Ezra Nawi’s trial is drawing to a close. He is accused of assaulting two Israeli border policemen during house demolitions at Um al-Kheir, and the judge, Eilata Ziskind, has already found him guilty. What is left is sentencing, preceded by character witnesses and closing arguments. I am here to bear witness on his behalf, along with several other activists and friends.
In February 2007 the army sent its bulldozers to demolish several of the tin-and-canvas shanties in Um al-Kheir. Ezra was there—he always appears, miraculously on-time, wherever he is needed in South Hebron—and, in the best tradition of civil disobedience, he did what he could to slow the machines. He threw himself before them, and the soldiers had to drag him away. Then he ran into one of the half-destroyed shacks with two border policeman on his heels. All this is documented on video. What the camera could not record is what happened in the few seconds inside the shack. Some days after the event, the border policemen claimed that Ezra resisted and also raised his hand against them; he fiercely denies this, and I believe him. I know the man. At the time, they pulled him out, handcuffed him, and arrested him. In the video you can see the soldiers mocking him for helping Palestinians, and you can also hear Ezra saying to them: “Yes, I was also a soldier, but I didn’t demolish houses. There’s a big difference. . . . Only hatred will be left here.”
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If a Palestinian in Um al-Kheir needs to build a home or add a room to his tent or shack, he must obtain a building permit, and there is virtually no chance he will succeed. On average, one building permit is issued each month in Area C, a portion of the West Bank under direct Israeli control and home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Inevitably, people build without permits—they usually have very large families—and just as inevitably, the Civil Administration—that is, the occupation authority—issues its demolition orders. Sixty such orders are issued in a typical month, of which about twenty are carried out. It has happened many times at Um al-Kheir, only a few meters from the rows of modern, red-roofed villas erected by Israelis at the Carmel settlement.
The judge had to weigh the conflicting testimony of Ezra and the policemen. She believed the policemen. So here we are at 8:00 a.m. in room 324 of the district court, in the old Russian Compound, a collection of grand white limestone buildings built by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society for Russian pilgrims and clergy in the mid-nineteenth century. The courtroom is far too small to accommodate all of Ezra’s friends and supporters. With other witnesses, I am exiled to the grimy corridor outside. I have been told by Ezra’s experienced lawyer, Leah Tsemel, that I will have about five minutes, in the course of which I am supposed to explain the history of Gandhian civil disobedience and Ezra’s place in this venerable tradition. I have rehearsed in my mind what I want to say, but can only hope that I will find the words once it is my turn on the stand.
After an hour or so, I am ushered in. To my left is the prosecutor, a young Palestinian woman. I smile at Ezra to my right and vaguely take in the faces of a few of my activist colleagues on the benches near the door. Far above me, behind a high wooden bar, sits Justice Ziskind and, at her side, a typist hovering over a computer keyboard. I am advised that I must speak the truth and that I must speak it slowly, as slowly as possible, so the typist can keep up and the transcript will be complete.
“How long have you known the defendant?”
A long time, I say, several decades. He was our plumber. Highly professional, dealt with various emergencies. He worked for us for many years before I had any inkling of his political views. But in the last nine years, I have been with him regularly in the South Hebron Hills, on peace work.
“What can you tell us about him?”
First, I say, I want to emphasize that I have been through many difficult moments with him—attacks by settlers, in particular—and I have never seen him respond to violence with violence. On one occasion in Susya, in 2005, settlers broke a wooden pole over his head, and he stood his ground without hitting back. I was right beside him, and I saw it. I have witnessed such instances many times. He is committed to nonviolent protest in every fiber of his being.
I mean the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau.
The typist raises her hands. The judge repeats the first two names. I can see I have to help out, so I spell them: G-a-n-d-h-i. From India, the struggle against British colonialism. M-a-r-t-i-n . . .
Actually, there is an advantage to this pace. It gives you plenty of time to think and also allows you to say everything two or three times, which is all to the good. I keep looking at the judge, who nods to me to go on.
Everyone recognizes, I tell the court, the mode of nonviolent civil disobedience. I see Ezra in the same honored ranks as white Americans who joined black Americans in the south to challenge local laws that upheld racial segregation in defiance of federal law. Their efforts exposed to the entire country Southern segregationists’ violent lawlessness. We are talking about situations in which nonviolent protest is directed against a system that, though it may be bolstered by law, is in conflict with basic human values and with our conscience as human beings. A man such as Ezra feels he has not only the right but the duty to oppose such rules.
Most of this has to be repeated several times. The judge is getting restless, and I will have to squeeze the rest into only a few sentences.
Mahatma Gandhi, I say, told the British judge in Ahmedabad in 1922, “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” This is the situation we face in the South Hebron Hills. I am certain that a day will come when Ezra Nawi’s name will be taught in Israeli schools, in the textbooks, as an example of a person who embodied true human values in the dark times that we are living through today.
She is doing her best, the typist. “What kind of times did you say?”
What I really want to say is: no one remembers the name of the British judge who sent Gandhi to jail in 1922 or the judges who imprisoned Nelson Mandela and Thoreau. I bite my tongue. Still, I allow myself a parting shot.
There is just one more thing, I say. I am sixty years old, I have four grandchildren, and I sometimes think that if there is anything that I can be proud of in my life, it is not the books I have written or the prizes I have won, but those moments in South Hebron when I had the privilege of standing beside Ezra Nawi when the settlers attacked.
It feels good to have said it. I even get to say it twice.
Now the prosecutor cross-examines in musical, Arabic-tinged Hebrew. She wants to know if I know anything about Ezra’s previous convictions. I say they are not relevant; she retorts that I am not impartial, that I am angry at the settlers. Sometimes I am, I say: “If someone attacked you, would you not be a little angry, too?”
I think about what Gandhi wrote in his statement to the judge in Ahmedabad: “The greater misfortune is that the Englishmen and their Indian associates in the administration of the country do not know that they are engaged in the crime.” Most Israelis, too, do not know, or do not want to know—judges included. Some would, no doubt, be incredulous were they to see life in the territories as it really is. It is, in fact, hard to believe. I start to wonder if Gandhian satyagraha is the right method in this Levantine morass. Could it soften the heart of even one Israeli soldier? Yes, it could: I know an instance from Bil’in. One of the soldiers stationed in the village, having seen the army’s brutal suppression of the villagers’ nonviolent protest, now joins us in South Hebron. Bil’in pioneered Gandhian methods in Palestine, and many have followed. But will any of this turn the tide? Almost certainly not. Israel does not have the internal resources to make political change.
We dream of mass civil disobedience in Palestine, led by some Palestinian Martin Luther King (there are several impressive candidates for the job). It is a dream. In the past, the army has shown great talent for turning nonviolent demonstrations into violent ones; generals and politicians much prefer them. And yet, there is no other way than nonviolence. Besides, the beauty of Gandhian-style protest is that it needs no further justification; it is right in itself, worth doing for itself, for the sake of truth. Ezra may never have read Gandhi’s words, but his own experience shows him what the man meant.
Judge Ziskind dismisses me, and I go back to the corridor where Galit, who testified just before me, is sitting with the Hebrew Bible on her lap. She quoted a few relevant verses to the judge. Every once in a while one of our friends comes out to tell us what is happening. The two lawyers argue at length over Ezra’s sentence, Leah striving hard for a suspended punishment, conditional upon repeated offense. Eventually Ezra himself is given a chance to speak, and for once he holds back a little, following Leah’s stern advice, though he lashes out at the Palestinian prosecutor for compromising what she must know is true. The court adjourns. Sentencing will take place on September 21.
We pour outside into the molten summer sun. A small crowd has gathered to applaud Ezra and shake his hand. These are the stalwarts of the peace movement, or what is left of it: Jews and Palestinians, women and men, hardened by years in the field, by endless disappointments and trauma. We cluster around Ezra, the living centerpoint of this struggle. There is not much we can do now except wait and hope. In the meantime there is work to be done in South Hebron. We long ago learned not to think too much about its fruits or, for that matter, its cost. I think we are all happy to take the risks. Maybe in Israel today, jail is the right place for a peace activist such as Ezra. He will not be the first imprisoned for defending the defenseless. As for those textbooks I was talking about, I think we may have a very long wait.