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Bearing witness to the routine violence of occupation

In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestinians have virtually no civil rights. What rights they do have can be revoked at a moment’s notice.

By Zak Witus and Sasha Belenkiy

Israeli police arrest a Palestinian Red Crescent medic as a woman pleads with the officer, 'That’s my son!' (Sasha Belenkiy)

Israeli police arrest a Palestinian Red Crescent medic as a woman pleads with the officer, ‘That’s my son!’ (Sasha Belenkiy)

Even when the cameras of the big international news agencies disappear, the occupation grinds on. One day in the West Bank and East Jerusalem demonstrates how precarious Palestinians’ physical safety and rights are under Israeli military rule.

On May 13 — Jerusalem Day and the day before the U.S. Embassy move — we documented Israeli forces violating the rights of Palestinian civilians and their allies, first in the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, then in East Jerusalem.

In 2006, Rabbis for Human Rights, successfully petitioned the Israeli High Court to compel the military to escort Palestinians into agricultural areas in the West Bank. Twelve years later, we went with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, formerly of Rabbis for Human Rights and now director of Torat Tzedek, to Turmus Aya to accompany farmers as they planted olive trees on their private land. When we arrived that morning, the border police were already there — as were young settlers, periodically running into the field and uprooting trees. Ascherman approached an officer who confirmed that the army intended to fulfill its legal obligation to protect the Palestinian farms. For a while, it did.

After the second or third raid by the settlers, however, the Israeli soldiers apparently decided it was too much trouble. They forced all of the Palestinians and those there to help them out of the fields. They did not present a military order for the expulsion and refused to explain their decision — despite several explicit requests for information. The expulsion was most likely illegal; it is rarely permissible for the military to close an area without an order and it is forbidden to deny access to an area unless it is closed. When nearly all of the Palestinians had left, a soldier, his commanding officer present, fired tear gas at the remaining Palestinians and international activists.

Later in the day, we witnessed similar abuses and even worse police brutality just outside Jerusalem’s Old City. May 13 was Jerusalem Day, an Israeli national holiday celebrating the “reunification” of Jerusalem in 1967. Tens of thousands of religious-nationalist Jewish Israelis paraded from West Jerusalem to the Western Wall, passing through Palestinian East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City on their way. The parade, known as the March of Flags, is often marked by racist and ultra-nationalist violence. Inside the Muslim Quarter marchers regularly vandalize Palestinian shops, bang on the doors of residents’ homes, and chant anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slogans during the march.

Right-wing Jewish Israelis march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. May 13, 2018. (Oren Ziv / Activestills.org)

Right-wing Jewish Israelis march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. May 13, 2018. (Oren Ziv / Activestills.org)

Palestinian solidarity activists have responded in recent years by shopping in the Muslim Quarter earlier in the day to make up for the loss of business that the Palestinian shop owners face during the march. In previous years, the police have ordered Palestinian storefronts in the Old City to close. This year, the police did not issue a similar order, but many stores still closed to avoid the violence.

Israeli and international solidarity activists were present during the march to encourage the police to protect the city’s Palestinian residents.

When we arrived in East Jerusalem that day, heavily armed riot police had begun to “sterilize” the area around Damascus Gate, which leads to the Old City, closing the entrances to the gate and forcing those standing in front of the gate either inside the Old City walls or up to the street. Those who arrived later — many carrying children or groceries — were denied access to their homes for several hours.

After the police pushed us away from Damascus Gate, we positioned ourselves among a group of roughly 40 protesters near one of East Jerusalem’s main bus depots. There was considerable space between the crowd gathering at the bus depot and the march. Demonstrators were peaceful. Among this small group of Palestinians, the most inflammatory action was one man yelling from afar at the religious-nationalist marchers: “You are sick! You bitches!” The police quickly pulled him back from the fence by the street and forced him behind a police barricade several meters back.

Just after 5 p.m., two officers appeared to plot and then carry out an attack on the peaceful demonstrators. There was no provocation for the attack. During the assault, a police officer deliberately pushed one of us over a barricade and down some stairs. In a separate video, another soldier can be seen striking a restrained Palestinian man several times with his assault rifle.

Twenty minutes later, police pushed the Palestinian demonstrators further back. At first, they used minimal force, shoving people, including women and children. But the police quickly escalated, punching and kicking, with one officer aiming his fists for a Palestinian man’s head. In a second wave, the police continued the violent assault. An Israeli activist approached the commotion, only to be sucker punched and then arrested (he was later released).

The gathering of people by the East Jerusalem bus depot should not have required a permit under Israeli law. In Israel, a demonstration needs a police permit only it meets the following three conditions: the demonstration contains over 50 people, takes place outdoors, and includes political statements or speeches, with the clarification that shouting slogans does not constitute a political statement.

This one day in May made clear the fundamental inequality in Israel-Palestine. Jews have robust civil rights — in many instances, even their hate speech is police-protected. Palestinians, in contrast have either no civil rights or, if they are citizens, their de jure rights can be revoked at a moment’s notice.

Zak Witus and Sasha Belenkiy are current participants in Achvat Amim (Solidarity of Nations). Zak works at Tent of Nations as a farmhand and at the Palestine-Israel Journal writing and editing. Sasha volunteers with Torat Tzedek, accompanying Palestinian shepherds in Area C. Both are currently based in Jerusalem.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      Civil rights in Israel: In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books David Shulman reviews two books on Judaism, Israel and human rights. You can’t read most of the article unless you’re a subscriber, but the first paragraph says it all:


      In the somewhat exotic Jewish home in Iowa where I grew up, it was axiomatic that there was an intimate link between Judaism and universal human rights. Like nearly all Eastern European Jewish families in America, my parents and grandparents were Roosevelt Democrats, to the point of fanaticism. They thought that the Jews had invented the very idea, and also the practice, of social justice…For me, this comfortable illusion was shattered only when I moved to Israel at the age of eighteen.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      The “fakestinyans” represent a fabricated, phantom people that never existed and never will. As long as a “fakestinyan” denies his / her own history of “1967 JORDANIAN” aggression against Israel, he will forever be held in contempt.

      It is “fakestinyanism” itself that is the problem.
      The conjuring up of a mythical, fake nationality represents a particular crime against reality, history and justice. Thus, these 3 natural forces forever repel the nonsense nation wherever and whenever it materializes

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        FIFTY YEARS AGO, between June 5 and June 10, 1967, Israel invaded and occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. The Six-Day War, as it would later be dubbed, saw the Jewish David inflict a humiliating defeat on the Arab Goliath, personified perhaps by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt.

        “The existence of the Israeli state hung by a thread,” the country’s prime minister, Levi Eshkol, claimed two days after the war was over, “but the hopes of the Arab leaders to annihilate Israel were dashed.” Genocide, went the argument, had been prevented; another Holocaust of the Jews averted.

        There is, however, a problem with this argument: It is complete fiction, a self-serving fantasy constructed after the event to justify a war of aggression and conquest. Don’t take my word for it: “The thesis according to which the danger of genocide hung over us in June 1967, and according to which Israel was fighting for her very physical survival, was nothing but a bluff which was born and bred after the war,” declared Gen. Matituahu Peled, chief of logistical command during the war and one of 12 members of Israel’s General Staff, in March 1972.

        A year earlier, Mordechai Bentov, a member of the wartime government and one of 37 people to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence, had made a similar admission. “This whole story about the threat of extermination was totally contrived, and then elaborated upon, a posteriori, to justify the annexation of new Arab territories,” he said in April 1971.

        Even Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, former terrorist and darling of the Israeli far right, conceded in a speech in August 1982 that “in June 1967 we had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.

        So much for that repetitive nonsense by Lewis from Afula.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Is Ben too mentally challenged to grasp that what certain Israeli politicians said YEARS AFTER the 6 day war might have been quoted out of context ?
          Ben needs to listen to what Arab Leaders said in the WEEKS & DAYS leading to June 5th 1967.

          “The existence of Israel has continued too long. We welcome the Israeli aggression. We welcome the battle we have long awaited. The peak hour has come. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel.” May 16th Radio Cairo

          “Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse any aggression, but to initiate the act ourselves, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland of Palestine. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united. I believe that the time has come to begin a battle of anihilation.” May 20th, Hafez Asad, then Syrian Minister of Defence

          “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the map” – May 31st, President Aref of Iraq

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            None of this bombast undercuts the admissions of Peled, Bentov and Begin, all of whom were there and have unimpeachable authority.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            More declarations made DAYS BEFORE the war that further undercut your 3 quotes (taken out of context) made YEARS AFTER the war.

            “All Egypt is now prepared to plunge into total war which will put an end to Israel”
            RADIO CAIRO, MAY 17TH 1967.

            “The Zionist barrack in Palestine is about to collapse and be destroyed. Every one of the hundred million Arabs has been living for the past nineteen years on one hope – to live to see the day Israel is liquidated….””
            RADIO CAIRO, MAY 18TH 1967.

            “We want a full scale, popular war of liberation… to destroy the Zionist enemy”

            “Taking over Sharm el Sheikh meant confrontation with Israel (and) also meant that we were ready to enter a general war with Israel. The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel”

            “Brethren and sons, this is the day of the battle to avenge our martyred brethren who fell in 1948. It is the day to wash away the stigma. We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa”

            “Whoever survives will stay in Palestine, but in my opinion, no one will remain alive.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You’re again making illogical connections to these leaders’ bombast for domestic consumption, and assiduously ignoring what the Israelis really to be the case and when they knew it. That Peled, Bentov and Begin spoke *later* about what they knew *then* in real time to be the case is utterly irrelevant. Did you expect they would have got on the BBC in June 1967 and announced their secret intelligence and strategic planning?

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Well, Ben apparently believes the distorted leftist interpretations of what 3 Israeli politicians said YEARS AFTER the 6 day war. Yet Ben’s brain brushes aside the obvious Arab threats made DAYS BEFORE June 5th 1967.

            The Arabs, utilizing the mythical “fakestinyan nation” argument backed up their obnoxious threats by ringing Israel with approximately 465,000 troops, 2,800 tanks and 800 aircraft. Yet, Ben will probably deny this and claim that someone said the opposite 20 years later.

            Reply to Comment
          • David


            Nasser’s full statement to the Arab world on Egyptian radio during his address to the General Council of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions regarding the possibility of war with Israel: “If Israel embarks on an aggression against Syria or Egypt, the battle against Israel will be a general one and not confined to one spot on the Syrian or Egyptian border. The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” (Translated by the Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, a U.S. agency in Washington)

            Clearly, Nasser’s speech confirmed he did not intend to initiate a war against Israel. He left no doubt, however, that if Egypt and/or its mutual defense pact ally, Syria, were attacked by Israel, he would respond with total war. (Jordan signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt on May 30.)

            PM Menachem Begin, former Minister in PM Levi Eshkol’s cabinet, while addressing Israel’s National Defence College on Aug. 8/82: “In June, 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.” (New York Times, Aug.21/82)

            Israeli Chief of Staff Rabin: “I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai on 14 May would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.” (Le Monde, Feb.25/68)

            Prime Minister Eshkol: “The Egyptian layout in the Sinai and the general military buildup there testified to a military defensive Egyptian set-up south of Israel.” (Yediot Aharonot, Oct.18/67)

            Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defence: “Three separate intelligence groups had looked carefully into the matter [and] it was our best judgement that a UAR attack was not imminent.” (The Vantage Point, Lyndon Johnson, p. 293)

            UN Emergency Force (UNEF) Commander, Major General Idar Jit Rikhye, revealed that Nasser was not enforcing the blockade of the Tiran straits: “[The Egyptian] navy had searched a couple of ships after the establishment of the blockade and thereafter relaxed its implementation.”

            Ezer Weizman, former commander of Israel’s Air Force confirmed in his memoirs that Israel spent years meticulously planning the attack against Egypt: “For five years I had been talking of this operation, explaining it, hatching it, dreaming of it, manufacturing it link by link, training men to carry it out.” Recalling how he felt at 7:30 A.M. on 5 June 1967, Weizman wrote: “Now in a quarter of an hour, we would know if it was only a dream or whether it would come true….” (Donald Neff, Warriors for Jerusalem, p. 202)

            Reply to Comment
      • David

        “The “fakestinyans” represent a fabricated, phantom people that never existed and never will.”

        Apparently, like many others, you have been duped by Joan Peters’ long since debunked mountain of mendacity, “From Time Immemorial…”

        To wit:

        Professor Porath, one of Israel’s leading demographic historians, called Peters’ book a “forgery… [that] was almost universally dismissed [in Israel] as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon.”(New York Times, Nov.28, 1985)

        Rabbi Arthur Herzberg, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, agreed: “I think that she’s cooked the statistics…. The scholarship is phony and tendentious. I do not believe that she has read the Arabic sources that she quotes.”(ibid)

        To again quote Professor Porath: “The precise demographic history of modern Palestine cannot be summed up briefly, but its main features are clear enough and they are very different from the fanciful description Mrs. Peters gives…. [S]he has apparently searched through documents for any statement to the effect that Arabs entered Palestine. But even if we put together all the cases she cites, one cannot escape the conclusion that most of the growth of the Palestinian Arab community resulted from a process of natural increase.” (“Mrs. Peters’ Palestine” New York Review of Books, 16 January 1986.)

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    3. Hello

      I think everyone can see there will never be a Palestinian State. Too many cards are played against it, including U.S.A. And such a state may in fact be unworkable for practical and infrastructure reasons. So nevermind if there ever was or is a “Palestinian Nation”, it’s not relevant. But what will be the position of a person of Palestinian background, or Jordanian, or anything other than Jewish, in the State of Israel? Property rights? Equal protection? Citizenship? Or permanent refugees? This is the relevant discussion.

      Reply to Comment