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The question we haven’t asked about Ziad Abu Ein

Why did security forces violate Israeli law by trying to prevent Palestinian access to their land?

Much ink has and will be spilled about the death of Ziad Abu Ein z”l, his terrorist past vs. his role as a moderate in recent years, the security and strategic implications of what happened, what if the PA stops security coordination, which pathologist to believe, etc. The Israeli army is investigating the behavior of the forces that were present. As important as this investigation is, it begs the question how it was decided to violate Israeli law by sending security forces to stop Palestinians from planting trees on their own land.

In a letter Rabbis For Human Rights sent to the army (Hebrew), we asked that the army also investigate why security forces were there at all, or at least why they were trying to stop the Palestinian farmers from planting trees. I don’t think that the forces intentionally harmed Abu Ein any more than they often rough up Palestinians (as well as Israeli demonstrators from across the political spectrum) and use a liberal amount of tear gas.

However, according to the High Court ruling RHR, ACRI and five Palestinian local councils achieved in 2006 (9593/04), there are only very limited situations in which the Israeli security forces are allowed to prevent Palestinians from freely working their lands, or demand advance coordination. (Where Palestinians want army protection to work lands that they cannot safely work on their own, they obviously must coordinate.) It is customary that orders requiring advance coordination be reviewed by the Legal Advisor for the Occupied Territories. The 2006 ruling explicitly forbids the army from issuing on the spot closure orders in order to protect Palestinians when they are being attacked. They are only allowed to issue on the spot closure orders if there is absolutely no other way to prevent bloodshed.

This was not the case on Wednesday. The army had been notified in advance that the International Human Rights Day planting would take place, accompanied by our fellow human rights organization, “Yesh Din.” The location where the planting was to take place was not an area that posed any danger to Israeli settlers, and the security forces blocked the Palestinians at a point even further away. Israel acknowledges that these lands are Palestinian owned. The High Court ruling doesn’t make exceptions according to the number of people trying to access the land, or if there are Palestinian flags present.

Why were the security forces blocking access? (image: screengrab)
Why were the security forces blocking access? (image: screengrab)

I wouldn’t be belaboring this point if it were an isolated incident. Thank God, we don’t experience such tragic consequences every day. However, on a regular basis, the army does everything it can to persuade or force farmers to coordinate in advance access to lands for which no advance permission is required. It used to be that we would frequently need to call army commanders, and ask them to order their soldiers to cease preventing access. This happens less frequently today, because many farmers have simply acquiesced to accessing their land only with advance permission.

Although the OT Legal Advisor prepared a letter several years ago explaining to local commanders just what their obligations are, and although we have been assured by the current Advisor that he continues to send out these guidelines on an annual basis, we have found that many officers have no knowledge of these guidelines. Just before this fall’s olive harvest, we made a presentation to seventy of the top army officers in the Hebron area. None of them had ever seen the guidelines.

The result of this ignorance of the law is that when Palestinians nevertheless exercise their right to access their land without advance permission, it seems like a provocation to the Israeli security forces. An Israeli minister, Yuval Steinitz, even called this entirely peaceful event a “violent demonstration.”

In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob struggles with a mysterious being, and our commentators debate who this being was. Some say it was Esau, or Esau’s minister. I believe that Jacob wrestled with the part of himself he didn’t want to acknowledge, and preferred to project onto Esau. When he could acknowledge and accept his true self, including both his yetzer hatov and yetzer harah (his higher and more animal inclinations), he could see Esau for who he really was, and reconcile. In this week’s Torah portion, the demonization of Joseph by his brothers leads them to sell him into slavery. When we cease to see a provocation and a security threat in every attempt by Palestinian farmers to exercise their right to safely work their lands, we will not only avoid tragedies and achieve a modicum of justice, but we will be one step closer to reconciliation.

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 and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.