procedure to evacuate injured in Gaza

Human Rights organizations for immediate arranging of a channel for civilians to escape battle zone




General, Occupied Territories

HR orgs call for immediate arrangement of channel for civilians to escape battle zone

1 Comment 25 July 2014

An urgent letter to Israel’s Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff, RHR joins with a number of other human rights NGOs in a call for an arrangement of a secure area in the Gaza Strip to which civilians can escape from battle zones. This call is in line with the stipulation of the Rambam that when a city is under siege, one side must be left open for people to escapeContinue Reading

Education, General, Occupied Territories, Reflections from RHR Rabbis & Staff

Why Jerusalem?: Two bereaved fathers give hope for the Jewish and Palestinian peoples

No Comments 24 July 2014

Israeli society, and Jerusalem in particular, is currently living through days and nights of violence, racism and revenge. The fragile calm of the last few years is gone.  Almost every evening, groups of extremists in the streets call for “death to Arabs” and “revenge.” Nevertheless, a handful of citizens try to calm passions, to talk and to explain that these actions are not a Jewish way to act. The words fall on too many deaf ears, while rockets continue to fall throughout the country, and Gazans are left without protection from attacks on their cities.  

As part of Rabbis for Human Rights’ series  featuring the reflections, both human rights related and not,  of our staff and rabbis during Operation Protective Shield, Rabbi Nava Hefetz visits a meeting of the Bereaved Families Forum, and sees a glimmer of something different. Continue Reading

General, Occupied Territories

Human Rights Organizations in Urgent Call: Gaza Strip civilian infrastructure is collapsing

2 Comments 23 July 2014

In an urgent letter to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, 12 human rights organizations (including RHR) demand today (July 23 2014) that Israel fulfill its obligations and ensure that the humanitarian needs of the civilian population of Gaza are met, particularly with respect to the dwindling supply of water and electricity. More than half of Gaza’s population, 1.2 million people, currently were affected by lack of adequate access to water and sanitation services. Hundreds of thousands are completely without power, while additional hundreds of thousands are rationed up to 5 hours of electricity per day. Continue Reading

General, Justice in Israel, Occupied Territories, Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: On the connection between the war on poverty and the war on Hamas

No Comments 23 July 2014

Human life in war and peace is intertwined, just as negligent decisions by the High Priest can cause loss of innocent life. Rabbi Kobi Weiss on the causes of war and destruction: Continue Reading

Education, Occupied Territories, Reflections from RHR Rabbis & Staff

There’s extremism, and then there’s my brother, Fahd: By Rabbi Nava Hefetz

No Comments 23 July 2014

 As part of Rabbis for Human Rights’ series  featuring the reflections, both human rights related and not,  of our staff and rabbis during Operation Protective Shield, Rabbi Nava Hefetz, director of education at RHR, shares about her friend Fahd, a Gazan peace activist who lives in Ramallah. Despite the tragedy taking place in our region, the connection between the two remains strong. 
Continue Reading

WAR IN GAZA: Reflections from our rabbis & staff

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