Two Laws for Two Peoples

An article in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. In recent months, extremists among Jewish settlers have repeatedly attacked Palestinians, burned down thousands of Palestinian-owned trees, stoned vehicles, and also attacked Israeli soldiers. The worst of these rampages took place in late October in Hebron, when settlers allegedly damaged about 80 Palestinian-owned cars and desecrated headstones in a Muslim cemetery. Very few of the perpetrators have been arrested, let alone brought to trial. Palestinians are treated very differently. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Formal and informal discrimination in the occupied territories pervades all aspects of Palestinian life. In the 60 percent of the West Bank still under full Israeli military rule (Area C), Palestinians have no say in creating the laws that govern almost every aspect of their existence. Palestinian homes are much more likely to be declared illegal and demolished because Palestinians are not a part of the polity that creates the zoning laws, determines application procedures, sits on permit committees and sets the punishment for building without a permit. Israelis feeling that unauthorized Jewish settler outposts shouldn't be demolished can try in February to democratically elect a government that will implement policies they support. Palestinians will have no such opportunity. Once Israel allowed its citizens to settle in the occupied territories, which most legal scholars see as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, there was a domino effect of laws put into place in order to safeguard them. Instead of fulfilling its responsibility to look after the welfare of the occupied people, to allow them to administer their affairs, and not to destroy their property, Israel took control of and restructured almost every aspect of life in the occupied territories to promote the welfare of the Jews living there illegally. It created a civil administration that amended zoning laws to allow some 121 Israeli settlements to be built (not including unauthorized outposts which were secretly funded by sympathetic ministers). However, for Palestinians it either continued to apply British Mandate-period zoning plans or created new plans permitting building only in areas already built up. A recent Peace Now study indicates that only 91 permits were issued for Palestinian homes in Area C between 2000 and 2007, whereas 94 percent of requests were denied. On the other hand, 4,993 demolition orders were issued and 1,663 were carried out. During the same period, 18,472 housing units were built in settlements, and of 2,900 demolition orders, only 199 were carried out. Land has been systematically transferred from Palestinians to Israelis. Israeli courts have consistently ruled that state land can be used exclusively for Jewish development. Private land has been declared state land, and Peace Now has even shown that 40% of settlements are built on lands recognized as Palestinian. Palestinians have limited access to what remains. Rabbis for Human Rights helped win a Supreme Court victory in August 2006 obligating security forces to enable Palestinians to access all of their agricultural lands, but farmers still need to go through hoops to harvest their olives next to settlements. Judaism teaches that preserving human life trumps almost all other considerations, but it is ironic that settlers must be protected because they built their settlements in the midst of Palestinian olive groves. Even where laws are not discriminatory, their application is. It is almost unavoidable that the security forces are biased towards their fellow Israelis. When the army sends forces to guard Palestinian olive harvesters I meet angry and resentful soldiers, asking, "Why has my commander ordered me to protect Palestinians?" One soldier recently told me bluntly that he would protect Israelis, but would not do anything if Palestinians were being attacked. Almost no Israeli is ever brought to justice for attacking Palestinians or vandalizing property, even in several cases where we found an ID card at the scene of a crime. Suspected Palestinian encroachment on state land is immediately stopped, while security forces allow the takeover of Palestinian land by settlers under their noses, unless it is stopped through legal action. In the Knesset recently, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai and others expressed outrage because extremist settlers (many settlers tacitly support extremism, but only a minority are actively violent) attacked security forces as well as Palestinians. I could not help recalling the midrash in Tana DeVei Eliyahu Zuta, that the hand that strikes the non-Jew will eventually strike the Jew as well. The evil that we have tolerated for so long has come home to roost. Because the state either supported or allowed eifah v'eifah (discriminatory) behavior over the years, we have created a generation of settler youth who no longer recognize the state's authority and whom even their settler parents can't control. I pray for the day that Israel will recognize the Image of God in every human being and fulfill the prophetic vision of our Declaration of Independence to "ensure full social and political rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender," and for all those under its rule. • Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the executive director of the Jerusalem-based Rabbis for Human Rights. An article in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.