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The Settlers That Attacked Us Weren’t Punished, So We Were Attacked Again

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Harvesting olives in the Palestinian village of Burin in 2019.
Harvesting olives in the Palestinian village of Burin in 2019. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Three weeks ago we read the Ten Commandments. In the following week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, God translates those lofty ideas into concrete commandments. The Torah details how the prohibition against coveting, which leads to theft, false witness and even murder, is to be carried out in how we relate to the non-Jews living among us, the widow, the orphan and others whom our society has weakened.

We learn how to define murder, the punishment for theft and even commandments at the level of “when a person lets his/her livestock loose to graze on another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, s/he must make restitution for the impairment of that field or vineyard.” And “when a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing or growing grain is consumed, s/he who started the fire must make restitution.” (Exodus 22:4-5)

Whether it’s lofty words from cabinet ministers and other officials against settler violence, about fighting poverty and supporting public housing, or any of the issues we human rights defenders work on, I truly appreciate them. But I always ask, “Will they be backed by actions?”

For a change, I was not one of those attacked Jan. 21 by the Israelis who descended from Givat Ronen outpost to attack the Israelis and Palestinians planting trees together in Burin. However, I had a strong sense of deja vu from Nov. 12, when 20 masked Israelis descending from the Bat Ayin settlement and attacked me, other human rights defenders and Palestinians from Tzurif. The attack came shortly after soldiers who had been protecting us left.

For half an hour we saw the Jewish terrorists gathering, angered by the “provocation” that because of our presence and legal work, the landowners were able to harvest their olives that the settlers and the army had prevented them from harvesting for two years. I called the army and told them we were about to be attacked, and begged them to return quickly. I was told, “Forces are on the way,” but nobody arrived until after we had been attacked and three of us injured.

This is but one of the dozens of times that I and other human rights defenders were attacked in the last year alone, not to mention Palestinians. In November we supplied excellent pictures and videos to the police. Despite the fact that many of the assailants were masked, we had pictures showing faces. The police only managed to arrest one minor who was released to house arrest, and an adult who will stand trial. The adult is one of the two who actually hit us. The others “only” threw stones from afar and chased after the Palestinian farmers, who this time were not injured; they had been the previous week. After the single indictment was issued, police told us the matter was out of their hands, and they were no longer investigating.

One day when I was giving testimony in the station, I saw on the desk one of our photos of a man who had stood on high with an automatic gun. We suspect he is the Bat Ayin security guard. He didn’t attack us, but we saw him transporting some of the attackers in his car. The detective said, “We’re looking for him.” We haven’t heard whether they identified him, whether he is the security guard, or anything else. Maybe we should be thankful that at least one person is standing trial. This is rare.

I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that some of the brutal attackers from Givat Ronen that Friday were the same terrorists who attacked us in November. We know there is a lawless gang that travels from place to place. The message to all of those we photographed but who were never caught is that they pay no price for their actions. I wonder whether the attack would have occurred in Burin had the full force of the law been brought to bear against those who carried out the pogrom in Mufagara on Simhat Torah, against those who attacked us or against those who carried out the long list of additional attacks against human rights defenders, and primarily against Palestinians. When I was attacked by a young masked settler in 2015, I told the court I was not interested in revenge, and sought my attacker’s rehabilitation. However, I also said that society must be protected. When there is no price paid for violent actions, there is no protection.

To all those now screaming that the demolition orders issued in Givat Ronen are “disproportionate collective punishment aimed at the ‘young settlements,’” let me remind them that all those living in an unauthorized outpost are committing a collective crime, even according to Israeli law, which allows settlements to stand even though they are considered illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a party. Let me also remind them that there was a rapid decline in the 2005 wave of violence after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would evacuate outposts if violence continued near them.

There have been countless violent incidents since Givat Ronen was founded, carried out by Israelis who descended from the outpost. There were many cases about which I contacted the security forces in real time because Israelis were attacking Palestinians and/or torching trees and fields. All too often the army arrived only to fire tear gas at the Palestinians seeking to extinguish the flames and save their fields. Had Sharon’s approach been adopted over the long run, either Givat Ronen would have been evacuated long ago or its settlers would have ensured that “the land was quiet.”

A final word about “provocations” by “anarchists” and “radical leftists.” I always ask who among our accusers actually knows the definition of “anarchist.” I understand that concern for the rights of non-Jews is sadly considered “radical.” Pharaoh thought Moses and Aaron were “provocateurs” for giving the happy Israelite slaves uppity ideas about freedom and rights. There are in fact situations in which Palestinians prefer to attempt to farm their lands quietly, without us. There are situations in which the army protects Palestinian farmers, but demands that we not be present because our presence angers settlers more than the presence of the Palestinians themselves. What does it say about us, if protecting Palestinians is considered a “provocation?” I believe that most Israelis are better than that.

There are also situations in which the security forces do not meet their duty to enforce the High Court ruling to protect Palestinian farmers. They generally guard during the olive harvest, but not the rest of the year. Although the High Court explicitly forbade it, they may respond to threatening Israelis by closing the area to Palestinians “for their own good.” This happened on Burin’s lands the week after the attack, and when we returned to Burin’s lands last Friday.

It is simply a fact that there are places Palestinians fear to go without us. Anyone who thinks the Jewish terrorists wouldn’t have attacked if the Palestinians had gone to their lands in Burin or Tzurif alone don’t know what’s happened in these places in recent years. When the security forces don’t provide protection, Pirkei Avot teaches, “Where nobody is acting with basic human decency, you must try to be the one who does.” I would say “the ones who do.”

Sad as it is that some consider protecting Palestinians a provocation, I would be willing to agree not to be present were I certain the state would protect Palestinians year-round, bring the full force of the law to bear on Jewish terrorists and evacuate those outposts that they do not prevent in any other way from serving as bases for violence, vandalism and settler flocks ravaging Palestinian lands. We have enough work to do fighting poverty among Israelis, ending discrimination against Israel’s Bedouin citizens in the Negev, defending asylum seekers and countless other tasks.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who has led Israeli human rights organizations for over 26 years, is executive director of Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice.

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