EZRA and the Cave Dwellers

In the mountains of South Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank lives a unique community of Arab cave dwellers. They have lived in the hill caves for hundreds of years but now their distinct way of life, rituals and beliefs are under threat. The Israeli army wants to expel them because Israeli right-wing settlers want them out. Fortunately they have their defenders, among whom one man stands out: Ezra Nawi, an Iraqi-born Arabic-speaking Israeli.

This fifty minute film is the story of an ancient community’s struggle against the sword of expulsion, and the story of Ezra Nawi-the champion of their rights.

The nine Palestinian farmers were taken to the nearby military base with their hands tied behind their backs. There they were forced to sit on the ground for hours. Whoever dared to ask why he was being held or complained was kicked or slapped. The farmers’ only offence was an unsuccessful attempt to plow their land.

The strategy of harassment takes many forms. Firing on the farmers as they work their land. Damaging their property. Terrifying their children on the way to school. And lately it has taken the form of violence by night.

The above incident happened at Yanon village as part of an ongoing campaign by the Israeli government and local Jewish settlers to make the Palestinian farmers give up claims to their land.

Prior to 1967, this area was part of Jordanian-occupied West Bank. In June 1967 the Israelis took over control following the Six Day War. Now the army says it needs the land for training and for use as a firing range. The Jewish settlers see the area as potential land for their own expansion. Many of the settlers are hippie types from America, who emulate Arab dress and lifestyle even as they drive the cave dwellers away. Meanwhile critics say that their actions are just part of a wider Government policy to make the area an Arab-free zone that can be annexed to Israel.

So along came the tractors, the massive bulldozers, the dinosaur-type rock diggers, and the huge earth removing lorries. Ancient trees were uprooted and the farmers prevented from tilling their fields. At that point the Ta’ayush Organisation for Arab Jewish partnership stepped in and appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court for help. But while the big transfer is still being debated the settlers’ harassment continues.

In most cases the local army commander turns a blind eye when not actively supporting the Jewish settlers. Little is done to stop the constant sniping on the Arabs at work. Members of the Civil Administration have killed the farmers’ sheep under pretext of preventing disease. And they have forbidden the villagers to contact the Israeli peace activists who had stoned the soldiers’ entrance gate to the villages. Indeed the activists who tried to help the Hebron cave dwellers were stopped, arrested and assaulted by right-wing settlers.

One man above all has taken up the cause of the cave dwellers. He is Ezra Nawi, a Jewish activist in the Taayush peace organization. An unlikely hero, Ezra is a middle-aged Sefardi plumber, and handyman, born in Iraq, who seems to have devoted his total public life to the peace movement. But his private life also consists of an immense struggle. For Ezra is a Jewish homosexual in love with Fuad, a Palestinian from Ramallah.. Ezra’s battle is to ensure Fuad can stay in Israel. At present Fuad is in an Israeli prison where Ezra visits him weekly. He knows that if Fuad is expelled to the Palestinian territories he can very likely meet a violent death at the hands of homophobic Moslems.

Ezra is a believer, an idealist . He thinks that Jews like himself, who were born in countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq and are deeply familiar with Arab culture can form a vanguard and a build a bridge peace with the Arabs. He refuses to consider that the reality might be different…and that is Jews from the Arab countries who most distrust the Arabs, and are to be numbered among the most militant of the right-wingers.

There have been many battles in Ezra’s life, but now the supreme one is to safeguard the rights of the Hebron cave dwellers. Here he sees not just the threatened forced transfer of a people but the total and tragic destruction of an ancient way of life.

The Cave Dwellers of Hebron
South Hebron is about three quarters of an hour from Jerusalem, on the way to Beersheba. Nearbye is historic Hebron , a packed noisy hothouse city of over 200,000 Arabs constantly in dispute with the few religious Israelis who live in its tiny embattled ancient Jewish quarter. The cave dwellers are situated only a few miles distant from all this but seem to be living in an entirely different universe.- a universe set two hundred years back in time.

Altogether there are twelve villages of cave dwellers in the Hebron Mountains. with names like Twaneh, Yanon and Jimba. Some of the villages consist of one hundred or so caves, while the smaller villages are made up of ten or twelve caves. Their way of life is one that has changed little over the past hundreds of years. Throughout the rule of Ottomans, British, Jordanians and now the Israelis the South Hebron cave dwellers have clung to a way of life with rare material values, distinct beliefs, and hallowed rituals. Now these traditions, their homes and their land are all under threat..

The life seems harsh, difficult for a city dweller to understand. The caves are dark, blackened with the smoke of so many fires. There is no electricity, and water is scarce. People have few belongings.. There are few amenities and few medical facilities. When a barefoot child was bitten by a snake there was panic until he could be taken to a distant hospital. There is no grocery store and no kiosks. .If you want provisions, you have to go into Yatta, the nearest Arab town. But there is little transport and going by donkey may be the only solution.

In the mornings the men go out to tend the fields, and the sheep. They also prune the olive trees while the women cook, or look after the goats. For the kids there is a five mile walk to school. It is a difficult life but one which the cave dwellers want desperately to preserve for their children and for the generations to come.

Our film will portray the ongoing struggle by showing us the daily life of Abdulla, a cave dweller, and that of his wife and their twelve children. We shall see Abdulla and his neighbours as they try to work under harassment, and withstand the army and the settlers. We’ll see his home life. Join in his festivals and traditions and follow his children to school. We’ll be with him in court as he and his friend Ezra desperately try to stop the expropriation of the lands. And we’ll be with him in his face-to-face battles with the local Army commander.

Parallel to Abdulla’s story we’ll be following the work and efforts of Ezra.as he tries to stop the land grab. We watch him trying to involve friends in high places, lawyers, Knesset members and others in the struggle. We’ll see him bringing Israeli peaceniks to the area, disputing with the soldiers and trying to bring in truckloads of clothes for the cave dwellers. We’ll follow his behind the scenes work at Taayush, and his legal efforts on the behalf of the villagers, and show the orchestrated harassment by the Israeli authorities to stop his activism. We will illustrate his warm friendship with Abdulla and his family, and watch his efforts to organize a summer camp for the children of the cave dwellers. This a camp to which Ezra will bring artists, musicians and sculptors to brighten the lives of the children. In spite of the efforts of the settlers to destroy the effort by contaminating the children’s drinking water, we’ll see the ultimate success of the summer experiment.

Finally we’ll look at Ezra’s own life where the political struggle takes on a personal dimension as he attempts to keep his lover Fuad from deportation. Here there is a tragic irony in that Ezra is struggling for a people whose own traditions and opposition to homosexuality almost certainly would condemn his lover to death back in Ramallah.

Can the battles be won or is the fate of Abdullah and his neighbors sealed? In books the heroes always triumph but life can be very different. This film is the portrait of a struggle whose end looks predetermined. The army will win, as it always does, and the cave dwellers will leave. Nevertheless this is a tale that has to be told. And it is the portrait of an idealist, a simple Sefardi plumber and handyman who, when so many Israeli leftists have given up the fight or changed their views, still believes that compassion, love and spirit can change the world.

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