Who will live and who will die?

If we are to be sovereign for the foreseeable future, our responsibility toward Palestinians under our control increases.

THE BEDUIN encampment of Khan al-Ahmar is seen near Ma’aleh Adumim. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
THE BEDUIN encampment of Khan al-Ahmar is seen near Ma’aleh Adumim.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
The day before Rosh Hashana, I participated in a US Senate briefing sponsored by the Rebuilding Alliance, along with 15-year-old Aysar Nawaja from Sussiya. I opened by saying, “I am here to plead for the life of Aysar’s village.”
September 21 this year was not only Rosh Hashana but also International Peace Day and the Muslim New Year. For Jews, Rosh Hashana is also Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. It made no sense whatsoever to travel to Washington and then hurry home after the briefing. However, I knew that on Rosh Hashana, and then again on Yom Kippur, I would be standing before God and praying, “On Rosh Hashana it is written. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who will live, and who will die... who by fire, who by water?”
In the case of Sussiya, Khan al-Ahmar and many additional Palestinian and Israeli Beduin communities, we could add, “Who by bulldozer, and who at gunpoint? Who by direct force, and who by slow strangulation? Who by Jerusalem, and who by Washington?”
Just as we are taught that we cannot ask God for forgiveness before making amends with our fellow human beings, I knew I could not stand before the heavenly court before first standing before the earthly court where the fate of many villages is decided.
It would be better were we human beings not to play God, but the reality of power is that human beings do make life and death decisions for fellow human beings and for entire communities. Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar are still standing today because of international concern led by the US.
The common wisdom has been that the current US administration would quickly give the green light for demolitions. Apparently, that hasn’t happened until now. It seems that in Washington there has been an understanding that there will be no chance for a renewed peace process if the US backs down on elementary issues of fairness and justice.
There are now signs that Israel believes Washington has no intent to continue to vigorously engage Israel on behalf of Sussiya. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman recently declared that his ministry is working on plans to destroy Sussiya and Khan al-Ahmar in the coming months. On Sunday the state notified the High Court that Khan al-Ahmar would be destroyed in the coming year.
The pro-settlement Israeli government lawyer Plia Albeck wrote in 1982 that the Palestinian village of Sussiya was surrounded by 750 acres of privately owned land. In 1986 residents of Palestinian Sussiya were expelled to make the ancient synagogue located there an archaeological site. Some moved to their agricultural lands. Because Israel controls zoning for Palestinians, they couldn’t build legally, and lived again in caves. In 2001 they were expelled, and the caves destroyed. The court returned them, but didn’t provide a solution for how they could legally replace their caves. All attempts to obtain building permits were denied, and they had to put up tents without permits. In 2011 the local settlement council and the NGO Regavim petitioned the court to force the army to carry out demolition orders.
Khan al-Ahmar is one of the West Bank communities of the Jahalin Beduin tribe, intimidated into leaving Israel in the early 1950s.
These communities are very symbolic test cases, because all the sides have drawn lines in the sand.
Contrary to what Israel tells foreign governments, the Israeli courts prefer that the government decide the fate of Sussiya, Khan al-Ahmar and Israeli Beduin communities. It is unlikely that the court will order the destruction of communities if the Israeli government objects. In 2015, the court acceded to postpone a scheduled hearing because the state and Sussiya jointly requested time to try to come to agreement. I was present at those meetings. Incredible progress was made. Liberman then replaced Moshe Ya’alon as defense minister.
Liberman asked the court for more time to study the issue and has continued to ask for postponements, apparently waiting for that green light.
Sussiya’s residents must be allowed to live on their lands. If we are to be sovereign for the foreseeable future, our responsibility toward Palestinians under our control increases. It is legitimate for the international community to pressure Israel, just as it is legitimate to pressure Iran. We cannot object in the name of Israeli democracy, certainly as long as Palestinians do not vote for the Knesset, or serve as judges.
In DC I asked, “What can each of you do to ensure that the US continues to vigorously lead international support for Sussiya? ...In two days I will stand before God to plead for a sweet and good year for myself, for my loved ones, for my people, for my country and for our world. I will pray for Sussiya, for Khan al-Ahmar, for Israelis in need of public housing and also for Israeli Beduin communities such as Umm el-Hiran and al-Araqib... however... I cannot come cleanly before the heavenly tribunal without standing first before you. You in this room and in this city are the tribunal with the ability to determine whether Aysar’s village will live or die. With power comes responsibility. Please do not shirk your responsibility. If you do, this boy will not have a home. It is really that simple....
G’mar hatima tova – may the final seal for Sussiya, and Umm el-Hiran, and for all of us, be the seal of life.”
The author led Rabbis For Human Rights for 21 years. He recently founded Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice.