This is an old article that I dug up, but Ethan Bronner of the NY Times reports on an unlikely ally of the Palestinians in the West Bank.
SAFA, West Bank — 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.”