Two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, live side by side but barely meet. They are divided by far more than the separation wall that scars the landscape. For most Israelis, Palestinians are enemies; for most Palestinians, Israelis are occupiers.
For the young Israeli soldiers, Palestinians are the hostile faces in the long queues at the checkpoints; or the passengers in the cars they stop to check documents and open the boots, fearful that a terrorist will slip through on their watch; or the young boys suspected of throwing stones whom they round up, by bursting into their homes in the middle of the night.
For the Palestinians, the Israelis they meet most often are those same soldiers; or the officials who demand ever more documents before issuing the magnetic cards which let them work in Israel; or the drivers on the bulldozers which demolish homes “illegally built”; or the settlers in the outposts who harass them, seal up their wells or chase away their herds while the soldiers look on.
Under what other circumstances can the two sides meet?
Setting aside meetings between politicians, rare today, what remains? Thousands of Palestinians work in the Israeli building industry — including the big settlements — for Jewish contractors.
In Jerusalem, if you hail a taxi, the driver is probably a Palestinian. The east Jerusalem families who come on Friday afternoon for barbecues in the Liberty Bell garden of west Jerusalem are from Abu Tor, the district divided once by a frontier and where an unmarked frontier still exists. Jews and Arabs meet in the offices of international organisations like Friends of the Earth, scholars meet at conferences, educationists plan projects.
But only the civil rights lawyers and the field workers of the tens of Israeli civil rights organisations, maintain contact with the Palestinians under Israeli rule on a daily basis, and as one lawyer, Michael Sfard of Yesh Din, defines it, “create a bridge” for mutual understanding.
Why lawyers? Two separate legal systems operate in the West Bank — one for Palestinians, one for Israeli settlers. When Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, it began what in international law is known as “belligerent occupation”. This meant preserving the pre-war legal system — Jordanian or Egyptian respectively. In addition, the army’s administrative branch promulgated thousands of regulations and orders designed to keep order and prevent rebellion.
This was supposed to be a temporary condition, pending a peace agreement; but when all talks failed, Israel began settling its own citizens throughout the occupied territory, in contravention of international law. Measures for the security of Israel proper, and legislation enabling Israel to colonise the West Bank, became inextricably connected. The intricacies of Jordanian land law, much of it inherited from Ottoman rule, has been exploited by Israel to justify the use of “state land” (some 40 per cent of the West Bank) for both military and civilian purposes and to seize private land as well.
The settlers enjoy the freedom of movement denied to the Palestinians and travel on roads designed to bypass Palestinian towns and villages. If they break the law, they stand trial in Israeli civil courts. The Palestinians are subject to military law and are judged in military courts set up in army compounds. The one legal resource common to both is that of appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court. The right of aliens, under occupation, to appeal to the highest court of the occupying power is an Israeli innovation, unknown elsewhere, and of which its legislators are proud.
So, Israeli civil rights lawyers have their hands full. So do the hundreds of Israeli activists who, from the beginning of the occupation, have been involved, with their Palestinian counterparts, in witnessing and documenting the lives of a subject people without political representation, and who have taken no part in framing the laws under which they live.
What problems do they face, and what have they achieved?
The lawyers represent Palestinians in their dealing with the Israeli authorities, whether — for instance — contesting the seizure of lands, or flocks, or in confrontations with the settlers, or when they challenge arrest, prolonged detention, or flimsy evidence in court. Very often, these cases are appealed to the Supreme Court. The lawyers need to master much Jordanian law and the thousands of army ordinances, and they are often denied access (as the judges also may be) to classified material held by the security service (Shin Bet). The activists often have to confront their own army and police. But their achievement can be measured by the degree of confidence they have won among the Palestinian public, and its co-operation.
Down a dirt track studded with rocks, off a road leading from Jerusalem through the south Hebron hills, is a small building, formerly a barn, signposted: Comet — the Renewable Energy Centre. The immediate area looks bare but for grazing goats and an anachronistic-looking wind turbine. Palestinian herdsmen and their families live here in caves and tents, neglected by the Israeli authorities, which provides electricity and water to the new settlements nearby.
Two Israeli physicists, a Palestinian electrical engineer and electricians from the nearby town of Yatta, have joined forces to empower, literally, the villagers — part of a scheme which over eight years has brought solar panels and wind turbines to some 25 Palestinian villages in the region. Even the villagers participate, contributing part of their earnings to maintenance costs. The predictable demolition orders have only been blocked by the intervention of Germany, whose government, together with the Medico NGO, supports the project. Eight similar villages not far away have been threatened with destruction – unless the Supreme Court supports their appeals.
Not far away, in this poorest area of the West Bank, Israeli and Palestinian volunteers in the Ta’ayush (“together” in Arabic) movement, gather together with villagers like these, who face harassment by settlers and eviction by the army from areas summarily called “firing zones”. Ta’ayush activists have harvested olive crops for Palestinians in the northern West Bank, when the orchards were situated on the Israeli side of the separation wall where the farmers were prohibited from entering.
They have helped rebuild houses demolished for lack of the permits that no Palestinian can hope to obtain here.
Events like these have long been documented by B’tselem, the information centre which has amassed an encyclopaedic collection of testimonies to the abuses of the occupation. B’tselem issues cameras to the many Palestinians who record confrontations with the army, damage to life and property by the settlers, evidence which might otherwise be dismissed as hearsay. Such work is not without its dangers, as Palestinians who work with an Israeli organisation risk being dubbed traitors.
Machsom Watch is the group which monitors what goes on at the checkpoints. Many of its participants are women who have reached retirement age, often the age of the soldiers’ mothers and grandmothers, who are best positioned not only to help the Palestinian women, some old or pregnant, in the queues which often last hours, but also to remind the soldiers by their presence that they should exercise restraint.
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, whose founder was a nurse, has been responsible for publicising the physical abuse of prisoners in the Shin Bet interrogation rooms which even military judges have been forced to admit existed with their knowledge. Its greatest achievement was the Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling against torture (known as “moderate physical pressure”) — a rare occasion on which the court intervened in security matters.
Apart from these, and tens of other civil rights activities, there are ad hoc demonstrations and personal missions, among them a group of women who monitor the proceedings in the military courts. One of their concerns has been for teenagers suspected of stonethrowing, currently the most prevalent form of Palestinian protest. Until recently, they were treated like adult detainees. Despite some improvement in interrogation methods, the charge sheets against them are still based on imprecise information gathered from boys of the same village or district — the same system used by the Shin Bet to incriminate terror suspects during the intifadas. So the majority of such cases end in plea bargains.
If there is ever to be peace, the frail bonds established by lawyers and civil rights activists may herald a healthier relationship — not that between patrons and beneficiaries, or even colleagues in the struggle for justice, but as equals in two nation states.