LYONS, John: Home Truths, 22-23Aug09 August 22, 2009

Home Truths P2a

by John Lyons  -  The Weekend Australian  -  22-23 August 2009

It’s four o’clock on Sunday afternoon in April and Nasser Jaber is standing in an Israeli courtroom.  His task, on the face of it, is straightforward: to prove to the judge that the house he was born in 38 years ago – the house his grandparents moved into in the 1930s – is his.  But there are more recent claimants to the house in Jerusalem’s Old City, and they believe they answer to a higher authority than title deeds or tenure.

Home Truths P3aJaber had moved in with hisparents while his house was being renovated, but made the mistake of leaving the property unattended.  At 2.30am on April 2, four days after he’d left, Jaber’s next-door neighbours decided to take advantage of the Palestinian travel agent’s absence.  They were armed Jewish settlers, hard-liners who rely on the Old Testment rather than documents of state to argue their right to live in certain sacred parts of Israel.  They forced open his front door, changed the locks. and are now refusing to leave.

When alerted to the break in, Jaber contacted the Israeli police, expecting they would evict the settlers.  Instead, the police took them food and supplies, and later that day helped another settler to move in. Jaber and some other neighbours had formed a blockade to try and deny the settlers access, but when the police called Jaber over to talk to them, other officers helped the newcomer enter.  Much of this was captured on camera by Australian television journalist Sophie McNeill.  The police became angry when they realised McNeill had filmed them. They took her media pass and warned: “Don’t come back to the Old City.”

Jaber began to have his quest to have the settlers evicted with full confidence in the Israeli legal system: nine years ago other settlers had claimed the house was theirs and he was forced to go to court.  On that occasion the judge ruled that the documents the settlers were presenting were fakes and they were ordered to leave immediately.

This time the settler’s argument to the court is that they have in fact bought the property; Jaber says the documents they are using to claim this are similarly fabricated.  And indeed, when the settlers made their argument in court, Jaber’s lawyer turned to them and asked why, if they already owned the house, were they continuing to make offers to buy it?  The settlers’ lawyer did not respond.

Jaber for his part, has tendered his deeds to the property in evidence.

The judge told the settlers she had only two questions for them: what time had they entered the property? And how had they entered? “When we heard those two questions we thought everything would be OK,” Jaber says.   “Obviously if you have good documents you can enter in the light of day.”

But over recent months, Jaber’s faith has been eroded, a process that began straight after the judges’s questions.  the settlers’ lawyer was granted a private meeting with the judge, despite protests from Jaber’s counsel that he should also be present.  After that meeting, Jaber says, the two key questions were never asked again.  The judge ordered that the status quo should be maintained, with the settlers occupying the house, until the case could be heard in full.

The settlers have a particular view on what constitutes the status quo: they ahve connected water and electricity from their original house next dor, brought in their own furniture and set up computers.  Jaber’s furniture and kitchen utensils were thrown into the street.  Neither the police, the settlers, nor their lawyer would speak to The Weekend Australian magazine about the case.

Settlers in recent years have made a push to take possession of houses in the Old City which they say is particularly significant as it is near Judaism’s most sacred site, the Western Wall.

police near Jaber's house

Israeli police near Nasser Jaber's house

Jaber believes that if he were Jewish and seven armed Palestinians had broken into his house, the case would have been dealt with within the hour.  But almost four months after the break-in, after five preliminary hearings and a mounting legal bill, he cannot even get a date for his next court appearance.  In contrast, the courts moved quickly after a scuffle broke out when Jaber tried to prevent new settlers moving in: he was charged with obstructing police work and fined NIS 10,000 ($3120).  As a result, he now has a criminal record which makes him ineligible for any government job.  Jaber fears that even if he gets his house back, the settlers will break in again, in the hope that he will not have the money or energy to go through this for a third time.  Another Palestinian who lives in the Old City, a journalist for a foreign news agency, says she too is nervous about leaving her home unguarded, because “this is a war of attrition by the settlers”.

Jaber claims that some Israelis want Palestinians to leave Jerusalem so that it can become totally Jewish, although he is quick to point out that not everyone feels that way.  “Some of my Jewish clients have been trying to give me advice about how to get my house back,” he says.  But he feels the climate has changed, and that many police are sympathetic to the settlers.  He uses a term increasingly voiced by Palestinians, saying there is an attempt to “transfer” them out of Jerusalem to neighbouring countries, such as Jordan.  In recent months, he says, people he had never seen before have opened the door of his office to ask, “What are you doing here?  This is a Jewish place.”

Jaber’s disquiet is shared by many moderate Israelis.  Last December, then prime minister Ehud Olmert condemned Jewish settlers in Hebron in the strongest imaginable terms.  When settlers attacked nearby Palestinian after Israeli soldiers evicted them from a contested building, Olmert told his cabinet: “Immediately after the eviction, there were acts that cannot be described other than as an attempted progrom by Jews from the Hebron area, and other areas, against Palestinian residents in Judea and Samaria.  I say this after much thought.  I formulate these words with the greatest care that I can.  We are the children of a people whose historic ethos is built on the memory of pogroms.  The sight of Jews firing at innocent Palestinians has no other name than pogrom.”

The sadness of Nasser Jaber’s story is that he is just the kind of Palestinian the Israelis should be celebrating.  Co-owner and general manager of one of Israel’s top travel agencies, he has about 35 regular Jewish customers, 40 Palestinian, plus a large number of tourists.  His office is in the prestigious business precinct of West Jerusalem – the Jewish side – and on his wall hangs his Best Business Award for 2002, with a list of sponsors including Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Olmert.  Yet now someone who should be a poster boy for successful relations between Jews and Palestinians, a role model for Arabs who want to build a business in Israel, feels angry and betrayed – he left his home for four days and may never walk back in again. “I feel alone,” he says.

There are settlers and there are settlers.  The hard-loners are typified by those in Hebron, where about 600 Jews, many carrying M-16 rifles, are sheltered by the Israeli Defence Force from the 150,000 Palestinians who surround them.  They’re the settlers from central casting.  But to get a sense of the moderate mindset, it’s useful to visit a settlement more reflective of the Middle East – Efrat, a commuter area 20- minutes drive from Jerusalem. home to about 8000 people.

Tommy Lamm

Tommy Lamm who has come to Israel from Melbourne

One of its founders is Tommy Lamm who grew up in Melbourne and moved to Israel 39 years agp.  “When they talk about a two-state solution, the Arabs have in mind taking down the settlements,” Lamm says.  “Come and look at what they want to take down.”  Lamm heads out of Jerusalem on the road to Hebron; before the second traffic light, he opens a Bible and points to Genesis 48, verse 7: “. . . Rachel died beside me in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath;  and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath.”  The verse is of great significance to Lamm:  “Jews have been there for thousands of years.  It’s not just real estate.”

Efrat is a massive development.  It could be middle Australia – about 70 per cent of adults have degrees and some 65 doctors live in the town.  It has four schools, 22 synagogues and at the last election voted for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud or Avigdor Lieberman’s Ysrael Beiteinu: the new Israeli Government is very much their government.

Unlike many of his neighbours, Lamm has regular contact with a Palestinian – his gardener.  As cultural groups that once brought Israelis and Palestinians together have largely broken down, younger Israelis, in particular, have little, if any, contact with Palestinians.  “I say to my gardener, “How does one of your people take an axe and smash the head of a 13-year-old boy – can you explain that to me?”  Lamm says, referring to a violent incident in the nearby Bat Ayin settlement in March, when a Palesinian killed one boy and injured another “I say, why do you have so many crazy people?”

Of course, the Jewish side have their crazies as well: in the case of the axe murder, the father of the injured boy was in jail for trying to blow up a Palestinian girls’ school.  And Lamm was appalled by Baruch Goldstein, the New York doctor who in 1994 shot dead 29 Muslims in a Hebron mosque.  “It’s outrageous and should never happen again,” he says, “but I’d like to hear Arabs say the same for guys who blow up buses.”

Israel’s resistance to Barack Obama’s call for an end to settlement activity has a biblical foundation: settlers say that Old Testment references to Jews having been in Judea and Samaria, as they call the West Bank, mean they have a right to live there.  But there is also an economic dimension.  As Israel’s housing shortage worsens, the settlements provide cheap homes, particularly for lower income ultra-Orthodox Jews who rely on welfare.  They can buy a house in the Palestinian territories for half of what it would cost in Israel.

Tommy Lamm’s view of the world, as with so many Israelis, has been shaped by the Holocaust. He says his older brother, as a three-year-old in the former Czechoslovakia, hid with his mother in the cavity of a couch as German soldiers searched their house for Jews.  “We are influenced tremendously by World War II, when Jews had no means to defend themselves,” says Lamm.  “Today our fight is our very existence.”  Lamm mixes Zionist zeal – “this is the cradle of Jewish religion and history [and] that is why the battle for this area is so volatile” – with pragmatism, but would he give up Efrat if it meant peace?  He grins at the question but doesn’t reply.


American-born settler David Wilder

Twenty minutes down the road is Hebron, the Wild West of the West Bank. Out here, there’s no hint of compromise.  Hebrew songs blare from the Gutnick Centre, named after its benefactor, Melbourne’s Joe Gutnick.  The Jewish community here is an island surrounded by Palestinians, but the music leaves no doubt of their presence.  Our settler guide American-born David Wilder, explains why the music is so loud and incessant.  “It just gives a bit of a good feeling,” he says.

Hebron’s Jewish community is made up of about 90 families.  It has one religious boys’ school, where students are taught to chant verses memorised from the Torah.  The Jews can only live here due to the heavy presence of Israeli troops from four army bases nearby.  The Israeli Defence Force provides weapons, mainly M-16s, to the settlers.  Wilder says while lighter weapons such as the Glock pistol he carries require normal registration, the heavier weapons are less regulated.  “The IDF distributes them to people who need them,”  he says, adding that the army requires “as much of an assurance as you can have that people are sane.”

In Hebron scores of Palestinian shops have been closed, leaving basically Jewish-only neighbourhoods protected by Israeli soldiers.  During a three-hour visit not a single Palestinian is to be seen in what used to be a thriving Pslestinian commercial centre.  Swedish film-maker Terje Carlsson obtained footage for his documentary Welcome to Hebron of Jewish settler children throwing rocks at Palestinian children on their way to school, as an Israeli soldier stands and watches.  The film shows settlers hiding behind soldiers as they taunt Palestinians with chants of “Slaughter the Arabs”, against a backdrop of graffiti that reads: “Gas the Arabs.”

Former Israeli soldier Yehuda Shaul, who was an IDF commander in Hebron tells the filmmaker: “Under 12 you have no criminal responsibility, the Israeli authorities can’t do anything to you, and for that reason the daily violence towards Palestinians is being carried out by little children.”  Shaul echoes Ehud Olmert’s views, describing what is happening in Hebron and other areas as “our biggest sickness”, which Israelis would rather ignore.  “We prefer to sit here, have a nice espresso, smoke a cigarette, but it’s our responsibility to do something.”  He says the IDS has “sterilised” the streets for the settlers, who have begun moving into the shops and houses of the Palestinians who have left.

Contrast this with the language of Wilder, who never refers to “Palestinians” but instead to “them”, “the Arabs” and “these animals”.  He opposes any change that would mean “they” had access to parts now sealed off.  “What if they come in and one of them kills a man?” he asks.  “Tell the widow and orphans it’s worth it for peace?”  Wilder doesn’t speak to Palestinians.  “There’s not much to talk about these days,” he says.

After Tommy Lamm, David Wilder looks hard-line. But not for long.

On the way out of Hebron, Wilder sees a woman waiting by the road and asks us to give her a lift back to Jerusalem. She seems a very politically aware hitchhiker, sitting in the back tearing out articles from newspapers and talking on one of two mobile phones.  She introduces herself as Orit, which, she says, means “Light”.  She turns out to be Orit Struck, spokesperson for the Hebron settlers.

She starts to chat about her children, and how her parents came from Hungary and Poland.  She moved to Hebron from Jerusalem, she says, “because it is a holy place”. But as the trip goes on she becomes more strident.  When the international push for Israel to accept a two-state solution is mentioned, she shouts that the rest of the world can “shut up!”  “The international community did nothing during the Holocvaust,” she says. “The British would not use their bombs to bomb the railways tracks to the concentration camps.”  The world has no right to tell Israel what to do, she says, because “everyone hates Jews”.

Asked about the Palestinians who have been here for more than 400 years, Struck’s voice darkens with contempt: “We have been here for thousands of years.  This is our land,” she says. “They are our guests and if they want to stay they should behave as guests.  I am nice to my guests. We came here 4000 years ago – we went away for 2000 years and now we’re back.”

In Israel every person has their take on the Israeli-Palestinians conflict, many of them measured and moderate.  But Struck voices one that is encountered  more frequently, including in advertisements on the front page of The Jerusalem Post: that Palestinians are fake.  They are just Arabs who came to Israel 100 years ago, she says.  “There are 22 Arab countries and these so-called Palestinians can go to those,” she says.

Meanwhile back in the Old City, Nasser Jaber fears he may never get his home back.  Because of the fine following the scuffle outside his house, he will be prevented from renting any other premises or doing anything that requires a “clean” record.  He’s been told to attend the police station to have his fingerprints and mugshot taken.  He says any future employer or landlord will now be informed he has a criminal record.  “I’m now a danger man,” he says, sarcastically.

In four months, Nasser Jaber has gone from a Palestinian looking to start a family and grow his business to someone who is now consumed by a sense of injustice.  His anger is just one more drop in the ocean of hatred that is slowly drowning the Middle East.

John Lyons is The Australian’s Middle East correspondent.

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