A 53-year-old plumber from Jerusalem has become a one-man institution dedicated to helping and protecting the Palestinian cave dwellers of the southern Hebron Hills.

Even the Palestinians say they would not have survived in the area - facing pressure from the Israel Defense Forces and harassment from the settlers - without Ezra Nawi.

About two months ago, Palestinian shepherds from the southern slopes of the Hebron Hills noticed a settler spreading poisoned wheat kernels in the pasture fields. They managed to get their sheep out in time - dozens of farm animals were killed in a similar incident - but the next morning the carcasses of two wild deer that had eaten the poisoned kernels were found.

Nawi, a left-wing activist who had arrived as usual that morning to help the Al-Tawani village residents, decided to protest. He took one of the carcasses and placed it in the middle of the road to the Maon settlement, from where the Palestinians claimed the poisoners had come.

"I wanted them to see the consequences of their actions," Nawi says. He was later questioned by the police for "obstructing the investigation" with his protest.

But Nawi has long ceased to be upset by the police. He says he cannot count the number of times he has been arrested, questioned and released on bail for his activity in the Hebron Hills. The last time was two weeks ago, when he was suspected of pretending to be a policeman in order to enter Area A unlawfully, while passing through Arab Hebron on his way to visit the Tel Rumeida area to demonstrate his solidarity with the Palestinian residents.

Nawi denies the suspicion, claiming it was a misunderstanding. "I know they're looking for an excuse to get me out of the area," he says. In recent weeks, however, he has had to deal not only with the threat of arrest, but also with the settlers' threats to harm him.

Arena of harsh conflict

The southern Hebron Hills area has become in recent years the arena of a harsh conflict between the Palestinians - mostly cave dwellers, peasants and shepherds - and the settlers.

And in the past six months, the settlers - radical groups occupying the illegal outposts in the area - have considerably intensified their attacks and harassment of the Palestinians.

In an incident three weeks ago, several haystacks made by Palestinian farmers were set alight. A few hours earlier, four young settlers sawed off the branches of numerous olive trees. And that week, Jewish shepherds brought a herd of goats and sheep to Palestinian fields that had been sown with lentils, opposite the village of Gawish in the Hebron hills. In Beit Imra, some 200 olive trees, each about 15 years old, were chopped down. Settlers drove a plow over a cultivated field nearby and destroyed it. And two weeks ago, 20 settlers armed with sticks and stones arrived and beat up some shepherds. A 10-year-old boy suffered injuries that required stitches to his face, and three ewes were killed. At the end of that week, settlers stole 10 young lambs that had not yet been weaned. In the nights that followed, the Palestinians said they heard the lambs bleating, but could not reach them.

The settlers reserve their most violent attacks for the international volunteers, who sometimes accompany the Palestinians to protect them from harassment. On several occasions in the past months, masked men attacked Palestinian children and foreign volunteers who were walking with them to school. Several volunteers were hospitalized as a result.

The settlers' attacks on the Palestinians in this region are a daily occurrence. The most extreme zealots keep coming up with ever-more malicious and destructive ideas - arson, plowing cultivated fields, bringing herds to seeded fields, poisoning sheep, poisoning water wells and more.

Most incidents of violence and destruction are not reported to the police. "It's exhausting to file complaints all the time," says Nawi. "The residents waste two hours traveling to the police station, they are humiliated at the entrance, where they are made to wait for several hours, then receive at best a note confirming that a complaint has been filed."

The Hebron police say they take every complaint seriously, and that they have done some searching and probing in area settlements recently.

"The police are acting in the area," says the Judea and Samaria (West Bank) District Police spokesman, Shlomi Saguy. "We have beefed up patrols in the region. We do not close the inquiries. We make every effort to bring the suspects to trial. The Palestinians don't always cooperate, and the settlers are much worse."

Nawi, in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck and speaking fluent Arabic, coordinates most of the activity to help the Palestinians. He escorts Palestinians to file a complaint with the police, or puts together a group of volunteers to build a medical clinic, dig a water hole, renovate a school or reopen a cave that the IDF or settlers have blocked.

Nawi uses his professional know-how to set up water infrastructures in the villages. He also organized the foreign volunteer groups who escort the children to school and the shepherds to the meadows.

He also serves as coordinator of Ta'ayosh - a Jewish-Arab human rights organization - in the Hebron Hills. He brings groups of Israelis to help the Palestinians with the olive or wheat harvests, and to protect them. He also helps the Palestinians contact lawyers and journalists, and tries to enlist world public opinion to their cause. He has provided them with video cameras to document the harassment. Recently, he organized a vigil of foreign volunteers who spent the night near the haystacks to deter the settlers from setting them alight again.

But the project of which he is most proud is the summer school he organized for the village children. It has been held a few times, and once even included a trip to Jericho. "It was the first time that these children saw a swimming pool or a magician," he says, his eyes shining. "They also see other Israelis, who are not settlers and soldiers."

Far from optimistic

Nawi tries to get the army and police to stop the violence, mostly in vain. "The root of the problem is not the settlers, it's the failure to deal with them," he says. "The police have no inclination to do so."

"He has created a new status quo vis-a-vis the settlers," says Aviad Albert, a fellow Ta'ayosh activist. "He understands how all the systems work to contrive to disrupt the Palestinians' life and prevent its development. He does not wait for permits, he simply acts."

Nawi frequently encounters settlers, with whom he is less than popular. In the last few weeks, police intelligence agents have warned him on several occasions that the settlers intend to take him out. "Whoever brings his head will be very highly regarded in the settlements," says attorney Yael Barda, who helps the Palestinians in the region.

But Nawi is not afraid. Over the years, he has clashed with the settlers dozens of times and does not shy away from confrontation. Some say he is even looking for it. "The settlers have become used to seeing Israelis caving in and crumpling when they get beaten," he says. "I don't cave in. If anyone beats me, I strike him back. And I'm not exactly a pip-squeak."

Zvi Bar Hai, the head of the South Hebron Hills regional council, blames Nawi for the tension in the area. "He causes unrest and rumbling. He tries to disrupt the quiet ... in unacceptable ways, and I hear this from sources in the police and the army."

However, Bar Hai denounces those who wish to harm Nawi. "He must not be touched, we are not in Texas," he says.

Commenting on the settlers' attacks on the Palestinians, Bar Hai says: "Things have happened in the past months that are unacceptable. I have asked the police and Shin Bet to find the culprits."

"I am no less of a patriot than Bar Hai," replies Nawi. "I love this country no less than he does, but, unlike the settlers, I build rather than destroy."

Trying to explain his love for the region and its people, he says: "This is a nonviolent area, there is no active objection to the occupation here. The residents are weak from every respect, but courageous. They are trying to hang on by their fingernails."

Nawi's colleagues agree that the plumber from Jerusalem does not fit the familiar image of a left-wing activist who goes out to fight for Palestinian rights. "I've had clients who have fired me for my activities, while others gave me donations for the residents," he says.

Nawi's involvement in the Hebron Hills started on the basis of his friendship with a Palestinian. "Thanks to him, I got to know the occupation from up close, I've been to the roadblocks, I have seen the evil," he says.

Despite his tireless activity, Nawi is far from optimistic. "Since I've arrived on the scene, the settlements have increased and so has the poverty. Children of 14 look like they're 10. The attacks on them are becoming meaner and crueler," he says.

Some three weeks ago, Nawi was arrested and questioned on suspicion of trying to run down a soldier, after refusing the order of a settlement security officer to stop for inspection.

"He said, `I'm not stopping, who is he to stop me?' And he is right. It is only we who have become used to obeying these people," says Barda.

"I suppose you need a certain amount of insanity. It's true he's a bit of a troublemaker, but apparently in this place there is no other choice," she concludes.