Naked Force in Khan Al Akhmar

חוסמים את הדחפור שהגיע לחאן אל אחמר לסלול תשתית לאפשר את הריסת הכפר, עד שהמפשטרה פינו באלינות רבה רואים קצת בסוף הסרטון הזה, אבל אז נגמר לי סוללה. היה אף יותר נורא מאשר מה שרואים כאן היו מכות ובעיתות רצח, עד שהמפקד השתלט על השורטים. פייסבוק בשידור חי 2Blocking the bulldozer that came to prepare the roads necessary to demolish Khan Al Akhmar, until the police pulled people away with a great amount of violence. Facebook live 2. You can see some of the violence at the end of this video. My battery died, and I didn't get the worst of it. The police were swinging wildly and kicking viciously, until their commanding officer got ahold of them.

Posted by Arik Ascherman on Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The unfiltered violence in Khan Al Akhmar on Wednesday showed me the face of a country I don’t want to be a part of.  God’s message to Elijah reminds me why I am. (In the haftarah for Parashat Pinkhas we didn’t read this past Shabbat because we are now reading the haftarot of warning leading up to Tisha B’Av.)

My day started at 6:15 am in Uja in the Jordan Valley, where we accompany shepherds who would otherwise be kept from grazing lands they need for shepherding to remain economically viable.  Although “Omer’s Farm” is illegal even according to Israel, the army all too often does his bidding.  On Wednesday the soldiers were not content just to demand that the shepherds leave.  They insisted that we were provocateurs telling the shepherds what to do, then caught up with us on the road in order to make it clear that they were protecting us.  I told them that, as seeing as bombs have gone off not far from my house, I appreciated that. I also told them that Palestinian parents tell us they insist that their children meet us.  These children have seen their homes demolished and their lands stolen by Israelis. They have experienced violence from soldiers and settlers.  Their parents hear them say they want to be terrorists when they grow up, and want them to know there are other Israelis who stand shoulder to shoulder with them.  I too am doing my best to protect my children, and theirs.  One soldier started shouting that she has only one people, and they were the only people she would protect.

We headed back to Jerusalem via Khan Al Akhmar.

The frantic messages began at 5:00 am, when forces cut a break in the fence along the highway to allow bulldozers to enter.  We debated whether the waiting bulldozers would “only” create roads to allow the destruction of the community later on, or whether the actual demolitions would be carried out.  There had been rumors that Israel would plan some 4th of July fireworks, and I had determined ahead of time who would be on call.  Sitting on a hot and dusty hill surrounded by sheep, I joined the frenzy of messaging back and forth with U.S. and other diplomats.

Many Jahalin Bedouin have been living in the Jerusalem-Dead Sea corridor since being forced out of Israel in the 1950’s.  The Occupation caught up with them. Some can tell you that they used to live where the Ma’aleh Adumim supermarket now stands, others where there is now a housing block or a road.  Khan Al Akmar is in the face of Kfar Adumim, and close to E1, where Israel wishes to cut off the last access route between the West Bank and Jerusalem.  but what apparently really aroused the ire of many was their unique mud and tires school.  The school was built because several of their children had been killed by cars on the highway. We did not allow a proper stop for busses taking them to Jericho.

The Jewish State intends to destroy and forcibly transfer this community in the next few days, although a new High Court appeal and growing international pressure may change the equation.  We have unilaterally determined that their homes are illegal according to laws we undemocratically imposed upon them.  They cannot vote for the Knesset.  There are no Palestinians in the bodies that determined that the land they are living on is State Land and that State Land is for Jews, on the planning committee that rejected the master plan they submitted, etc.

We arrived around 9:30, joining Bedouin from surrounding communities, Israeli, Palestinian and international activists, staff people from human rights NGOs, and Palestinian Authority officials in the communal tent.  We exchanged nervous greetings, and apprehensively watched the forces gathered along the road.  I wondered where the bulldozers had disappeared to, but assumed they were doing preparatory work outside our field of vision, on the other side of the highway.  We have always made sure that Khan Al Akhmar would be inaccessible.

It seemed most likely that today the bulldozers were “only” preparing for demolitions, and perhaps there wasn’t a real reason to stay.

We were wrong.

As we headed back towards my car, we saw a crowd blocking one of the bulldozers.  Some were waving Palestinian flags and chanting, while others were trying to engage the soldiers guarding the bulldozer.  A Palestinian activist I know turned to me, and asked me to address the soldiers as an Israeli.  As I often do in these situations I told the soldiers and police officers that I know they have to follow orders as long as they are in uniform, but they are also citizens who need to reflect when they arrive home on what they were commanded to do, and why.  I asked what they would do if a foreign power took over Israel, declared their homes illegal and arrived to demolish them.  I spoke of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s Torah commentary stating that the abomination of Egypt and the source of our suffering was the belief that might makes right.   He writes that the Torah both predicts that we will one day have a state, and warns us not to abuse the power we will have over others to oppress them as we were oppressed when we were powerless.  I didn’t get any visible reaction, although one older soldier was engaging a Palestinian in discussion.

At the outset the police were remarkably patient, but I knew that would eventually end.  Sure enough, the commanding officer announced that if people did not disperse, they would be removed by force.  He explained that there would be no demolitions that day, “only” work on infrastructure.  When I asked what the infrastructure was for, he refused to answer.

A few minutes later, ten or fifteen younger officers determinedly and ominously approached.  Some were sitting in the shovel of the bulldozers, also determined and tense.  Others were standing in front.  I felt a bit guilty not joining them, but I knew that I couldn’t afford a restraining order because on Friday I would be bringing a group of rabbis from abroad to Khan Al Akhmar and to the Sumarin family in Silwan (Where the JNF is working to evict the family.)  I chose to document.

חוסמים את הדחפור שהגיע לחאן אל אחמר לסלול תשתית לאפשר את הריסת הכפר, עד שהמפשטרה פינו באלינות רבה. פייסבוק בשידור חי 1Blocking the bulldozer that came to prepare the roads necessary to demolish Khan Al Akhmar, until the police pulled people away with a great amount of violence. Facebook live 1

Posted by Arik Ascherman on Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Seeing the determination against impossible odds, and listening to the singing realized that I was witnessing the indomitable human spirit.

The first of the violence can be seen at the end of the second video, but my battery ran out just as the worst began.  There was apparently a second round of violence after I left, and the police reported that several officers were also lightly injured.  I reject that violence as well. While I was there, nobody raised a hand against a soldier or police officer.  There was not one stone.  Officers were pounding people with roundhouse punches and vicious kicks.  It was a quick, brutal and efficient display of naked force backed by the overwhelming State power that Hirsch warns us not to abuse.

Eventually the commanding officer got his men under control. The bulldozer began one more stage in the perhaps inexorable process of destroying a community.

I arrived home both physically and mentally exhausted.  However, the day was far from over.  In the midst of everything going on in Khan Al Akhmar, the Civil Administration had shown up in Susya to measure and photograph the 7 structures for which the High Court had cancelled protective restraining orders.   The Uja shepherds were calling because ever since the morning the army had been driving up to their homes and watching them.  They knew from experience that a nighttime visit could be coming, and asked that we provide a protective presence.  Sure enough the army showed up just after midnight, and detained two of our volunteers.

I headed back out in the middle of the night, hearing from the officer in charge that our volunteers were lawbreakers.  I thought of the declaration on Yom Kippur that we are permitted to pray with transgressors, and told him that in this case I was proud to stand with the lawbreakers.  Fighting off total exhaustion in the middle of the night, we engaged in bizarre conversation.  He tried to give me a convoluted explanation regarding which violations he chooses to do something about, and which he does not.  He didn’t think the opinion of the army’s legal advisor counted. He seemed to be mocking my sense of responsibility for volunteers and for Palestinians that had caused me to rush out to stand with them.  Sadly, this was an officer who not so long ago had been troubled when his orders required him to expel shepherds from areas necessary for their livelihood.  I told him that once he had been different.  I wonder if something deep inside still is.

I stayed in the area after the police took our volunteers to the station, fearing that the army might continue their nighttime harassment.  When all seemed clear, I loaded up on caffeine, made the trek to pick up my volunteers at 6;15 am, returned them to the car (asking them to drive part of the way so that I could close my eyes for a few minutes), exchanged some words of support with the shepherds, and returned home to start a new day.

On Wednesday I was forced to look in a face of Israel I did not want to see.  As much as my work always entails dealing with the darkest aspects of the country and the people I love, on this day there was no veneer or cushion.  It doesn’t happen to me very often, but it was one of those days when I asked, “Why do I want to be connected to this people and this place?” Of course there are plenty of people who would be quite happy were I to leave.  I hear all the time, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave?”

God gives the answer to Eliyahu in the haftarah for Parahshat Pinkhas we didn’t read this Shabbat because we are starting the three Sabbaths of warning before Tisha B’Av. However, it was the lesson that I needed to hear.

On Wednesday I also saw the power of spirit that was all that the resistance had left. God teaches Eliyahu that true power is not in winds pulling mountains apart or earthquakes or fire, but in the “Still, small voice”

Yes, I am here because I have friends and family, and I fell in love with the Land itself from my very first visit. I know that the Land of Israel is the symbol of God’s Covenant with the Jewish people.  But, when I see my people acting the way they acted on Wednesday, I still wonder. However, when Elijah is feeling sorry for himself and flees because his dramatic victory over the prophets of Baal hasn’t brought about the hoped for revolution, God asks, “Eliyahu, what are you doing here?”(First Kings 1:19)  Eliyahu’s problems don’t seem to interest God so much. God tells Eliyahu to get back to work. It’s not about us.

We have work to do.

Shavua Tov.

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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