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ACTION ALERT: Tell Israel to Free Ezra Nawi

August 8, 2009
Cecilie Surasky / Jewish Voice for Peace & Ethan Bronner / The New York Times

Nawi, a Jewish Israeli of Iraqi descent, is a threat to the settlers and the Israeli government because he has brought international attention to efforts to illegally remove Palestinians from the Hebron region. His crime? He tried to stop a military bulldozer from destroying the homes of Palestinian Bedouins in the South Hebron region. Join Naomi Klein, Neve Gordon, Noam Chomsky and thousands of others and tell Israel not to jail Ezra Nawi, one of Israel’s most courageous human rights activists.


ACTION ALERT: Free Ezra Nawi
Cecilie Surasky / Jewish Voice for Peace

Nawi, a Jewish Israeli of Iraqi descent, is a threat to the settlers and the Israeli government because he has brought international attention to efforts to illegally remove Palestinians from the Hebron region. He will be sentenced August 16th.

TEL AVIV (August 4, 2009) — I was there the day Ezra Nawi was to be put on trial in Jerusalem. Along with many others, I planned to go to witness and provide support on July 1, the day of Ezra Nawi's trial. Fourteen thousand JVP supporters had already watched the dramatic video of Nawi resisting the demolition of a Palestinian Bedouin home — the action for which he was being put on trial — and had determined he was a hero and not a criminal. Fourteen thousand people like you had already been moved by a letter from Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Neve Gordon telling you that Ezra Nawi needed your help. But we need more signatures.

• See Ezra in his own words on You Tube

This is my moment-by-moment account of what happened that day.

3 hours before Ezra Nawi's trial:
JVP's incoming executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson and I meet with Danny Feldsteiner, an organizer who has been working on Ezra's campaign in Israel and (coincidentally!) our guide, in the East Jerusalem area of Silwan.

Danny gets off the phone with Nawi's lawyer, Leah Tsempel, the legendary Israeli civil rights attorney. She wants all 14,000 names of the Jewish Voice for Peace supporters who signed the letters on behalf of Nawi, but Danny is unable to extract them. "We can do that for you," I announce, glad to be able to do more today than just witness and document.

2 hours before:
We're in the offices of the Silwan community center that Danny helped start, and we don't have a lot of time. Internet access is iffy. The printer appears to run out of ink. We're scared we won't have enough paper to print out the seemingly endless list of names.

1 hour before:
Danny gets off the phone with Leah again. "She wants to know if you'll testify," he says to me. "You represent the international campaign to free Ezra." "Sure," I say. But Leah wants us there now.

We run (literally!) to the Jerusalem courthouse. We go through security, none of Nawi's supporters are outside yet. Inside, we decide to Twitter the hearing. Adrenaline pumping, awash in a jumble of passwords and wireless attachments, we work to get our cell phones and laptops working, so we can provide witness to the world.

30 minutes before:
We sit on a windowsill in the hallway. Leah, the world-famous attorney, looks me up and down and says, "So. you are my witness." Then she starts interrogating me brusquely. "This is what they will do to you in the court." I don't know what I was thinking, that it would be easy? Talking about someone like Ezra Nawi seemed so easy. I prepared for the challenge.

Outside, we hear at least one person has been arrested. They aren't letting anyone in. Maybe 50 people are gathered outside. Ezra is so unique as an activist, equally beloved by Palestinians and hated by settlers. He's already endured so much harrassment. We can't afford to lose him. Even for a day.

3:00pm: The time of the trial:
Nawi is nowhere to be found. He has announced that if his supporters, who include a who's who of Israeli peace activists, cannot come in, then he won't come in. The judge grows impatient. She allows the next case to go first: A settler has brought charges against his rabbi for slapping him. One of Nawi's supporters comments to the rabbi, "You spend so much time slapping Palestinians around, no wonder you've started slapping each other." The rabbi's son, dressed in military uniform, responds, "We don't slap Palestinians, we kill them."

Finally, there's Nawi.

I get a text message from Naomi Klein and her husband Avi Lewis from Haifa, saying meeting him was one of the highlights of their trip. Ezra is visibly moved. The whole time we are waiting in the hallway, Ezra is smiling. Beaming really. He seems fearless.

The judge decides to postpone the trial.

Leah speaks to her. "Ezra Nawi is known throughout the world. The New York Times just did a profile of him and I have 14,000 character witnesses who produced over 100,000 letters in his defense." "Wow," responds the judge. "That many?"

Leah is thrilled about the signatures, and asks me if I'll be there to testify August 16th. I won't but someone from Jewish Voice for Peace will be. She tells me we need to double the number of signatures by August 16th. I promise her we can do that- we can do better.

We all go outside. Nawi is greeted with huge cheers and warm hugs. He stops for a moment to thank all of you, the 14,000.

Everyone seems to know him personally. He's happy. They've postponed the date, which means that much more time free. That much more time to stand in front of a bulldozer, advocate for a Palestinian family or an Israeli single mother. That much more time for the rest of us to bask in the warmth and courage of a man named Ezra Nawi.

• For more info, go to: www.freeezra.org

• Take Action to Defend Ezra Nawi. Click here.

The Petition

Please do whatever possible to make sure human rights hero Ezra Nawi is not jailed for defending the rights of Palestinian Bedouins in the South Hebron region.

It is difficult to understand how someone like Nawi, who represents the best of Israel's pro-democracy and pro-human rights movement, can be persecuted by the Israeli military for trying to defend the rights of others.

I have made a commitment to tell everyone I know about Ezra Nawi, his courageous work on behalf of human rights, and his unjust arrest by the military. I will ask my friends and family to watch the video, write letters, and talk about Ezra at their dinner tables and at school. I will tell them about Israel's crackdown on Arab and Jewish Israeli human rights activists.

I and thousands of others look forward to his release.

Unlikely Ally for Residents of West Bank
Ethan Bronner / The New York Times

SAFA, West Bank (June 28, 2009) — Ezra Nawi was in his element. Behind the wheel of his well-worn jeep one recent Saturday morning, working two cellphones in Arabic as he bounded through the terraced hills and hardscrabble villages near Hebron, he was greeted warmly by Palestinians near and far.

Watching him call for an ambulance for a resident and check on the progress of a Palestinian school being built without an Israeli permit, you might have thought him a clan chief. Then noticing the two Israeli Army jeeps trailing him, you might have pegged him as an Israeli occupation official handling Palestinian matters.

But Mr. Nawi is neither. It is perhaps best to think of him as the Robin Hood of the South Hebron hills, an Israeli Jew helping poor locals who love him, and thwarting settlers and soldiers who view him with contempt. Those army jeeps were not watching over him. They were stalking him.

Since the Israeli left lost so much popular appeal after the violent Palestinian uprising of 2000 and the Hamas electoral victory three years ago, its activists tend to be a rarefied bunch — professors of Latin or Sanskrit, and translators of medieval poetry. Mr. Nawi, however, is a plumber. And unlike the intellectuals of European origin with whom he spends most Saturdays, he is from an Iraqi Jewish family.

“My mother gave birth to me in Jerusalem when she was 14,” said Mr. Nawi, who is 57 and one of five siblings. “So my grandmother raised me. And she spoke to me in Arabic.”

His family has trouble understanding his priorities. His mother says she thinks he is wasting his time. And many Israelis, when told of his work, wonder why he is not helping his own. Mr. Nawi has an answer.

“I don’t consider my work political,” he said between phone calls as he drove. “I don’t have a solution to this dispute. I just know that what is going on here is wrong. This is not about ideology. It is about decency.”

For his activist colleagues, Mr. Nawi’s instinctual connection to the Palestinians is valuable.

“Ezra knows Palestinians better than any of us,” said Amiel Vardi, a professor who works closely with him. “This is not only because of the language, but because he gains their confidence the minute he starts talking with them. He has all sorts of intuitions as to what should be done, what are the internal relations — things we hardly ever notice.”

The difficulties of Palestinian life in the West Bank have been well documented: Israeli military checkpoints, a rising separation barrier and Israeli settlers. But in this area, the problems are more acute. The Palestinians, many of them Bedouin, are exceptionally poor, and the land they bought decades ago is under threat by a group of unusually aggressive local settlers. The settlers have been filmed beating up Palestinians. Settlers have been killed by Palestinians. But Mr. Nawi said that the law inevitably sided with the Israelis, and that occupation meant there could be no equity.

“The settlers keep the Palestinian farmers from their land by harassing them, and then after several years they say the land has not been farmed so by law it is no longer theirs,” Mr. Nawi said. “We are only here to stop that from happening.”

That is not the view of the settlers.

“He is a troublemaker,” asserted Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a spokesman for Israeli settler communities in the area. “It’s true that from time to time there is a problem of some settlers coming out of their settlements to cause problems. But people like Nawi don’t want a solution. Their whole aim is to cause trouble.”

True or not, Mr. Nawi is now in trouble. Having spent several short stints in jail for his activism over the years, he now faces the prospect of a long one. He is due to be sentenced Wednesday for assaulting an Israeli policeman two years ago during a confrontation over an attempt to demolish Palestinians’ shacks on disputed land on the West Bank. The policeman said Mr. Nawi struck him during that encounter. Mr. Nawi denied it, but in March a judge convicted him.

What is left of the Israeli left is rallying around him, arguing that Mr. Nawi is a known pacifist who would not have raised his hand against anyone.

“Since I’ve known the man for decades and seen him in action in many extreme situations, I’m certain that the charge is untrue,” David Shulman, a Hebrew University professor and peace activist, wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. Of Mr. Nawi, he added, “He is a man committed, in every fiber of his being, to nonviolent protest against the inequities of the occupation.”

Mr. Nawi attributes his activism to two things: as a teenager, his family lived next door to the leader of Israel’s Communist Party, Reuven Kaminer, who influenced him. And he is gay.

“Being gay has made me understand what it is like to be a despised minority,” Mr. Nawi said.

Several years ago, he had a relationship with a Palestinian from the West Bank and ended up being convicted on charges of allowing his companion to live illegally in Israel. His companion was jailed for months.

Mr. Nawi said harassment against him had come in many forms. Settlers shout vicious antigay epithets. His plumbing business has been audited, and he was handed a huge tax bill that he said he did not deserve. He is certain that his phone calls are monitored. And those army jeeps are never far behind.

He is not optimistic about his coming sentencing, although he is planning an appeal. And he says the Israeli news media have lost interest in the work he and his fellow activists do. But he does not stop.

“I’m here to change reality,” he said. “The only Israelis these people know are settlers and soldiers. Through me they know a different Israeli. And I’ll keep coming until I know that the farmers here can work their fields.”

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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