Ezra Nawi: Jewish Pacifist Facing Jail for Aiding Arabs

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Rina Castelnuovo / The New York Times / Redux

Ezra Nawi, a Jewish Israeli, helps Palestinians set up an outpost to protest an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

A plumber by trade, Ezra Nawi is a Jewish member of a small band of Israeli peace activists who put themselves on the line week in and week out by traveling to the stony hills outside Hebron to help Palestinians defend their land against right-wing Jewish settlers. And he has the lumps to show for it. Four years back, some settlers at Susya had tried to drive a Palestinian family off their land by tossing a dead dog into their well in order to poison the family's water. The following day, Palestinians hauled the dog out of the well and were trying to draw water under the protection of Nawi and some other volunteers from an Jewish-Arab peace group known as Ta'ayush. Masked settlers appeared, smashed one activist with the butt of a gun and broke a long wooden stick over Nawi's head.

Nawi reacted as he always has — by holding his ground — without resorting to violence. In his many confrontations over the years with Israeli police, soldiers and settlers, Nawi has never struck back, say his colleagues at Ta'ayush. "Non-violence is Ezra's natural affinity," says David Shulman, a Ta-ayush member and professor of Sanskrit who has on multiples occasions witnessed Nawi's encounters with settlers and police. "He is amazingly gentle and empathetic. He's not capable of violence."

That's not how Israel's police and courts see Nawi. The avowed pacifist, who is one of the stalwarts of a dwindling Israeli left, is to be sentenced on Sunday after being convicted by an Israeli court for allegedly assaulting a policeman. After the 2007 incident, in which a riot ensued after Israeli soldiers were sent to tear down an Arab home in the West Bank, Nawi was videotaped in handcuffs on the back of a police truck, surrounded by police taunting him for helping Arabs. "I was also a soldier, but I did not demolish houses," Nawi replied. "The only thing that will be left here is hatred."

He is expected to face several years in jail. But Nawi's case has become an international cause célébre, with a petition pleading for a dismissal of the case against him drawing over 100,000 signatures, including many prominent Jewish progressives and intellectuals around the world. "The police are lying in their testimony," Nawi tells TIME. "They don't know what to make of me, and it drives them crazy. I'm Mizrahi [a Jew whose family immigrated to Israel from the Arab world] and I'm gay."

Nawi's activism, say his friends, stems from his relationship with a Palestinian lover, through whose hunted eyes he saw the injustices of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. "I'm against the occupation," he says. "We have to be fair to people. Some people see me as the enemy. Others as a good guy."

There's no question of Nawi's "good guy" status among the poor Palestinian shepherds and farmers of the Hebron hills, or among Israel's shrinking circle of peaceniks. Once a mainstream movement, the Israeli peace movement withered during the second Palestinian Intifada that started in 2000, as a wave of suicide bombings in cafes and buses turned most Israelis cold on the promise of trading "land for peace."

A movement that was once able to bring tens of thousands of Israelis onto the streets today consists of only a small number of left-wing activists who do such things as monitor the behavior of Israeli security forces at checkpoints, defend the civil rights of Palestinian prisoners and shield Arabs from settler violence and land grabs. Israeli hawks are baffled that anyone would want to aid "the enemy" and decry these activists as naïve or, worse, as "self-hating Jews." Nawi says that the Israeli authorities consider him a "provoker" and have tried to scare away Palestinian supporters by claiming that he is gay and has AIDS.

As Nawi contemplates a prison term, pacifist groups like Ta'ayush are not optimistic about the future. The U.S.-sponsored peace talks remain stalled because the Palestinians refuse to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until he agrees to halt construction of the Jewish settlements. But this lack of progress doesn't deter Nawi. His plumbing business may be in shambles, but he says he is happiest when out in the Hebron hills trying to make life a little easier for the areas inhabited by marginalized Palestinian farmers and Bedouins, some of whom live huddled in caves. "I think that because of what we're doing, the police and the settlers are acting with more restraint. They know that the world is watching," he says.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem