Seeing it For Myself: Injustice In the South Hebron Hills

Originally published in The Daily Beast on July 2, 2013. 

Last summer, I traveled with a J Street U delegation to the South Hebron Hills, in the southernmost reaches of the West Bank. Gazing out from an agricultural Palestinian village, we could see two unauthorized Israeli “outpost” settlements, recently erected a few hundred feet away. We saw the outposts’ electrical system and learned they’d been hooked up to a water supply; the Palestinian villagers had neither. This was the face of inequity in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank.

Twenty years ago, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three parts. On nearly two-thirds of the land, designated as Area C, Israel retained full control—and with that full responsibility for the Palestinians living there. But those Palestinians, who make up about five percent of the territory’s population, do not receive the same services as their Jewish neighbors, who’ve moved in droves into the Israeli settlements that now dot the area. Over the past twenty years, in short, the state of Israel has shirked its responsibilities.

Last month, B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group working in the West Bank, published a new report entitled “Acting the Landlord: Israel’s Policy in Area C, The West Bank.”The report points to a wider effect of Israel’s policies in the areas it controls. “In theory, Israel retains full control in the West Bank only of Area C,” a release for the report said. “In practice, Israel’s control of Area C adversely affects all Palestinian West Bank residents.”

According to B’Tselem, Israeli policy works to serve the water and land needs of Israelis at the expense of the Palestinians. As the group sees it, Israel created a de facto annexation of Area C, and now works to make that a permanent reality through the expansion of settlements.

But water and power are only two concerns: the report also covers the continuing expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. Citing residents who live in South Hebron Hills that the IDF Civil Administration—the Israeli military authority for West Bank Palestinians—refuses to formally recognize, the report states, “Over 1,000 people… currently live under the perpetual threat of expulsion on the grounds of residing in a ‘firing zone.’”

According to Haaretz, the High Court of Justice is now due to consider Israel’s demand to annul a 13-year-old temporary injunction which allowed farmers in the South Hebron Hills to remain in their homes. Israel demanded the expulsion of approximately 1,300 Palestinians, arguing that the IDF needs that land to train in what they designate as “Firing Zone 918.”

This firing zone rationale is a major threat for Palestinians living in Area C. In July 2012, Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated that the area was essential for the IDF’s training, and that Palestinian residents living in eight out of 12 villages must evacuate their homes. The four other villages, located next to illegal Israeli settlement outposts, like the one I visited, were not ordered to evacuate. ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, filed a petition in response to Barak’s demand.

“It is inconceivable that 1,000 people should be evicted for the sake of military exercises. These evictions, which are tantamount to forced displacement, deny the villagers their livelihood and seize the property of people whose very existence depends upon the land they cultivate,” said Tamar Feldman, an attorney with ACRI, in a statement in January.

Due to the work of ACRI and others, Palestinian villagers won a temporary reprieve from the large-scale eviction. However, their quality of life is highly restricted. The Civil Administration forbids all forms of development, including projects like securing water and electrical systems, setting up additional tents, and digging for water wells.

NGO’s do what they can. COMET-ME is one that helps provide solar and wind power to Palestinians in these areas—but restrictions and changes in status make their work precarious. Without building permits, their projects stand to be wiped away at any moment. That’s because Israel rarely issues such. A study conducted by Peace Now found that, between 2000-2007, 94 percent of Palestinian building permit applications were turned down.

Traveling in the South Hebron Hills, I saw for myself the indefensible conditions in which these Palestinians live, adjacent to Israelis with full water and electricity access. Those who claim liberal outlets like Haaretz and rights groups like B’Tselem take too dour a view of Israeli motives and goals, should see it for themselves, too. Because when one looks over at the land, it’s impossible to ignore the inequities of Israel’s occupation.

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The Administrative Detentions of Wasfi Kabha

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 18, 2013.

On June 6, the Israeli military dropped off a Palestinian man at Jubara checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Nablus. Wasfi Kabha, who’d been imprisoned for the past two years, then reportedly collapsed, sustained severe bruising, and went to a hospital in Tulkarem to be treated. The release marked the end of a seven-year ordeal that saw Kabha go in and out of Israeli custody, all without ever being charged with any crime. Kabha, who like all West Bank Palestinians is subject to Israeli martial law, was held under administrative detention orders issued by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Most administrative detention orders come with six-month expirations, but can be renewed indefinitely. The orders usually don’t serve as punishment for past acts, but rather to prevent future violations of the law. Subjects of the orders are guilty until proven innocent, but proving innocence will be elusive for them because they lack judicial rights. Officials frequently justify the practice by arguing that an open court could reveal sensitive intelligence collection methods that threaten national security. And so detainees languish without a trial, or without even knowing why they’re being held. As of April, 155 Palestinians were being held by the Israel Prison Service in administrative detention, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

“Administrative detention exists in other countries,” wrote the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf last year, “but is considered a unique and exceptional measure, and its implementation usually leads to a vigorous public debate. In the West Bank, it’s routine.” 

The case of Wasfi Kabha goes a long way toward demonstrating just how routine. But who is Kabha? The short version is: a Hamas politician. The long version winds through university in the West, a technocratic municipal job that propelled him to the top of Hamas’s short-lived Palestinian Authority government, and four rounds of detention that have kept him behind bars 61 of the past 84 months.

Kabha was born in a village near Jenin, in the West Bank, in 1959. After earning a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. and a master’s in Ireland, he took up a job in the civil engineering department for the Jenin municipality. In 2006, Kabha served as the Minister of Prisoner Affairs for the Hamas government. Controversy erupted around Kabha when he joined other senior Hamas officials in endorsing a Tel Aviv suicide bombing attack in April 2006. Kabha told reporters that such attacks occur within “the framework of legitimate right of resistance against Israeli violations and crimes”—making clear that he supported the views that have gotten Hamas labeled terrorists by Israel, the U.S. and others.

Two months later, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured near the borders of the Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli forces launched Operation Summer Rain on June 29, launching air strikes and capturing over 60 senior Hamas officials, including Kabha. When Kabha was released nearly five weeks later, he told the Associated Press that he was kept in terrible conditions, subject to long interrogations and ultimately released because they lacked proof he belonged to a terrorist organization. “The only rest I got was during the siren when Hezbollah launched rockets at Israel,” he provocatively added. “They would take me down into a cell underground and they would leave to take shelter somewhere in the jail.” The public remarks were something Kabha would keep up; he’s become one of the most vocal critics of Israeli detention policies—and the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority’s complicity.

On March 17, 2007, Hamas and their rivals in the Fatah party finalized a landmark agreement yielding a unity government. Wasfi Kabha took up a post as Palestinian Minister of State. A little over two months later, Israeli forces arrested 33 members of Hamas’s political wing in the West Bank, and then entered Kabha’s home, captured him and took his computer. Kabha remained in administrative detention for three years.

In November 2010, seven months after Kabha was released from detention, the Israeli press reported that low-ranking members of the Shin Bet had taken meetings with select senior Hamas officials, Kabha included, in the West Bank. The meetings, held over coffee, came days before a Damascus meeting between Hamas and Fatah officials to discuss reconciliation. According to the account in Haaretz by unnamed sources, Shin Bet officers visited Hamas officials in their homes late at night seeking to merely discuss their opinions regarding peace talks. Hamas officials said the meeting was less a consultation and more a series of home raids and interrogations. Kabha, whose house was searched, was among them: “It was rather a raid on our homes by Israeli forces and intelligence officers which terrified our children.”

A month later, Kabha was detained again without charges, this time only for a week. An Israeli military court said he was released due to declining health. The Director of the Ahrar Center for Prisoner Studies, Fuad Khuffash, said the judge made the decision following a review of Kabha’s medical records, which detailed the worsening state of his diabetes and high blood pressure. By June, Kabha was again taken from his home in Jenin and placed in administrative detention. Hamas issued a statement urging Kabha’s release, citing the same health problems that got him sprung from detention the year before. A year later, with a hearing coming up, Kabha denounced his imprisonment as part of a “new wave of the extensions of the administrative detention” against top Hamas officials in an attempt to quash reconciliation.

Earlier this month, after his most recent stint behind bars, this time for two years, Kabha was released and taken to the hospital in Tulkarem.

To be sure, Israel must be vigilant about protecting its citizens, and Wasfi Kabha’s condemnable record of defending suicide bombings means he should certainly be monitored for future threatening acts. But that doesn’t justify detaining an individual for years on end without ever charging him for a crime, particularly in a democracy that seeks to respect the rule of law.

‘Apolitical’ Israel Fairs? No Such thing

Below is an an op-ed I had published in New Voices Magazine about the troubling trend that exists on many college campuses in America when celebrating or discussing Israel. Full article can be read here: http://www.newvoices.org/opinion?id=0160

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Two weeks ago we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s birthday. It’s an exciting time of year for those of us who care and advocate for the state of Israel. Celebrations commemorating Israel’s Independence Day happened on college campuses all over the country. And yet I observed two troubling trends surrounding many of these events that do injustice to Israel, to pro-Israel advocacy, and to the intelligence of college students.

Many of these fairs are framed as “cultural events” – an effort to create an apolitical space for the discussion of Israel. This goal is impossible. Whether the organizers realize it or not, Israeli society and the American Jewish conception of it is so heavily politicized that it is incredibly difficult to have, do or say anything about Israel that is totally apolitical. As a result, the organizers of these events end up presenting political opinions disguised as facts.

In January I read a powerful op-ed by Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli. She wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘not political.’ Everything is political. Economics, culture, the media, fashion, consumerism – they are all political. The statement ‘I am not political’ is in itself political. It is a politics that accepts the existing order and reinforces it. It is the politics of not taking responsibility.”

Even though she was talking about Israeli citizens, her sentiments ring true for American Jews as well.

At Johns Hopkins University we recently held our annual Israel Fair, a large campus-wide event. The event was advertised as a day to “learn about the history of Israel and all the amazing accomplishments that have been achieved over the past 64 years.” The event was fun. The falafel tasted delicious. The music was happy and familiar. And yet, something about the event was disconcerting.

I am the leader of our chapter of J Street U – the college arm of J Street, the American pro-Israel pro-peace group. As a co-sponsor of the event, we were told explicitly that this event was intended to be apolitical. Meaning, in effect, that there should be no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process in general. The goal of the organizers was to avoid creating an environment that could potentially elicit “anti-Israel sentiment.”

This type of event happens at campuses all across the country.

At the University of Michigan every year they have Israel Birthday Bash where the mainstream pro-Israel group sets up a big moon-bounce in the center of campus and distributes falafel and cake – along with facts about Israel’s achievements and history. Recently at the University of Maryland they celebrated Israel Fest, pitched as “a celebration of Israeli culture with free food, camel rides, inflatable activities, face painting, and more!”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Israel’s successes, but doing so is only one part of the broader picture of how we should engage with Israel, and the way these successes are presented inevitably carries with it political implications.

All too often, events that are framed as “cultural” partner with national organizations that have explicit political agendas. I watched as pamphlets were distributed at our Israel Fair that reported on Israel’s human rights record, Israeli LGBT tolerance and Arab voting rights. Maps of Israel were disseminated. Fact sheets were passed out about the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s humanitarian aid to other countries. I do not oppose these topics being discussed, however I reject the claim that these are somehow “not political.” They are.

One popular handout used on college campuses, including mine, is the StandWithUs “Pocket Facts” booklet.  Some “facts” from this booklet:

  • “Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 War when they were expelled.”
  • “Iranian leaders are racing to build nuclear weapons.”

When the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, says that Iran is likely not building a weapon, it is not a fact to say Iran is “racing to build nuclear weapons.” It might be a mainstream opinion, but it is certainly not a settled fact. When the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, in accordance with the law, that numerous settlements in the West Bank are built on Palestinian land, or land with contested ownership because it was not farmed by anyone for a certain number of years, it is not a fact to say that settlements are categorically built on land once owned by Jews, as implied by the StandWithUs literature. Let us be intellectually honest. These statements are opinions.

Israel fairs are great. We should have them. But they should also directly address the political situation Israel faces. And if they opt not to, we must acknowledge that these fairs are still political. Even when we engage in discussions about Israel’s technological achievements or their treatment of the LGBT community, we must be open about the political nature of these things. Politics does not have to be a dirty word.

More importantly, we’re not doing Israel any good by avoiding the peace process. We should be talking about the two-state solution, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements, and rocket attacks. All of these are crucial elements in envisioning and understanding Israel and its future. We should embrace the complexity, and give people actual answers instead of pretending that these issues don’t exist. This is how we can do justice to Israel, get more people involved in pro-Israel activism and show students that we trust them to be smart people.

Pro-Israel advocates cannot shield college students from the conflict. Students will read about it in newspapers. They will watch documentaries they find on Netflix. It is unavoidable. But let’s be proactive and embrace the challenges head on, precisely at a campus-wide event created to learn about Israel. We can provide people with the opportunity to develop a real, deep relationship with Israel, not just one that’s based on a universal love of falafel.