The “Rabbis for Human Rights” continue their cooperation with Palestinians on another level. As Rabbis, so director Rabbi Arik Ascherman, they work for a greater force than the State of Israel. The existence of the State of Israel is not to be maintained at all costs, says the controversial rabbi.
The “Rabbis for Human Rights” organization was founded in 1988 during the first intifada. It was a protest of religious bodies within Israel against government policy of breaking the bones of Palestinian children, to prevent them from throwing stones at Israeli security forces.
Currently, the “Rabbis for Human Rights” are involved with two major campaigns.
One is the “Committee against House Demolition”. Within this project, they cooperate with a range of different organizations. One of them is “Gush Shalom”, a radical Israeli group that advocates the forced expulsion of all Jews who live beyond the 1967 cease fire lines.
Another is the Palestinian “LAW” – an NGO designed to give legal support to the Palestinian Authority. Among “LAW” causes is the extensive campaign to indict Ariel Sharon in Belgium, on charges of war crimes against the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. “LAW” is also active on having Israel declared an Apartheid State with the resulting economic sanctions imposed by the UN. Rabbi Ascherman denies that “LAW” calls Israel an Apartheid State, even though “LAW” has these campaigns publicly on their website. The other project of the “Rabbis for Human Rigths” is the “olive tree campaign”.
Around the village of Hares, based in Area B – under Palestinian control for civil affairs and under Israeli control for security reasons -, a certain amount of olive trees have been either uprooted or cut down.
According to information received from Hares liason officer and P.A. ministry of social affairs employee Nawwaf Souff, the trees were cut down on different occasions.
According to Souff, there are trees that have been uprooted by the Israeli Defense Forces using bulldozers and trees supposedly cut down by Israeli settlers living near by. So far no independent source could be found, to confirm the statements made by Nawwaf Souf.
At a visit in the village of Hares, it was evident, that the “Rabbis for Human Rights” director Rabbi Arik Ascherman had never been in the olive tree fields himself, prior to this occasion. Thus it must be assumed, that the whole campaign was mounted on the grounds of other people having reporting things to the “Rabbis for Human Rights”.
The person who did report back to the Rabbis, it was discovered, was one Neta Golan, a woman activist who had previously spent a week within the village of Hares. Her main activity has been to contact peace groups in Europe and America and to monitor volunteers of such organizations being placed in the line of fire in houses in villages like Bet Jalla or Bethlehem. This action has been done to prevent Israeli Defence Forces to retaliate for Palestinian attacks for fear of killing international civilians and thus involving other countries in the conflict. It must be assumed that this was done in order to draw even military intervention in support of Palestinians.
Yet according to Nawwaf Souf, the uprooted trees were replanted the very next day by the inhabitants of the village Hares.
Thus, a current visit reveals hardly any uprooted tree. The trees that have been cut, are already sporting new greenery and it is clear that they will completely recover from the cutting. Nawwaf Souf explained that depending where a tree is cut, it may recover.
The resulting assumption must be, that either who cut those trees was ignorant enough not to know that the trees would recover, or that the person who cut them, did not want to harm the trees on a long term basis. A possible explanation is delivered by Rabbi Arik Ascherman himself.
Those trees, he informed, have been used in the past by Palestinians as a cover to throw stones and attack Israelis at nearby roads. Thus, it can be understood, that the Israeli Defense Forces have removed the problem.
According to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Torah states clearly, that one is not allowed to cut down fruit trees even in war. Because they provide the opponent with food and once a war is over, this also may be an obstacle in the relations between both people. This rule of nor cutting trees is the main reason, so Rabbi Arik Ascherman, why the “Rabbis for Human Rights” got involved in the “olive tree campaign”. But seeing how the trees were cut, one has to give recognition that they were cut down in a way maintaining two Torah principles to save lives and not to destroy fruit trees. There are some trees which have been removed, to make way for road construction and installation of electricity plants.
The “Rabbis for Human Rights” have raised 70 000 Dollars for the “olive tree campaign”. These funds are not intended to replace trees, as the organization stated while fundraising. The funds are going to be paid to Palestinian families in cash. The “Rabbis for Human Rights” have no list of families who’s trees have been damaged. Palestinian contacts are in complete charge of the money distribution. The “Rabbis for Human Rights” hand over the 70 000 Dollars to their contacts. The contacts are for one the secretary of the “Committee for Land Defense”, Issa Samandar, as stated by himself in a telephone interview, and Nawwaf Souf, as witnessed while bills were exchanged between him and Rabbi Arik Ascherman in Soufs family house.
The “Rabbis for Human Rights” trust their Palestinian contacts completely and thus see no need to control what actually happens with the money, once it has been handed over. At this moment it is not yet known what is purchased with that money.
Issa Samandar made it a point to stress that the families should have the feeling that they are not receiving charity as not to hurt their dignity. So far no answers have been provided as to how the “Committee for Land Defense” achieves this purpose.
The “Rabbis of Human Rights” have received extensive support for their “olive tree campaign” from within the Palestinian society. They have been exempt from the general ban pronounced by the Palestinian umbrella organization for NGO’s – “PNGO” against Israeli NGO’s. They have also received, so Arik Ascherman, considerable backing from P.A. officials. As far as monetary support is concerned, they were able to fund raise successfully from the “Rabbinical Association of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements.”, “Not In My Name”, the “Shefa Fund” and the “New Israel Fund”. In Europe, donations are said to be coming from Christian communities in Germany, Holland, Switzerland and England. “The Economic Cooperation Foundation” has sponsored some ads in the newspapers for the “Rabbis for Human Rights” campaign and they do have regular meetings with each other. In consideration of the actual political climate, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, it has to be seen if the “Rabbis for Human Rights” will continue to receive as much support from international sources. So far, Rabbi Ascherman does not seem to want to discontinue the work they have been doing in the area. The olive trees are a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. They are actively used to claim or deny land on both sides of the fence. While Palestinians are trying to defend their trees against Israeli destruction, as well as using them as a weapon against Israelis, it seems that there is also a campaign organised by the “Committee for Land Defense” to register land in Area C (under complete Israeli control) and to try to regain this land for Palestinians, even prior to any final settlements on land ownership and border outlines between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
The olive trees and the money collected by the “Rabbis for Human Rights” are thus not merely a means to provide a family with an income, but rather a political weapon being used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.