Ethical imperatives on the West Bank

Despite this clear historical development, the question of who owns what might seem to be very complex. Shulman disagrees.

Rabbi Arik Asherman: The army goes along with the extremists’ directions (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
Rabbi Arik Asherman: The army goes along with the extremists’ directions
(photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
In his insightful book on the Book of Deuteronomy (Moses’ Final Oration), Dr. Micha Goodman asserts that the essence of Moses’ last testament was to warn the Children of Israel that the biggest challenge they faced in crossing over the Jordan to take control of the land of Canaan was that of success. Becoming the masters of the territory which they were about to conquer had its pitfalls, the biggest of which was to forget themselves, to forget God, to forget the source of their ethical and moral behavior.
Instead of humility and responsibility, the danger was that being masters of all they surveyed would slip into uncontrollable aggression and arrogance, the sense that “the might of my arm has wrought all this.”
This insight is certainly relevant when dealing with Israel’s present behavior in the “territories.” The blatant asymmetry in the forces lined up in this troubled area makes it necessary to be super careful in our relations with the local population living in the territories captured by Israel in 1967.
Unfortunately, the situation on the ground is quite the opposite of the elevated ethical standards that Dr. Goodman saw in Moses’ oration. The Jerusalem Report paid a visit to one of the areas of the Jordan Valley accompanied by Prof. David Shulman and Rabbi Arik Asherman. Neither of these gentlemen are under any illusion about the challenges they face. “I am not saying that all the settlers are violent fanatics,” says Shulman. “In fact, the vast majority are ordinary people not given to violence. It is the small, highly visible and vocal hardcore settlers, including those occupying illegal outposts, which cause most of the friction. Still many settlers from the veteran, supposedly ‘legal’ settlements whom we meet on the hills are also extremely brutal.”
The issues that confront Shulman and Asherman are complex. The situation in these areas is not constant. In fact, one of the permanent features of the situation is its ever-changing character. “This is a constant fear for these shepherds,” says Shulman.
“They don’t know what the morrow will bring.”
In theory, the army is supposedly there to protect them against the violent settlers. But it is often the case that the army sees itself as primarily protecting the Jews. It seems irrelevant to them whether or not the settlers are aggressive towards these people.”
Asherman notes that they have a recent recording in which one of the extreme settlers – Omer Atidiyah – is heard telling the army what to do. And the army goes along with his directions.
Shulman is sympathetic up to a point. “The soldiers are in an impossible situation. Some of them feel that they are there to protect everybody. But there are occasions when this changes. They are not there to change the situation, they are part of the occupation and they are there to enforce the law, which is unjust and discriminatory.”
In actuality, he says, “for the most part the soldiers and the police tend to feel that their real job is to project the Jews. They don’t always say that, although some do. They feel an affinity between themselves and the settlers. We, the protesters, are seen by them as provocateurs; they think that we are coming down here to make trouble. We make their lives more difficult. We don’t let them succeed in the land grab that they are all implicated in. So they tend not to like us. They are the occupation. I don’t feel a hatred for them, or for the settlers by the way, but they are the reason for the continuing presence of the occupation.”
Shulman spends much of his precious time in the area south of the Hebron Hills, but from time to time he also goes to help the shepherds in this isolated area of the Jordan Valley. It is not that he is any old protester, a latter-day hippie who wants to save the world. Not only is he a professor but also the recipient of a number of major prizes – mainly for his work on Sanskrit. He has won the Israel Prize, a MacArthur Prize, and the EMET Prize, considered Israel’s Nobel prize. His presence in these hills is totally voluntary. He is driven by a deep moral obligation to defend the poor and the powerless.
“Occasionally,” he reflects, “you find someone in the Civil Administration who is kind-hearted about the situation. It’s rare, but it does exist. On the other hand, you find people who are sadistic and cruel. I myself have encountered such people. But again it’s rare. Then you think that these are civilian-soldiers stuck in the middle of this crazy situation, which most of them don’t like.”
Shulman does not only concern himself with the day-to-day struggle of the Palestinians, he also records them, first on his blog and second in books. Two of these books have already been published, the first called Dark Hope and the second Freedom and Despair, which is about to be published in Hebrew. This latter is particularly important for Shulman since he believes that his real audience must be Hebrew-speaking Israelis, who have increasingly shown indifference to the fate of the Palestinians.
Freedom and Despair is a report from the field of what these Palestinians face on a daily basis, their land stolen, administrative detention, threats of removal from their houses, and so forth. Simultaneously, his book is also a critical self-analysis. He asks himself what is he doing, coming to these isolated areas, and whether he feels he can be effective when the forces aligned against him are so daunting. It is scrupulously honest, sometimes painfully so. He tells of his experiences with the army, with police and with settlers. Few are elevating. “We went to Susya one Saturday morning, because settlers had invaded the Arab village, wreaking havoc. I noticed one soldier tormenting an elderly Arab woman. I intervened and he turned on me livid with hatred. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. I answered quite spontaneously: ‘I am here to keep the commandments of God.’ This young, religious thug turned around and went away.”
Shulman also recalls the history of the area in dispute. “In the Ottoman period these people were partly farmers, partly shepherds living on the land who were sometimes reluctant to go into the cities – to deal with the authorities paying taxes. But over time they did own land. Under the British Mandate (1917-1947), there was a land survey, which recorded who owned what.
The Jordanians (1948-1967) also had an incomplete land survey. From these surveys it emerges how unusual it is for a Palestinian family not to have a legitimate claim to a piece of land. When the army or police come to evict them, they will often come with a deed of ownership in their hands. There is no other type of land except Palestinian-owned land in the territories.
Some would say that the one possible exception is land in Gush Etzion, which was owned by Jews in 1948. But there is no resemblance between what exists today and what existed then. The government and the courts have made decisions based on legal fiction.
It began with the late Meir Shamgar when he was the head military state attorney in the 1970’s. It was then that the first settlements went up on Miri land, which is state land not privately owned, but it’s supposed to be kept in reserve by the apotropos (trustee administrator). It was his job to keep it in reserve for the local Palestinian population.
What happened was that Shamgar, who was not alone, decided that this trusteeship could give this land to state settlements. I think there is no doubt that that ruling is completely illegal, certainly under international law. Maybe for some settler’s lawyers they think there is some legitimate basis in it.
“There’s lot of literature about the legality of this, including Prof. David Kretchmer’s book analyzing the court’s decisions in the territories called The Occupation of Justice: The Supreme Court of Israel and the Occupied Territories. There is a film too, ‘The Law in these Parts’ by Ra’anan Alexandrowiz. I don’t think it happened just like that. The military court, followed by the civil court, followed by the high court, allowed this to happen. When the Palestinians protested against the army, or whoever, they had papers which showed that they had a legitimate claim to this land. But it was of no account. Might is right.”
Despite this clear historical development, the question of who owns what might seem to be very complex. Shulman disagrees and says instead, “This is not vagueness, but just untrue. This is another element in this fictionalized situation that leads to privately owned land reverting to the state.
“If the land is not cultivated for three years, for example, or if it has a greater percentage than 50% of rocks, then it reverts to the government. If the land is a distance from the closest village and when the cock crows you can’t hear it, then it reverts to the government. There are vast tracts of land that fall into this category and [prime minister Ariel] Sharon exploited these fictional conditions to take over Palestinian land.”
How does one idealist change the situation? Shulman is under no illusion.
“There is a need for a political change. Some years ago some Jewish and Arab friends came together to form Taayush, a name that means living together in Arabic. Have we had an effect? Certainly, we’ve had a lot of local success with the land issue. We’re here to protect the Palestinians against violence. The first time I was in one  of these situations. A Palestinian came to me and said, ‘Thank you for coming here and taking the blows that were meant for us.’ That is the first thing, just to protect them and to be with them. To relieve them of the terrible feeling of isolation. But beside that, we’ve managed to retrieve land in dozens of court cases. The land can sometimes be claimed if the owners keep continual contact with it. In order to do that you have to go the land every week, even though the army often prevents these people from reaching their land.
“In addition, we photograph the illegal Closed Military Zone orders and record the illegal things that the soldiers are doing. Then we take all this to the lawyers who take it to court. If you stick with it eventually you’ll succeed to retrieve land.”
Did Shulman not feel isolated, as much as the people he was protecting? “Although there are supporters from outside, and maybe many Israelis feel the way we do, we’re still lacking the masses. We might need a figure to spearhead a campaign.”
He feels that the settlers, too, have much to learn: “If you look at the situation over the last 15 years, the program of the settlers has failed. They wanted to get rid of these people. But there are more Palestinians in the territories today than there were 50 years ago. That’s not our doing but we have had some part of it.”
The situation is not black and white, as Shulman readily admits: “I learned the hard way not to generalize about the situation,” he says. “After my first book was published, a group of the settlers came to me and they said reading your book makes all of us out to be lunatics. But that is not the case. I tend to meet the violent ones. It’s true there are some settlers who help the Palestinians.”
Then there are the odd individuals who both agree with the Occupation, often living in the territories, and yet firmly believe in a peaceful solution. Such was the late Rabbi Menachem Froman and his followers.
Shulman met him. “A wonderful man. I’ll never forget. He came with us once to an olive-picking event. This was in the Shomron [Samaria], about 20 years ago. It was a very tough place. Palestinians had been driven out of their village in Yanoon. He came wearing a tallit and holding a sack full of religious books and a Bible. I asked him about the Bible. He replied, ‘I’ll show them that it says you shall not steal!’ That should do it!”
Shulman laughs at the tremendous naïveté, but he is also in awe of Froman’s courage. “He was an amazingly creative man,” he concludes.
We ask him why, given the obvious existence of these Torah-true sources, the Israelis do not rise up and say, “This is not Jewish!”
“The extremists among the settlers believe that the Bible is their source text. The settlers believe that they are in that tradition. They really identify with the Biblical narrative. The Bible is the template for them. They believe that they are reliving the past. But I think what the army is doing, and what the government is doing, is a profound betrayal of what to me are the core values of Judaism.”
“Recently, I wrote a blog about Rashash, a place not far from Jerusalem. It’s incredibly beautiful. There are shepherds who have been there for ages. They lived through 50 years of the occupation and no one noticed them. Then about two years ago one of these illegal settlements (ironically called Malachei haShalom, Angels of Peace) was set up here. There is this older guy surrounded by young toughs. They appear to be very religious but seemed to me like sociopaths, confused adolescents. Every day they come and drive these shepherds and their flocks off of their land, their historic land. They attack them violently. I saw them beat up one of the activists. It’s clear that their goal is to drive these people off of the land. Then the army and the border police come (almost always too late). You might expect them to intervene on the side of the shepherds. But no, they kiss and hug [the settlers].They have no respect for the shepherds. That’s the way the occupation works.
“If we, Taayush, weren’t there to defend them they might already have left. After they beat up a friend of mine, they carried on cursing them. They were screaming and yelling at us. I usually don’t make any effort to communicate with these guys, but after a while I told them the Bible says, ‘You shall not steal! Since you are stealing land of other people, stealing their livelihood and sometimes their lives – I think you will not be here much longer. Remember what I’m telling you.’ They had nothing more to say. This was a taste of the occupation.”
It might be thought that the Palestinian Authority would intervene on the part of these shepherds and their families. Why indeed is it not more assertive in defending these people?
Shulman thinks that there might have been a change. He opines, “The PA don’t seem to be effective at anything, that’s part of their corrupt regime. The people in these outlying areas, such as south Hebron and the Jordan Valley, are peripheral to them.
Only recently did the PA representatives come down from their headquarters in Ramallah to see these people. They are urban Palestinians who look down on these local people. They came down because we were having some success. They began to realize that nonviolent resistance was the only way to succeed with the occupation. Everything else is doomed. The people in the villages had adapted themselves to this type of nonviolent protest. The PA now realizes that the army prefers violent responses and therefore the nonviolent way is much better.”
After shepherding the shepherds, and partaking of their pita, humus and tea, we drive back across the rock-strewn terrain, bumping and holding tight to our seat belts as we go. It seems a perfect metaphor for the situation. Whether there will ever be a smooth road to or from these areas is hard to predict, unless you are the likes of Asherman and Shulman.