Ezra Nawi: 'I just feel sorry that my name caused David problems'


ON JULY 13TH, 2009, a short article by Ezra Nawi appeared in the pages of the Nation, a left-leaning politics and culture magazine published weekly in the US. A Jerusalem court had convicted Nawi four months earlier of assaulting two Israeli border police in 2007 at Umm al-Khair, a tiny Bedouin Arab village in the West Bank hills south of Hebron, and he was awaiting sentencing at the time of the article’s appearance.

In 800 words Nawi handed down his own verdict on the “unholy alliance” between the state of Israel and Jewish settlers on the West Bank, slamming their efforts to entrench full Jewish control over the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan. Signing off, and with an eye on his looming prison sentence, he wrote: “Ezra in Hebrew means help, and I know that in times of trouble I can rely on my friends for help.”

Ezra Nawi’s reputation among Israelis, Palestinians and the desert-dwelling Bedouin Arab communities of the region rests on the ostensible incongruity of what he is (an openly gay man, a plumber, a Jewish Israeli citizen of Iraqi descent) and what he does (protect and help the beleaguered Arab inhabitants of the Israeli-controlled South Hebron Hills, an arid region in the West Bank where shepherds tough it out against the baking heat and where shanty tin and tent villages sit atop stony, sun-scorched mountains).

The 59-year-old sips a coffee and watches the sun go down over Jerusalem from the top of an office block in the southeast of the city. His level of English ebbs and flows, and he’d clearly much rather be running around the South Hebron Hills. Nawi doesn’t fit the classic stereotype of an Israeli peace activist. His career as a plumber and his Arab roots mark him out from the majority of the Israeli left, who tend to be intellectuals of European origin. He is contemptuous of authority. Of driving through Israeli-prohibited areas of the West Bank, he says, “The police wouldn’t dare do anything,” and of his various drug convictions, “I’m honest and say that I smoke hash, and I’m happy with this.” Illegally moving a Palestinian boyfriend from Ramallah into his Jerusalem flat a few years ago got him another conviction. He laughs it all off.

But he doesn’t laugh when I ask about Sen David Norris, a fellow human-rights activist, former lover and close friend whom he first met in Dublin in 1975. Norris called off his Irish presidential campaign this summer, while riding high in the opinion polls, after it emerged that he had written to the Jerusalem high court in 1997 to request clemency and a noncustodial sentence for Nawi, who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy. Following plea bargaining, Nawi was eventually sentenced to six months in jail, then released after three.

“I made a mistake, no doubt about it, and I wouldn’t do it again,” he says after admitting that he was aware of the boy’s age when he began a relationship with him in the early 1990s. Nawi was driving through Jerusalem, the boy asked him for a lift, and they ended up back at Nawi’s flat.

“Even though I was older than him I was attractive to him and he was attractive to me,” he says. He claims that the boy was the more eager party and ignored Nawi’s pleas to “delay and think about it”. After that first occasion they met five or six times at Nawi’s home (always at the boy’s instigation, Nawi claims) before the Israeli police intervened. “I wasn’t responsible enough to think that it could cause problems and danger for him,” Nawi says. “And it will escort me for the rest of my life.”

The episode may haunt David Norris for the rest of his life too. Nawi won’t discuss the history or current status of his relationship with Norris, and his shaky command of English and the sparse coverage in the Hebrew and Arabic press have precluded him, he says, from following the Norris campaign’s messy and controversial course. (Sustained public support saw Norris re-enter the race six weeks after bowing out, only to be confronted by demands that he release half a dozen other letters sent to senior Irish and Israeli politicians on Nawi’s behalf.)

“I’m not really following it; I’m living in my own world, and that’s it,” says Nawi, sadly. “It didn’t surprise me that David wanted to run for president, and I just feel sorry that my name caused him problems. The idea that he came back [after withdrawing from the race] says something about his character, about his personality. He’s a strong guy, he has a lot of qualities and it was important for him to use these qualities to be a good president, to represent Ireland well.”

How does Nawi view Norris’s decision to intervene on his behalf a decade and a half ago? “David would help anybody, even without knowing them”, he says. “People that know me, they know what is good in my personality and what is bad in my personality. There is friendship based on interest and there is friendship where there are no conditions. David knows me, he knew the details and he made his choice.”

And so did Nawi. The episode made him “think differently about things” and also become “stronger and more determined” in his activism in the West Bank, he says.

Three years after his jail sentence he began working in the South Hebron Hills. If he is right in his pessimism about a resolution of the conflict in the West Bank – “there will never be a Palestinian state here: what they want and what the Israelis want will never meet” – then he is likely to be kept busy serving the area’s communities long after this week’s election in Ireland.

“I know that I’m doing more than other people,” he says. “But I’m always saying to myself that I’m not doing enough. And I wish I could do more.”

He has enemies. Nawi has been arrested by Israeli police and assaulted by Jewish settlers more times than he can count. He is certain that our phone calls are being monitored. He says that settlers and police whisper in the ears of local Palestinians that he’s gay, and spread rumours that he has Aids. Driving past the southern West Bank settlement of Karmel with him, I hear settlers’ curses filter through the windows of his battered white 4x4.

But he also has friends. Passing drivers beep their horns and farmers shout his name as he speeds along the desert roads, alternating between Hebrew and Arabic on different mobile phones. When his previous 4x4 was stolen, fellow human-rights activists clubbed together to buy him a new one. The Karmel settlement sits right beside Umm al-Khair, where members of the village’s 20-odd Bedouin families queue up to shake his hand as he arrives to check on them on a dusty Tuesday morning.

Nawi has friends beyond the South Hebron Hills too. In 2007, after running into a tin shack as a military bulldozer prepared to raze it, he was arrested at Umm al-Khair for trying to stop Israeli soldiers demolishing homes deemed illegal by the Israeli civil administration. He was subsequently convicted of assaulting two police officers. International activists, such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Peter Tatchell, spoke out in his defence. Tens of thousands of people signed petitions condemning his conviction. While Nawi was serving out his one-month prison sentence, David Norris raised his case during a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs.

“I was always politically active,” Nawi says. “I remember taking part in a demonstration in the late 1960s against Prime Minister Golda Meir. And I was a member of the communist party when I did my military service during the early 1970s.”

Born in Jerusalem in 1952, a year after his parents arrived from Iraq, Nawi was raised by an Arabic-speaking grandmother. As a teenager he lived next door to Reuven Kaminer, leader of Israel’s communist party. After a spell laying mines along the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he travelled to the US and Europe, spending time in both the UK and Ireland.

When he returned, an initial interest in Israel’s nascent gay-liberation movement gradually gave way to a desire to help the Arab communities living under Israeli occupation, for both personal and political reasons.

“Firstly, I think that being gay makes me more sensitive to other people’s problems,” he says. “Secondly, I used to have a Palestinian boyfriend in Ramallah, and when you go through the checkpoints and experience daily life for the Palestinians, it became real for me rather than something I’d just read and heard about. And the gay-rights movement here isn’t really concerned with the problems facing other groups like the Palestinians and the Bedouins.”

The problems facing the Palestinians and Bedouins of the South Hebron Hills go beyond those typically associated with the Israeli occupation, such as checkpoints and the separation barrier. There is real poverty in the region, and the threat of a demolition order hangs over every house. As Nawi puts it: “They are so weak they are not even in the garbage; they are in the juice of the garbage.”

Over the past decade, off his own bat and as a co-ordinator for the Jewish-Arab human-rights organisation Ta’ayesha and for Comet-ME, a group building renewable-energy systems in the South Hebron Hills, Nawi has organised countless campaigns against house demolitions and land confiscations. He distributes cash and clothes, clears roadblocks, walks children to schools that he has helped to renovate, and installs solar panels, wind turbines and water systems in villages. He escorts farmers fearing settler attacks to their olive groves, and gets them legal representation and medical treatment when those fears are realised.

“These people are very poor and very afraid,” Nawi says. “Without support they wouldn’t survive here. And if I was in their position I would want someone to help me.”