Jenin - 'Will You Sweep Away
The Innocent With The Guilty?'
My Visit To Jenin

Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Yesterday (Thursday) I made one of the most awful (and frightnening) trips of my life - to Jenin. I had heard from Palestinian friends about the hatred there - towards Israelis, Americans, Arab countries and Europeans, and how the only word spoken there (unlike other Palestinian towns) was "revenge." Like everybody else I had seen the pictures. Nevertheless, it was something else to be there.
The destroyed area is not that big, but it is simply incredible. The area was not merely reduced to rubble - it was reduced to dust. With all that I saw, two conversations affected meV most. I spoke with one elderly women siting in the dirt next to the mangled wheelchair of her son. They had just dug it out and now she was waiting for them to find her son as well. She explained how she had begged the soldiers to give her handicapped son, who she had washed, fed and clothed for so many years, a chance to get out. She says that they didn't listen. A crowd of onlookers stood around the excavation - the deathwatch.
The other conversation was with a man lying in a makeshift sukkah (tabernacle) over what had once been part of his home. He had assumed that his two sons were dead, but found out the previous day that they were "only" imprisoned. One he had already managed to speak with or get some concrete information.. I spoke with HaMoked(Sister human rights organization which is trying to keep track of prisoners) today to confirm the location of the second and pass that info back to him. Of course, I had to explain to the worker from HaMoked, that I had only been known yesterday as somebody acompanying the French televison crew who had wanted to go in with me. It is not a good idea to let anybody know that you are Israeli if you want to leave in one piece. (Our Palestinian driver was getting really nervous at some points - such as when one resident was sure that he had seen me on TV. Everyboy was suspicious, sometimes asking our driver if we were Jews, why we were asking questions, etc.)
I could write about all the stories of people being used as human shields, shot at, walking into homes which soldiers had lived in and trashed,etc. However, most of you will have either already heard these things or don't want to hear.
What Happened? I don't pretend to be a military expert. I can't look at a piece of concrete and tell you how it fell. However, what I was told and which rings true is that the IDF called on everybody to leave their homes. Many did so. However, others were afraid of the soldiers (Nobody said this, but I won't discount the possibility that the fighters holed up didn't let people leave)Afterwards, the IDF launched a massive bombardment from the air, brought in bulldozers,etc.
This was not a massacre, in the sense that the IDF did not come in and intentionally target civilians. However, at a certain point, the preservation of civillian life was no longer a big concern. Clearly the IDF knew that they were bringing buildings down on civillians. There was a decision to make - Do you kill civillians along with the armed resistance or do you either let them go or surround the area as was done in Ramallah and Bethlehem or go in from house to house and risk soldiers?
Tractate Sanhedrin teaches us that we can not harm innocent people, even in the name of our own defense. However, how did we get to the point that we are debating this? What turned fervent Palestinian supporters of the peace process to supporters of terrorism? Sadly, we have been manuvered as a society (with a fair amount of help from Palestinian extremists) into a situation where we do have real defense needs (140 Israelis killed in the month of March culminating in the mass murder which took place on Passover eve) and the question has become "What is moral when we have no choice to defend ourselves," as opposed to "What can we do to create a win - win situation?"
I saw the terrorist infrastructure yesterday - the hatred in the eyes of an entire people who want to be free from occupation, even as we want to be free of fear. I was present as a truckload from USAID arrived and was being downloaded. An hour later I was told that camp residents had come with missle parts in their hands saying, "This is the real Amercian gift," and demanded that the aid be returned. Clearly, for the people in Jenin camp, we in the human rights community and the government are two hands of the same body - good cop/bad cop. We come and wring our hands and send aid afterwards, but did not/were not able to do anything to stop what happened. We can point fingers at the other side and comfort oursleves by saying that we must respond to this hatred, as sorry as we may be. However, I hope that we as a society will also have the abillity to ask the more difficult question of our contribution to creating the hatred. As a human rights community we must figure out what we do in the impossible situation when nobody is listening, channels of influence are closed, the facts aren't clear and some of us ourselves are confused.
Shabbat is approaching and perhaps I will add something when I translate this to Hebrew on Sunday. I don't feel that I have even scratched the surface. I can understand the dilemnas about sending soldiers into booby trapped houses, the need to protect ourselves from being blown up, etc. Some of our members had loved ones fighting there who are good, moral people. On the other hand, all attempts to describe, explain, debate fade away when you are standing in Jenin. It is clear that something happened there that was terribly wrong. Nobody can stand amidst the destruction and with any shred of honesty say "This was justified." All that fills one's mind is, "WHAT HAVE WE WROUGHT?"
Shabbat Shalom, Arik
Postscript: Over Shabbat I reflected on how Abraham argued with God on behalf of Sodom and Gemorrah. Terribly evil people lived there, but Abraham challenged God - "Will the innocent be destroyed along with the guilty?" (Genesis 18:13) We know that God was willing to spare the entire cities if 10 righteous people were found. When ten were not found, Lot's family was led to safety. The army apparently did call residents to safety, but was not willing to spare the civillians who remained (Israelis say seven have been found so far. Palestinians say more. It is reasonable to assume that the number will reach 10.) Some argue that all Palestinians are guilty by association, and therefore civilians can not be considered innocent. Others no doubt will argue that the army fulfilled its obligation after calling on people to leave. I believe that the lesson of Genesis, Tractate Sanhedrin, and the IDF's vaunted "Purity of Arms" is that, even with the price to be paid should terrorists have been allowed to escape, the moral act would have been not to rain down fire and brimstone on civillians. I wonder, "Where was Abraham when the decision was made?" Was there even one person along the chain of command who argued, "Will the innocent be destroyed along with the guilty?" We may never know. If there was, nobody listened.. "Abraham's" are hard to come by these days.
Rabbis For Human Rights
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Arik Ascherman is a Conservative Rabbi and chair of Rabbis for Human
Rights . He lives in Jerusalem

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