(JTA) — An outspoken American-born rabbi and left-wing human rights activist has been charged with obstructing soldiers in the West Bank, one of whom was a far-right settler who was himself charged with a hate crime in 2015.
The indictment comes as violence has risen in the West Bank, and as the Biden administration has aimed to crack down on settler violence in the territory.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who frequently travels into the West Bank to help Palestinian farmers access their land, was indicted last week for allegedly blocking two soldiers with his body and pushing a soldier “with his body and hands approximately 15 times” on Oct. 10, three days after Hamas’ attack on Israel sparked the current war in Gaza.
Ascherman was charged with two counts of violating the law that requires citizens to allow public servants to perform their duties without harassment, in addition to one count of committing an assault that causes bodily harm.
The indictment says Ascherman “stopped the car and approached the soldiers as he was pointing a camera at them.” Referring to the soldiers, he allegedly said, “These people are trying to do terrorism here,” according to a copy of the document Ascherman shared on his Facebook page.
Ascherman, who denies wrongdoing, says he was helping a shepherd travel from the small central West Bank village of Wadi a-Siq to a larger city and confronted the soldiers in order to let the shepherd pass. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that a recording of the incident he provided to the police would prove his innocence.
He said the incident occurred at the “very beginning of the war and passions are just off the charts.” He said that he asked the soldiers, “Can people come in and out of the village?”
He added that subsequently, “They call the police, who show up, and they’re pushing me around. I’m trying to back off trying to calm down the situation.”
Ascherman was subsequently arrested and released after several hours. He was issued a two-week ban from entering the West Bank and received the indictment for the incident last week.
Violence in the West Bank has increased dramatically in the aftermath of Oct. 7 and the ensuing Israel-Hamas war. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in Israeli counterterror raids, many against suspected Hamas cells, and unemployment is high because Israel revoked Palestinian West Bank work permits following Oct. 7.
Human rights groups have also warned that additional Palestinian communities in the territory may face expulsion after approximately 16 shepherding communities have fled their land following harassment in the last several months. Days after the Ascherman incident, a group of Israeli soldiers and civilians in the same area beat and stripped Palestinian men, according to Haaretz. Their military unit has since been shut down.
Ascherman, a Reform rabbi and former longtime leader of the group Rabbis for Human Rights, is a controversial figure in Israeli society and has been arrested before for his activism in the West Bank. He has clashed for years with Israeli security personnel and right-wing settlers, and has himself been the victim of attacks.
According to the charging document, one of the two soldiers Ascherman is accused of obstructing is Hanoch Ganiram. Ganiram himself was charged in 2015 with an arson attack on Jerusalem’s Dormition Abbey in addition to other acts of arson and violence against Palestinians. In 2015, Ganiram, then 19, was accused of violating a ban on entering the West Bank, which he received after being suspected of “involvement in illegal and violent activity that endangers Palestinians and their property.”
Ascherman called the indictment “a chance to clear my name… and also a chance to shine the spotlight on what is really going on more than ever before in terms of cooperation between security forces and settlers in the West Bank.”
He added that he has no plans to slow down his activism in spite of being accused of “attacking soldiers” following the publication of the charges.
“I have no intention of letting up on what I do,” he said. “With all the risks involved, that’s part of what goes with the territory. I’ve been injured in the past, along with other activists.”
He added, “Palestinians certainly suffer much more than we do.”