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Meet the Israeli volunteers who stand with Palestinians against hate attacks

Anshel Pfeffer joins a visit by Tag Meir, a group that makes solidarity visits to communities struck by vandalism

    Palestinian cars were vandalised overnight outside the blockade on the road leading into the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa
    Palestinian cars were vandalised overnight outside the blockade on the road leading into the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa

    On a freezing January evening, just on the northern edge of Jerusalem’s Ramot neighbourhood, a small convoy of cars is set to drive to the next village.

    The members of Tag Meir, a motley group of mostly religious Israeli volunteers, including children and two elderly women, are on a solidarity visit to Beit Iksa.

    The Palestinian village of two thousand residents deep in a valley immediately north of Jerusalem might only be a few hundred yards away, but as far as most Israelis are concerned it could be on a different continent.

    Its residents were the target of an under-reported hate crime last month and Tag Meir’s objective is to show non-Jews — Muslims and Christians in the West Bank and Israel — that many Israelis are shocked by such acts.

    The village of Beit Iksa and Ramot, a neighbourhood in the Jerusalem urban area
    The village of Beit Iksa and Ramot, a neighbourhood in the Jerusalem urban area

    “I’m not disappointed by the turnout,” says Gadi Gevaryahu, one of the group’s founders. “It’s midweek and the peak of winter. The important thing is we’re here.”

    Beit Iksa is so close to the city that its night sky is illuminated by Ramot’s street lights.

    It is essentially part of the Greater Jerusalem urban area and, ordinarily, it would take five minutes to drive out of the valley.

    But there is a roadblock at the top of the hill, near Ramot, that cuts them off not only from Jerusalem, but the Palestinian capital Ramallah too.

    It often takes an hour to cross.

    Beit Iksa residents have responded by parking their cars on the Israeli -guarded side overnight and walking up the hill to them each morning.

    Once across, they drive to work.

    The cars were daubed with slogans such as ‘Death to Arabs’
    The cars were daubed with slogans such as ‘Death to Arabs’

    But two weeks ago, all their cars were vandalised: windows smashed, tyres slashed and graffiti sprayed in bright broad Hebrew letters.

    It was in a location under regular surveillance and there was barely a mention in Israeli media. Tag Meir wants to change that.

    The group does not just organise solidarity visits. It monitors hate incidents, runs workshops in high schools, and lobbies Knesset members for tougher police and military enforcement.

    “When someone is murdered, like Mohammed Abu Khdeir [a 16 year-old Palestinian boy killed by Jewish vigilantes in 2014] or the Duma attack [where three Palestinian family members were killed in an arson incident], the police and Shin Bet will track down the killers,” says Mr Gevaryahu.

    “But there are dozens of attacks annually where there is barely any response.

    “The same goes for vandalism of mosques and churches. When the Church of the Loaves and Fishes was set alight in 2015, the Vatican complained and there were arrests. But we have recorded fifty attacks on religious buildings over the last six years.”

    Tag Meir volunteers clamber over the roadblock
    Tag Meir volunteers clamber over the roadblock

    To reach the village, Tag Meir members park their cars by the roadblock, the very spot where the Palestinian vehicles were vandalised.

    They then trot down into the valley, past a second roadblock, where residents drive them to the small village hall.

    Over a hundred people are there to meet them.

    “We haven’t seen Israelis here, besides soldiers, for at least ten years,” says Farouk Jet, a builder who works an hour’s drive away in Jaffa.

    The first few minutes are formal, as the council leader Dr Saad al Khatib makes a stiff welcoming speech.

    “We know that in Israel there are people like you who want peace and those who don’t. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed a peace treaty 24 years ago and we still believe in it,” he says.

    No one talks these days about that agreement — the Oslo process — except to pronounce its death, as Education Minister Naftali Bennett proudly did.

    A hundred residents from the Palestinian village met the visiting Israelis from Tag Meir
    A hundred residents from the Palestinian village met the visiting Israelis from Tag Meir

    Beit Iksa’s residents have more immediate concerns than the moribund peace process.

    Even the damage done to their cars is not their main complaint.

    “There’s no violence in Beit Iksa; it would be madness. We could throw a stone from here and break windows in Ramot but the Border Police would be down on us like a ton of bricks,” says Sharif Kudous, a lorry driver.

    “There’s nothing we can do about the vandalism, but it just brings home how cut off we are both from Jerusalem and Ramallah.

    “Sometimes entire mornings pass until we get supplies of fresh milk and if the soldiers at the roadblock are acting up, there are no classes at the village school because most of the teachers come from outside the village.

    Children were among those at the meeting organised by Tag Meir
    Children were among those at the meeting organised by Tag Meir

    “It’s like living in [a] mini-Gaza.”

    The visitors mainly listen silently. “I’m not particularly political,” one of their number, Jerusalem tour guide Yossi Yeinan, says afterwards.

    “I just feel these are our neighbours and we have to go from house to house to tell them they’re not alone.”

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