In the West Bank, violence escalates between Palestinians and settlers

BURIN, West Bank – Israeli settlers raced down the hill towards Palestinian farmland, some waving sticks, others throwing stones, all ma...


BURIN, West Bank – Israeli settlers raced down the hill towards Palestinian farmland, some waving sticks, others throwing stones, all masked.

They started beating a group of Palestinian villagers and Israeli rights activists, who had planted olive trees on the outskirts of a Palestinian village. A settler threw flammable liquid on an activist’s car and set it on fire. At least seven people were injured.

The mob attack outside the village of Burin last month, filmed by human rights defenders, was part of an escalation in civil violence across the occupied West Bank over the past year. In 2021, the number of deadly attacks by settlers against Palestinians, and by Palestinians against settlers, reached its highest level in at least five years, according to the United Nations.

Settlers injured at least 170 Palestinians last year and killed five, UN observers reported. [Update, Feb. 22, 2022: One of the five Palestinians was killed in self-defense, and one in unresolved circumstances, according to the U.N.]

During the same period, Palestinians injured at least 110 settlers and killed two, according to UN records. The Israeli army said Palestinians injured 137 Israeli civilians in the West Bank last year.

But while the numbers are roughly comparable, the power dynamics are different.

Settlers benefit from a two-tier legal system in which settlers who commit acts of violence are rarely punished, while Palestinian suspects are frequently arrested and prosecuted in military courts. Of the 111 police investigations into settler attacks monitored by Israeli rights group Yesh Din over the past five years, only three have resulted in indictments.

The settlers, unlike the Palestinians, enjoy the protection of the army and rarely run the risk of losing the land on which they live.

And it is settler violence that is causing the most concern today, not only among Palestinians, but also among Israeli security services.

Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, described it as “a serious phenomenon” and announced the formation of special military teams to patrol hotspots like Burin. Three Israeli reserve generals wrote in January that settler violence posed a threat not only to Palestinians, but also to Israel’s stability and its global image.

But impunity for recent settler attacks has raised fears that the Israeli army is not doing enough to stop them. In some cases, repeated attacks have driven Palestinian farmers off their land, helping to extend direct Israeli control over the West Bank.

“I was scared and shocked – can you imagine being on your own land and suddenly being attacked by a criminal gang?” said Brusli Eid, 46, one of the Burin residents attacked last month. “They are trying to make us sick of being on our land.”

Violence has long been deployed by Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel occupied the territory in 1967, and it has since been settled — illegally, according to most interpretations of international law — by hundreds of thousands of Israelis, many of whom consider the land their biblical birthright.

Settler attacks are carried out by an extremist minority, condemned by Israeli officials, and do not involve the vast majority of Israeli settlers.

And recent violence, which spiked sharply during the Gaza war last spring and the Palestinian olive harvest last fall, is still far below that of more intense periods of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But rights groups have documented several instances over the past year where the military stood idly by when an attack occurred or, as in Burin last month, did too little too late.

“Time and time again, we see incidents of settler violence in which the army stands alongside the settlers and effectively provides them with protection,” said Lior Amihai, the director of Yesh Din. “It gives the settlers the confidence to continue their attacks and vindicates the Palestinian belief that they have no one to turn to for protection.”

In a previous confrontation in Burin last October, a masked settler set fire to a Palestinian olive grove as his companions and Palestinian villagers threw stones at each other, according to video taken by Yesh Din. An Israeli soldier approached and, according to the video, spoke briefly to the settlers, who walked away, the fires still raging around them. None were arrested, police said.

In a third clash at the same location in November, video showed a row of six Israeli soldiers standing still as settlers and Palestinians threw stones at each other. When they finally acted to deescalate the situation, they fired tear gas at the Palestinians, according to the video and witnesses, and again allowed the settlers to return home.

Two of the nine settlers were later arrested before being released pending further investigation, police said. After the mob attack in January, one person was arrested and two detained, but neither was charged.

The army said any claim that it “supports and authorizes settler violence is false” and that the two videos do not tell the full story of the clashes. In each, he said in a statement, troops initially did not intervene because they were outnumbered and awaiting reinforcements.

In other cases, the army has issued restraining orders and curfews against settlers it considers a potential threat.

Major General Yehuda Fuchs, the commander of Israeli troops in the West Bank, said in an interview that he was concerned about what he called “settler terrorism” and was working “very hard to avoid it”.

His job, he said, was to protect all residents of the West Bank, “regardless of whether they are Israelis or Palestinians.”

For the villagers of Burin, the settler attacks are part of a strategic attempt to push them back from their land. Since the 1980s, the village has gradually sandwiched itself between the hilltop settlements of Yitzhar and Givat Ronen.

Both settlements are built partly on private Palestinian land and are protected by the Israeli army. Among their 2,000 residents are followers of two extremist rabbis.

And while most Israeli settlements are considered legal by Israel and illegal under international law, Givat Ronen and the Yitzhar outposts are unauthorized by the government and illegal under Israeli law.

Israelis coming from the direction of these settlements have attacked Palestinians or vandalized their property in Burin and nearby villages at least 18 times in 2021, according to Yesh Din.

Such harassment has contributed to the seizure of at least 250 acres of private Palestinian land around these two settlements in recent decades, the organization said.

There is no overall estimate of the amount of private Palestinian land lost this way across the West Bank, but a 2021 study of four settlements by Israeli rights groups B’Tselem and Kerem Navot valued that settlers had seized more than 9,000 acres of Palestinian farmland through intimidation in these places alone.

Families living on the outskirts of Burin have installed metal grills on their windows to prevent rocks from breaking the glass and security cameras to observe settler attacks from inside. Some forbid their children to play near the village.

“We are afraid that they will be kidnapped or killed,” said 16-year-old Aya Eid.

Violence against farmers and vandalism of their trees has become so commonplace – more than 11,700 Palestinian-owned olive trees were damaged last year, according to the UN – that the Israeli army provides escorts so that farmers can reach their groves safely.

But because army patrols only affect each plot two or three days a year, some farmers only reached their groves twice last year, which they say is far from enough. to do the necessary work.

Before the construction of nearby settlements, the olive harvest in Burin had a carnival atmosphere, several villagers said. Entire families camped under the trees, grilling meat in the evenings and singing songs about the olives.

It was “almost a sacred activity”, said Abdelmuhaimen Asous, 46.

But in recent years, small groups of pickers have spent only a few hours at a time in the groves, cutting their income by more than half, they say.

Mr. Asous now earns more money as a garbage collector in Burin. “We can’t wait for this harvest to end,” he said. “Because you don’t know if you’ll come back alive.”

In Yitzhar and Givat Ronen, no one publicly defends the recent attacks, let alone admits to having participated in them. Community leaders say they were led by disenfranchised youths who tainted the settlers’ cause by associating it with violence.

A spokesman for Yitzhar, Tzvi Succot, disavowed the recent violence but said he understood the cause: The attackers, he said, were afraid of the Palestinians, felt unprotected by the army and thought they had to strike preemptively.

In 2008, a Palestinian stabbed and injured a boy from Yitzhar, and in 2009, two Palestinians killed five members of a Jewish family at their home in a nearby settlement — attacks that still haunt settlers, he said.

Noam Jackson, one of the founders of Givat Ronen, said he did not recognize any of the masked settlers filmed during recent attacks near his settlement and could not speak to their motives. But he said they may be angry that Palestinians like the Eids have built new homes near the settlement, making it more difficult for the settlement to expand.

It “makes sense that this build would be something they would like to respond to,” he said.

Although Givat Ronen and the outposts of Yitzhar were not authorized, the government took no action to suppress them and instead provided them with military protection, while the municipal authorities provided them with services such as collection garbage.

Farmers could take their land claims to court, but such cases are rarely successful.

Both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Defense declined to comment on this dynamic.

Since Mr. Gantz sent new military patrols last fall, the pace of attacks has diminished. But the olive harvest was almost over by then, so it will probably be another year before the effect of the new patrols can be assessed.

The Palestinians say they will mean nothing if the army does not maintain this presence – and if they do not stop the violent settlers.

Palestinian police detective Brusli Eid, named after martial arts movie star Bruce Lee, was shot in 2011 by a settler in the elbow and pelvis while building a house nearby. Israeli authorities dropped criminal charges against three suspects in the attack, citing lack of evidence.

“What does that look like to you? He asked. To him, he said, it seems that “the Israeli government protects the settlers and encourages their actions.”

The report was provided by Rami Nazzal and Hiba Yazbek of Burin, Myra Noveck of Yitzhar and Givat Ronen, Jonathan Shamir of Tel Aviv, and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In the West Bank, violence escalates between Palestinians and settlers
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