A Humble House in the Hills

A Jerusalem plumber rented a spartan dwelling in a Palestinian village in the south Hebron Hills. 'It's a statement,' says Ezra Nawi, who faces several court cases for his activities on behalf of his neighbors.

Less than 24 hours after a settler from the south Hebron Hills was killed last week by terrorist gunfire, Ezra Nawi went to check on how his people residents of Palestinian villages in the area, some of them cave-dwellers were doing. Nawi, a 53-year-old plumber from Jerusalem, goes to see them two or three times a week. He sees himself as part of them. He recently rented a house in the village of Tawaneh, not far from Yata, and to the authorities who tell him that the building was constructed illegally, he replies that the outposts set up by settlers in the area aren't any more legal: As long as they don't destroy the nearby Maon Farm outpost, they shouldn't destroy his house, either.

Following the settler's murder, the army imposed a "closure" on the territories. This is a code word whose primary meaning is bullying of the Palestinian residents. In such a situation, every soldier is a king: If he feels like it, he lets the cars pass, if not, he sends them back; if he wants, he instructs the passengers to take apart everything they have with them. This is what Second Lieutenant Oshri, a square-jawed and firm-talking fellow, did. He wanted us to drive to Jerusalem by way of Be'er Sheva, instead of returning via the regular route that we'd taken on the way out. When Ezra Nawi said something about the settlements, Second Lieutenant Oshri said that there are no settlements, only communities. Because "settlements" is a political term, he explained, he, Second Lieutenant Oshri, doesn't deal in politics. He just carries out orders.

We appealed to the kindness of his heart and then Second Lieutenant Oshri finally agreed to let us pass. One of the Palestinian drivers also wanted to continue on the way, but Second Lieutenant Oshri signaled, "Shh," as is customarily done when a Palestinian wants to say something, and the Palestinian, as is customary, said nothing. The routine of humiliation is anchored in an almost 40-year tradition here. Most of the residents and all of the army people grew up with it and don't know any other reality. Further along our way, we saw several soldiers who had made a group of civilians stand in two rows, like in a military inspection, for a "security check" that could last hours.

Why does he need a house in Tawaneh, I asked Ezra Nawi. He doesn't need the house; he lives and works in Jerusalem. The house is a "statement," and Nawi, who is active in Ta'ayush, an Arab-Jewish cooperation organization, is a tireless demonstrator and a righteous man doing his best to help the village residents.

Most of the villagers in the area are very poor. Some live in caves and their lives aren't much different from life in biblical times. In a cave there is no running water and no electricity. The villagers eat what they sow and plant, as long as God gives them rain; they also have herds of sheep. Nawi loves these fellahin of southern Mount Hebron and they love him. He is captivated by the glorious landscape, too: Sometimes he stops his truck on the side of the road to watch a pack of dogs wandering in the wadi or to keep his eye on a flock of migratory birds in the sky.

In the house that Nawi rented in the village there's one room with a bed and a few crates for storage. He hasn't yet paid rent money, but he has "paid" by doing renovation work. In the next room, he keeps bags of used clothing that people donate to the villagers. The house has electricity. Nawi was able to obtain a donation for the purchase of a computer and if he is able to get another computer, he might organize a course for the village children. The house is also supposed to serve people who Nawi refers to as "the internationals" volunteers from abroad who come to live with the Palestinians.

This is a story that not many Israelis are familiar with. The "internationals" a few dozen in number belong to all sorts of peace organizations in Europe and America. They come to Israel as tourists and maintain a permanent presence among the Palestinian villagers in order to protect them from the settlers: They stay for a few days or months - and are continually replaced by others. They believe that their presence lowers the level of violence. They have cameras and cellular telephones and contact with various media outlets.

Every morning, a few of them escort seven or eight children from the village of Tuba to the elementary school operated by the Palestinian Authority in Tawaneh. The children are afraid to go alone because settlers harass them. So they walk only as far as the settlers' chicken coops and from there four soldiers are supposed to escort them the rest of the way. When school lets out, four soldiers come to escort them back. This goes on day in and day out.

The soldiers are good, one little first-grader told us. But sometimes they come late, so to be safe the volunteers from abroad also come to escort the children. One of the foreigners, Arthur Gish, a white-bearded farmer from Ohio, has already written a book about his experiences among the Palestinians. He belongs to one of the Anabaptist churches that advocate, among other things, a total separation between church and state. Gish comes mostly in the winter, when his farm in Ohio is covered with snow. His wife, meanwhile, is helping the needy in Iraq.

This past weekend, Gish was sitting in one of the two small, concrete rooms that Ezra Nawi helped renovate, and with him were two women one a computer programmer from the U.S., the other a nurse from Canada. They stay there for a few months, in ascetic conditions not much better than those enjoyed by the cave-dwellers; they eat what there is, sleep on mattresses on the floor. Nawi installed a toilet for them. They bathe sparingly under a cold faucet. Once every three months, they have to leave the country; upon their return they receive new tourist visas.

At the opening to one of the caves, we found Ana, from Spain. She had been there for three days, communicating solely by sign language with the family of Ibrahim Ahmed Abu Rawha, who has been living in the cave since the day he was born 80 years ago. He was happy that she'd come to protect his family, but also asked Nawi to install a door on the cave, to protect him from a certain settler who suddenly coveted the biblical-looking surroundings and tried to invade his territory. That guy has since gone away, but other settlers continue to harass the villagers: We saw some olive trees that had been uprooted purely out of malice, apparently quite recently.

A few months ago, someone spread poison around and several sheep died. Nawi took the carcass of a deer that has also died because of it and placed it at the entrance to the nearby settlement. Construction is noticeably underway at some of the settlements. The good news is that most of them are even smaller that the settlements in the Gaza Strip were. It wouldn't take more than 24 hours to evacuate them if only someone would decide to do so.

Everyone around here knows Ezra Nawi, and when he claims at the checkpoints that he's on his way to visit his mother-in-law at the Susiya settlement, they let him pass even though they know he has no mother-in-law in Susiya or anywhere else, for that matter. The police know him, too. Not long ago, an intelligence officer from the police phoned to warn Nawi that settlers were plotting to hurt him; Nawi takes such warnings seriously, but also asks the police to "catch the bastards."

A number of cases are pending against him in court; he can't say exactly how many. Maybe seven. Once he entered Area A, which Israelis are forbidden to enter, in order to bring clothing to people; once he was arrested at a demonstration against the security fence. Once he was caught transporting a Palestinian who was in Israel without a permit, but he got off lightly because at the time he was driving the Palestinian back to the territories and not into Israel. A settler filed a complaint against him, alleging that Nawi hindered him as he was filming Nawi aiding the Palestinians. This footage provided one of the dramatic scenes in Haim Yavin's television series about the territories.

Nawi was brought to trial and a discussion of Jewish law briefly developed in court. Attorney Leah Tsemel asked the plaintiff how he could have tried to film Nawi, since it was Shabbat. The settler explained: According to halakha, or Jewish law, the desecration of the Sabbath is permitted in order to stop a goy from stealing hay and straw, and it applied all the more so in this case, when the Palestinian goyim were stealing wheat and seeds from an area that belongs to the settlers. He presented a halakhic ruling, signed by a rabbi, to back up his argument. The ruling was issued the day before the incident; the rabbi is the settler's father. Magistrate's Court convicted Nawi and imposed probation and a fine of NIS 500. Tsemel appealed in the District Court. It was discovered that the area being farmed by the Palestinians didn't belong to the settlers. Nawi was acquitted and reimbursed for the fine.

Here we have one man in a hopeless drama whose protagonists are Muslim farmers and Jewish settlers and well-meaning Christians and Ezra Nawi an Israeli plumber whose parents came from Iraq, who collects exorbitant fees for fixing faucets in the bathrooms of his clients, many of whom live in prestigious Jerusalem neighborhoods and are well-known activists in leftist, liberal circles. A few weeks ago, some of them gathered at the home of one of the city's wealthiest denizens and collected close to NIS 20,000 for him. On Saturday, Nawi placed NIS 1,500 on the desk of the school principal in Tawaneh, aid for a family that has faced particularly cruel hardship recently, and when the principal looked at him in awe Nawi blushed in embarrassment and, fibbing, said it was a donation from me.

A weak prime minister At a lecture he gave last week in Jerusalem, Ze'ev Schiff told a story that he never published in the newspaper: After the Six-Day War, Haaretz took a critical stance toward the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, a continuation of its position against him even before the war. Schiff wrote a few articles against Eshkol's policies and then he received an invitation to a private talk, "off the record," with Major General Ariel Sharon, then head of the Information and Instruction Division of the General Staff. "I want to ask you to stop attacking Eshkol," Sharon said. "You might end up toppling him."

Schiff was amazed: "Since when do you support Eskhol?" he asked.

"You don't understand," Sharon replied. "I need a weak prime minister. If you bring down Eshkol, the next prime minister might be too strong."

At the time, Sharon was busy transferring IDF training camps to the West Bank; Eshkol's illness was also one of the factors that facilitated the establishment of the first settlements. So here's one good reason to make the state of the prime minister's health public knowledge.

The third president This week, the Prime Minister's Office issued an announcement promising a prize of NIS 30,000 for the commemoration of Shneur Zalman ?(Rubashev?) Shazar, the poet and Israel's third president. A look through the government's Web site ?(www.gov.il?) doesn't explain why so much money needs to be spent on memorializing Shazar, but it does show who isn't deserving of the prize: the government itself. Because the government link referring Web surfers to the biography of the third president identifies him as "Zalman Shneur."

Zalman Shneur was a different poet. Yes, it is terribly confusing.