Who will protect Palestinians from growing settler extremism?
Palestinians can almost never hope for justice within the legal system, nor can they defend themselves.
Last week in Hawara, a town near Nablus, someone defaced a mosque with spray paint. The graffiti included Hebrew writing and a Star of David. Residents of a Jewish settlement nearby had vandalized Palestinian property in Hawara on previous occasions, so both the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian villagers accused settlers of committing the latest crime. Israel's official position is that it is a deserving, ecumenically-minded custodian of religious sites of all faiths, so the IDF Spokesman was quick to issue a condemnation and promise an investigation.
The defacing of mosques in the West Bank is relatively rare - "only" four incidents were brought to the attention of Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO that monitors law enforcement in the West Bank, over the past five years. But destruction of Palestinian property and acts of violence against Palestinian civilians occur frequently, often several times per week. Over the past few months, they have become more frequent and more violent. Many of these incidents are known as "price tag" operations, whereby settlers destroy Palestinian property as a response to the IDF's having dismantled an illegal outpost. The settlers, say West Bank field workers for various NGOs, are becoming bolder.
The more egregious acts of settler violence are reported in the Israeli media, although rarely with prominence, but most incidents fail to attract the attention of the major news outlets at all - because they occur so frequently that they have become unremarkable, because most Israelis are numb to these stories, and because Palestinians are increasingly reluctant to file a police complaint. Why bother to enlist the help of the police when, as Yesh Din has documented, more than 90 percent of legal cases involving settler violence end with their being closed due to "lack of evidence"?
When Jews, Muslims and Christians deface one another's holy sites or places of worship, the story is reported widely by the Western media - especially when the culprits are members of the group backed by military and political might, as is the case of the Jewish settlers in the Palestinian-majority West Bank. And so the story of the defaced Hawara mosque was reported widely in major news outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, with accompanying photos. But the chances of the perpetrators being arrested and put on trial are very slight. In the cases of the four mosques previously vandalized, allegedly by settlers, two investigations are officially ongoing, and two have been closed for lack of evidence.
Lior Yavne, Yesh Din's research director, says that investigations into complaints filed against settlers by Palestinians fail for a number of reasons. The civil police of Judea and Samaria are understaffed and underfunded. Jewish suspects are almost never included in police lineups. The police frequently fail to verify the alibis of Jews, or to make arrests.
Investigations fail to result in convictions even when eyewitnesses provide accurate descriptions of Jewish suspects seen at or fleeing the scene, holding incriminating evidence - as in a case reported earlier this month by the Jerusalem Post's Dan Izenberg. According to the April 6 article, a settler from Kedumim was caught by police last summer, fleeing a burning Palestinian orchard while holding a jerrican filled with flammable liquid, and with the smell of the liquid on his hands. The suspect refused to answer police questions during interrogation; and less than a year later, the courts dismissed the case for "lack of evidence." Michael Sfard, Yesh Din's legal advisor, described the court's decision as "scandalous."
Palestinian villages are increasingly unprotected by the IDF, which does provide extensive protection for Jewish settlements. At the same time, however, Palestinians are not allowed to possess weapons; the IDF arrests people caught with knives or guns in their possession. Settlers, on the other hand, are permitted by law to carry weapons.
Meanwhile, the IDF is acting according to increasingly draconian orders to suppress non-violent demonstrations against the occupation that are organized and led by grassroots Palestinian movements. Leaders of popular resistance organizations are dragged from their beds during night raids, arrested and jailed - often indefinitely. The villages in which demonstrations take place on Friday mornings have been declared closed military zones. Those who violate the army's orders and come out to demonstrate are regularly shot at with rubber bullets, doused with skunk gas, beaten and arrested.
For Palestinians in the West Bank, the sense of helplessness and frustration must be enormous. When they are attacked, they can almost never hope for justice within the framework of the legal system. Nor are they allowed to defend themselves. Nor can they expect the IDF to protect them. And even when they protest these injustices using nonviolent methods - marching, chanting and waving flags - they are punished with arrests and violence, with dehumanizing skunk gas and beatings. So what happens when there is no legal recourse or justice for the injured and no real civic structure, and when the moderates are systematically crushed? Surely these are the ideal psychological circumstances that make people vulnerable to the beckoning finger of extremism.
Lisa Goldman is a freelance journalist and blogger, and a social media consultant for Yesh Din.
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