Trial begins of Rabbi who Opposes home demolitions

Rabbis for Human Rights/ Israel, 1/14/2004



Below - Summary of today's trial, Contact info, statements from pre conference, home demolition fact sheet.

Pictures, court transcript, list of 300 + signators to the Diaspora rabbis' letter and additional information about Beit Hanina, Isawiyah and the two families are available

Tens of Rabbis, activists, diplomats and journalists were forced to wait outside the overflowing Jerusalem Magistrate's Court courtroom this morning at the opening of the trial of RHR Executive Director Rabbi Arik Ascherman,Shai Eliezer and Omer Ori who are being tried for standing in front of bulldozers.

Adv. Labib Habib outlined the points which we would attempt to prove, emphasizing the defendants' central claim that protesting home demolitions is legitimate given the policy of home demolition is an unjust and discriminatory policy which prevents Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who cannot attain permits, to build homes legally.

Adv. Labib also argued that Palestinian homes are more likely to be demolished than Jewish homes having committed a comparable violation. He cited the Or Commission report which draw the link between Israeli land policy toward Arabs, "illegal" building and home demolitions. He also quoted from the report the fact that there are police officers who refuse to take part in demolitions, strengthening the argument that the order to demolish a home i illegal.

Adv. Habib quoted from the Bible, You shall not oppress the stranger, and argued that a state which wishes to be Jewish and Democratic can not be implementing such a policy. Adv. Habib also stressed that far more violent acts of civil disobedience often don't go to court.

As expected, the prosecution attempted to argue that our arguments were not germane.

Judge Felman granted the defense 20 days to submit evidence and material pertaining to the demolition of homes in East Jerusalem. The state will reply within 15 days. The date for the next court hearing has been set for March 24th.

Please find below the statements of Arik, Shai and Omer which were given at the press confernce following the court hearing this morning.

For more information you can contact:
Rabbi Arik Ascherman 050-607034, 02-5637731
Shai Eliezer Zvi 02-6717570
Omer Ori 03-9605461

Lawyer: Labib Habib 064-404477

Owners of two demolished homes:
Sufian Maswadeh (Beit Hanina) 052-927905
Ahmed Musa Dari (Isawiya) 052-503660

Head of Isawiya Local Council
Darwish Darwish 052-284065

Statement by Omer Ori at Press Conference: I hope through this trial we will change the absurd situation in which the racist policy of planning, building and demolition of homes is considered "legal" and the opposition to the policy is considered "criminal".

This trial is nothing other than an additional attempt by the State of Israel to silence the voices which oppose it's racist policies. This policy disenfranchises Arab residents and citizens and denies them basic right such as housing and the opportunity to live in dignity. Israel does not want us to remind her that her actions are illegal and undemocratic, and therefore she is putting us on trial. She wants us to move out of the way and allow her to enact race laws with impunity. We hear of the abuse of Arab residents of the State in Jerusalem, Lod, the Negev and in unrecognized villages, in an effort to make life unbearable and push them off their land. I call on the State of Israel and to the Mayor of my city, Jerusalem, to stop these hostile policies and to act straightforwardly and with human and civic justice. I stand ashamed before the families whose homes have been destroyed and regret that I couldn't do more to prevent this.

Statement by Rabbi Simkha Weintraub --- Member of Steering Committee of RHR-North America
RHR North America is appreciative of the work of your work here. Your deed speak to many Jews in North America, and that is why it was easy to garner over 300 (now over 400 a.a.) signatures in a relatively short amount of time. The home that we are concerned about is the joint home of Israeli and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, which is being threatened by the unethical and unjust policy of home demolitions. I am certain that the number of signatures will continue to grow, and that we will continue to recruit more and more support for you on this and other issues.

RHR North America is appreciative of your work here. Your deed speak to many Jews in North America, and that is why it was easy to garner over 300 (now over 400 a.a.) signatures in a relatively short amount of time. The home that we are concerned about is the joint home of Israeli and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, which is being threatened by the unethical and unjust policy of home demolitions. I am certain that the number of signatures will continue to grow, and that we will continue to recruit more and more support for you on this and other issues.

Statement by Rabbi Arik Ascherman
This week Jews around the world are reading parashat Shemot, the first chapters of the Biblical book of Exodus containing what is perhaps the first recorded example of civil disobedience. Thousands of years ago, two women defied the orders of all powerful Pharaoh. Jewish commentators debate whether or not these two midwives were Israelites or Egyptians. It i entirely possible that they were Egyptian, but had come to realize the ultimate truth, much more powerful than the most powerful potentate, that all human beings are created B'Tselem Elohim, in God's Image.

This week we also remember two modern heroes who knew how to speak to power. We mark both the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Yartzeit (anniversary of death) of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel, the descendent of a long line of Hassidic rabbis, lost his entire world in the Holocaust. He was one of the first to speak out about the Jews of the Former Soviet Union and stood up for Israel when he detected double standards and anti-Semitism. However, he too realized that all humanity is created B'Tselem Elohim, leading him to protest the Vietnam War and march with Reverend Martin Luther King, whose birthday we also celebrate this week.

King is best known for his leadership in the civil rights movement in the US, and seriously debated whether or not to oppose the Vietnam War, fearing that such opposition would weaken his ability to advocate for civil rights. Ultimately, however, he did so. One of his great teachings is that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Heschel taught that God is not distant and removed, but rather a God of pathos, who passionately cares about what we humans do. Prayer and religion must make us wake up and take notice and work to right injustice, or they are of no consequence. He also taught us that "In a democratic society some are guilty, but all are responsible."

Omer, Shai and myself would not be so audacious as to put ourselves in the same category as Heschel and King, as Shifra and Puah. However, we believe it to be our obligation to honor their memories by honoring the moral inheritance which they have bequeathed to us.

That moral inheritance tells us that the policy of home demolitions i immoral. It may be technically legal according to Israeli law narrowly interpreted. However, not everything that is "legal" is "just." The policy is certainly illegal according to international law and tramples on the Torah which I as a rabbi am sworn to uphold - The Torah which commands us to love those different than us, not to have double standards and to have one law for all. I would also argue that, according to Israeli law, the order to demolish a home or protect the demolition is an illegal order over which a black flag flies, making it a civic, Zionist and Jewish duty to oppose by standing in front of bulldozers, having tried over the years to stop the policy by other means. I do not believe in civil disobedience for the sake of civil disobedience and getting my picture in the paper. During the recently completed olive harvest, RHR worked very closely with Israeli security forces who were largely doing their job to protect harvesters. However, in this case, we have been left with very little choice. The Municipality and the State continue to enforce a catch-22 policy in which, if you are a Palestinian in Area C or Jerusalem, you can have a clean security record, uncontested title to your land, and stand on your head, but a politically motivated policy will make it practically impossible for you to get a building permit without paying a bribe or agreeing to be an informer. The homes they are forced to build without permits are "illegal" and subject to demolition.

Therefore, we welcome our day in court. There are those of our supporter who would like this trial stopped. Frankly, I would only agree to stopping this trial in the context of a commitment to stop home demolitions. The time has come to stop the lies and the disinformation. Let all those who think that this indefensible policy is defensible come and face us in court. Let all the advisors who are hiding behind glossy reports like this one, to which the Municipality of Jerusalem contributed NIS 60,000, come out and face us. Let them explain why the Or Commission concluded that you can not understand the policy of so called "illegal" building and demolition outside of the context of the discriminatory land policies directed against both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. If they can do so, I will be the first to admit that I was wrong.

In all likelihood the prosecution will do everything in their power to prevent this from happening. They will insist that the context i irrelevant and attempt to deny us the right to defend ourselves in thi manner. And so Judge Feldman, you must make a choice. The easiest thing for you to do will be to hide behind a narrow interpretation of the law. We will then find ourselves convicted by a court of law, but not a court of justice. And so our legal system is also on trial here. Will the very same legal system which has been party to the policy of demolitions over the years by upholding the demolition of home after home by focusing on the letter of the law and ignoring the context continue to be an accomplice to this immoral policy, or will you rise to the occasion, honor the highest precepts of your calling, and take the brave and bold action which i required?

We fully intend to argue our case before this court, but make no mistake about it, this case is being tried elsewhere as well. Over 300 Diaspora rabbis, some of the most prominent leaders of world Jewry, have already written to the Israeli government, calling upon it to cease this immoral policy. Standing with us today are Sufian Maswadeh and Ahned Musa Dari, the owners of the two homes we are accused of defending, as well as other Palestinians who have been affected by the demolition policy. They too are watching and judging what this court does.

Thank you to those of you gathered here to stand with us and with Palestinian families. I want to acknowledge the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. It is as founding members of ICAHD that Rabbis For Human Rights has engaged in the struggle against home demolitions. I want to especially thank the RHR rabbis who are here. Without RHR's backing, we would not be able to mount this defense. Rabbi Simkha Weintraub is also here, representing RHR-North America which has done so much to make the Diaspora rabbi's letter a reality. Finally, I want to acknowledge my family. Even with all the backing from others, it is they even more than myself who will pay the price should I actually be convicted and sentenced to serve jail time. I can't even bare to think of what it would mean to mi watching my 1.5 year old son and 4 year old daughter growing up. If thi happens, I hope that in addition to the inevitable anger they will understand that it is a civic, Zionist and Jewish duty to stand up to injustice.

However, I don't believe that will be the outcome. With the support and prayers of all those around this globe who believe in justice, deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome. To paraphrase a poet from my generation, Bruce Springsteen, "We are goin' out of here to win." Zion WILL be redeemed through justice and those who return to her through acts of righteousne

From Separate and Unequal: the Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem by Amir Cheshin et al (Cheshit was Teddy Kollek's advisor on Arab affairs and also served Ehud Olmert)

"(In 1967), Israel's leaders adopted two basic principles in their rule of East Jerusalem. The first was to rapidly increase the Jewish population in East Jerusalem. The second was to hinder growth of the Arab population and to force Arab residents to make their homes elsewhere. It is policy that ha translated into a miserable life fo the majorityof East Jerusalem Arabs." P. 10

"In Jerusalem, Israel turned urban planning into a tool of the government, to be used to help prevent the expansion of the city's non-Jewish population. It was a ruthless policy, if onlyfo the fact that the needs (to say nothing of the rights)of Palestinian residents were ignored. Israel saw the adoption of strict zoning plans as a way of limiting the number of new homes build in Arab neighborhoods, and thereby ensuring that the Arab percentage of the city's population - 28.8 in 1967 - did not grow beyond this level. Allowing "too many" new homes in Arab neighborhoods would nean "too many" Arab residents in the city. The idea was to move as many Jews a possible into East Jerusalem, and move as many Arabs as possible out of the city entirely. Israeli housing policy in East Jerusalem was all about thi numbers game. " Pp. 31-32

"Planners with the city engineer's office, when drawing the zoning boundrie for the Arab neigborhoods, limited them to already build-up areas. Adjoining open areas were either zoned "green," to signify they were off-limits to development, or left unzoned until they were needed for the construction of Jewish housing projects. The 1970 Kolleck plan contains the principles upon which Israeli housing policy is based to this day - expropriation of Arab-owned land, development of large Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and limitations on development in Arab neighborhoods." p. 37

"25. In the matter of land, the committee determined that it is the state' obligation to act toward its Arab citizens with equality and justice with regard to land use. The Arab sector has legitimate needs that stem from natural growth, among other things. The state must allocate land to thi sector according to the same egalitarian principles it uses with other sectors. The committee added that suitable planning should be carried out a soon as possible to prevent illegal construction caused by lack of existing town planning that make it difficult to obtain a building permit. In thi regard, the committee noted that a real response must be made by the government to the issue of the destruction of houses and the expropriation of land. On the other hand, wherever a way cannot be found to legalize existing construction, the law must be enforced unstintingly. " From The Official Summation of the Or Commission Report on the events of October 2000 headed by High Court Justice Theodore Or.

Perhaps the most fundamental — and bitter — struggle between the Israeli and Palestinians since 1967 has been over land. Here, where national conflict intersects with personal lives and Palestinian families try to carve a semi-normal existence under occupation, human suffering is the greatest. For people impoverished, humiliated and living under condition of extreme instability, owning a parcel of land and a family home assumes an importance far beyond mere shelter; they represent the one place in the world where security and dignity are assured. Since the signing of the Oslo accords this struggle has intensified, as both Israelis and Palestinian looked forward to final status negations. They wished to create facts on the ground and keep the other side from doing so.

Pressure to keep vast tracts of West Bank land "vacant" has increased a Israel inches towards final settlement with the Palestinians. "Area C," that portion of the Occupied Territories still under Israel's exclusive control, is the focal point of Israel's effort

A second "front" in this struggle to contain Palestinian housing is East Jerusalem, where the vast majority of the city's Palestinian residents live, but whose presence in the city Israel is trying to reduce. Of the 17,600 acres of land that comprise East Jerusalem (including the Old City and the commercial downtown of east Jerusalem), Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem have today the right to use and develop only 11% of it. According to the 1995 Statistical Yearbook of Jerusalem, 35% (6,250 acres) of the lands were expropriated for Israeli neighborhoods, roads and other facilities While 80% of land expropriated since 1967 comes from Palestinians, the vast majority of that land has been designated for Jewish housing and other needs. Close to 0% of that land has been designated for Arab use.; 54% (9,500 acres) is forbidden to build upon for different "zoning" reason (security, planned "open spaces," planned roads, and in particular new Jewish neighborhoods) It is very difficult for Palestinian neighborhoods to create more resident friendly master plans. Many Jewish neighborhoods have been zoned with extensive financial and other support from the Municipality, while Palestinians are largely left to their own devices; Only 11% (1,750 acres) is land upon which in principle is intended for housing and other needs of the local Palestinian community.

In 1999 the average Jewish population density was 1 persons per room, the average Palestinian population density 1.8. To meet only existing needs an additional 21,000 units must be built. The Municipality grants 150 permit a year for Arab housing and demolishes 25-50 units a year. Between 1967-2000, 79,900 units have built in Jerusalem for Jews, most of them with government subsidies and 44,000 of them on land expropriated in East Jerusalem. Some 18,000 homes have been built for Palestinians. Only 500 were subsidized. Some 7,000 are deemed illegal by the Municipality. Individual Palestinian families forced to go by themselves through the permit bureaucracy on their own while experience contractors apply for permits for large blocs of houses at one time.

The fact often touted by Israeli officials that Palestinians ask the Municipality to demolish the homes of other Palestinians who have built on their land or areas zoned for schools, etc., is also directly related to the lack of housing solutions. They are put in a box and forced to fight among themselves.

Palestinians usually are allowed to build on a much smaller percentage of a plot of land, often some 25% while Israeli contractors are often allowed to build 150% or more of the size of the property.

In recent years changes in the laws for proof of land ownership have made it increasing difficult for Palestinians to obtain permits.

While Israeli officials claim that Palestinians are unwilling to pay the costs of permits which are equal for all, this is misleading. For example, it is true that all pay for water and sewage hookups according to set rate per meter from a main, this is never more than a few meters in Jewish neighborhoods and can be up to two kilometers in Arab neighborhoods. Hookups alone can cost NIS 70,000.

Israeli officials also cite statistics stating that a higher percentage of Palestinian applicants than Jewish applicants receive permits. Palestinian in areas where they know that they have no chance of receiving a permit don' t bother applying. While it is difficult to prove, it is common wisdom that the way to get a permit is to pay a bribe or agree to be an informer.

Arab neighborhoods, already suffering from an egregious lack of "legal" building over the past 30 years, are being steadily strangled as thousand of acres of their land are expropriated for massive new Jewish satellite cities and the roads needed to serve them, as well as to provide the city with "open spaces." Planned confiscations in the Arab neighborhood of Shu'afat, for example, will link the Jewish suburb of French Hill to that of Pisgat Ze'ev, thus creating a contiguous area of Jewish building that effectively halts any development of the Arab north-eastern part of the city. Denial of residency to Arab Jerusalemites (known as "The Quiet Transfer") and stepped-up house demolition are part of this campaign to squeeze the Palestinians out of the city, or at least confine them to isolated pockets.


"I don't sign demolition orders for Jewish homes, only for Arabs." Deputy Mayor Haim Miller - Yediot Aharanot newspaper February 7th, 1998

Since 1967, some 2000 Palestinian homes were destroyed in Jerusalem and the West Bank, leaving more than 16,000 people homeless, destitute and living in fear and trauma.

While approximately 55% building violations are detected each year in Jewish neighborhoods, 72% of the demolitions were of Palestinian homes. Most Jewish demolitions are a room or a porch, as opposed to entire Palestinian homes. In Israel, the percentage of homes slated for demolition that are actually demolished is 50-80% higher for Arab homes from year to year. While the Municipality claims that violations in Arab neighborhoods are more serious, there are very serious violations in Jewish neighborhoods as well. The Versailles wedding hall collapse being but one example.

In a number of recent cases security forces at the site of demolition prevented or delayed the presentation of court restraining orders or officials refused to accept oral notification of such orders, resulting in partial or total destruction of homes protected by these orders. In other cases courts were falsely told that homes had no chance of receiving a legal permit or proceedings were carried out without the notification of home owners or their lawyers, resulting in demolitions.

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