Palestinian Villagers' Complaints of Settler Violence Are Going Unheard

Residents of the West Bank village are repeatedly attacked, but very few complaints to the Israeli police and army produce indictments.

It’s easy to guess that whoever threw two firebombs at a small house in the Palestinian West Bank village of Burin where a family of five lives will not be brought to justice. It’s doubtful the police are looking for the assailants, and even if they are, it’s unlikely the culprits will be found.

Even if they are found, it’s unlikely that cause will be found to file an indictment. How do we know? By looking at the history of complaints by Burin residents to the police about attacks by Israelis.

Before midnight on November 25, Vedian and Ghassan Omran were still awake. They suddenly heard something rustling outside, maybe soldiers. The rustles got louder and then rocks started hitting the house. That’s why all the homes in Burin’s easternmost neighborhood have iron mesh around their windows. Here, as in other Palestinian houses in the West Bank, the nets speak of the proximity of settlers and their rocks, and the absence of law enforcement.

The Omrans hoped their three sons – 5, 9 and 10 – wouldn’t wake up. They live in a constant repressed state of fear, like other children in this neighborhood in the shadow of settlement outpost Bracha B. The outpost was founded in 1999, only to be followed by the tiny outpost of Givat Ronen.

Despite the Omrans’ hopes, the flames rose from the holes in the iron mesh. Vedian Omran began to shout, and the children woke up and cried and screamed with her. Neighbors called firefighters, the army came, and Israeli policemen collected shards of the bottles used for the Molotov cocktails. The family then realized that the two water tanks on the roof had been vandalized. A plastic tank had been thrown below into the wadi.

A complaint was filed with the police. Surprisingly, the authorities acted quickly. About three weeks after the attack, soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces visited the Omrans’ home. The home with its two rooms was empty. Since the attack, whenever Ghassan Omran – a hospital nurse – has a night shift, his wife and three boys stay at her brother’s home in the same neighborhood. The neighbors hurried to tell Vedian Omran what was going on. She ran outside and saw jeeps and about 20 soldiers. The soldiers stopped her in her tracks.

“Go home,” a soldier shouted at her in broken Arabic. “That’s exactly what I’m doing. This is my home,” she answered. A soldier pushed her and she fell to the ground. When the soldiers left she discovered that the house had been broken into; the door’s handle and the lock were broken.

Inside, the carpets were filthy with mud. The sofas were overturned and their linings ripped. Rice was spilled on the ground, vegetables were strewn everywhere. The doors to the wardrobes were broken with the clothing strewn on the floor. A mirror was broken and 10-year-old Nasser’s computer was lying on the floor, apparently thrown there. It no longer worked.

The IDF said the soldiers arrived at the home after receiving intelligence to search for weapons and arrest a person suspected of illegal activity. “The reporters’ claims regarding the destruction of property are completely baseless,” the IDF Spokesman’s Office said regarding the entry into the Omrans’ home. “Since the occupants were not at home when [the IDF unit] arrived, it was forced to break open the door. When the search efforts at the structure ended, the family’s mother arrived, and even though there was a provocation, no physical altercation occurred with anyone from the force, who had already turned to leave the place.”

Surrounded on all sides

Burin and its land are caged in by settlements and military positions: The settlement of Yitzhar and its several outposts close in from the south; Bracha and its progeny from the north. To the west and east Burin is hedged in by army bases and watchtowers.

The IDF and the Border Police appear immediately whenever Palestinians are found on their privately owned land near an outpost. This happened last Monday, when this reporter went up Burin’s northeastern hill known as Karem a-Shaquf or Jabal a-Sab’a with Bilal Eid. Crocuses and primroses had already sprouted between the rocks. It’s no wonder that this hill (under the Oslo Accords in Area B, under Palestinian civil authority), with its panorama of mountains, valleys, fields and groves, has been a favorite site for short hikes, not just a place for agriculture or sheep grazing.

But since the beginning of the 2000s, settlers, the Border Police and the IDF have been preventing Burin residents from reaching their land. Fifteen years ago Eid bought the single home on the hill (the owners fled to Jordan in 1967). With the rest of his money he renovated the property, but in 2002 Israelis smashed it. Since then the house has been abandoned with its walls covered in graffiti, while Eid and his family rent a home in the village.

Another two of the village’s residents have received building permits from the Burin council but haven’t gone ahead with construction because of the constant threat. When the farmers began paving a road, Israelis from Bracha B attacked them. The army intervened and promised to agree with the villagers a day for building the road safely. This was around 10 years ago and the villagers are still waiting for this coordination. When the villagers go up the hill despite the threat, in the best case the soldiers fire stun grenades and tear gas at them. In the worst case Israelis from Givat Ronen and Bracha B come down and attack them.

Last Monday, three members of the Border Police appeared at the edge of the outpost less than 10 minutes after we arrived at the nearby hill. One of them held a stun grenade that he put in his pocket only after we were 10 meters apart. “This is a closed military area,” he said. But neither he nor the seven soldiers and officer that appeared later presented an order. When asked for a comment, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said the area was part of Area B and the presence of Palestinians there did not violate the law.

“Nevertheless, the place is known point of conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian populations in the area,” the IDF said in a statement. It said that when anyone disturbs the peace in the area he is treated in a similar manner. It said the soldiers had originally incorrectly stated that the hill was a closed military area.

Through the Yesh Din human rights group, Burin residents have filed 85 complaints with the Israel Police in the West Bank since 2005; 22 of them in 2013. A partial list of the complaints: physical assault on farmers; firing at and wounding people; cutting down olive trees; setting fire to fields, a home, trees, cars and a tractor; slashing tires; stealing equipment and produce; throwing stones at homes. One type of attack characteristic of Burin’s eastern neighborhood is the vandalizing of homes under construction to deter new occupants. Not all attacks result in complaints, and some of the buildings remained half-built and uninhabited.

Another 12 complaints have been filed through Yesh Din with the army regarding the conduct of soldiers since October 2009. Here is a partial list: harassing fire, the violent arrest of a minor, an attempt to expel someone from land, and the throwing of a stun grenade from a jeep at a school.

Weapons, clubs and iron bars

Only one complaint, over the cutting down of olive trees near Yitzhar, resulted in an indictment. A case from April 2011 concerning an Israeli from Givat Ronen who threw rocks and injured someone was transferred to prosecutors for a possible indictment. Two cases from 2013 were closed and opened again for investigation following an appeal. All others are somewhere between “in correspondence with the authorities” and “the police have closed the file.”

Take this example. On July 26, 2010, a large group of Israelis from Yitzhar and Bracha descended on homes in Burin. Some set fire to hundreds of olive trees (some 100 years old) that belonged to 60 residents of Burin and the Palestinian village of Klil. With a contractor and workers, Ibrahim Eid was at the site of his home being built in Burin’s eastern neighborhood. They fled when they saw the Israelis closing in, “armed with weapons, clubs and iron bars,” as they put it.

But when the attackers began smashing what they could, Eid couldn’t help himself and approached to stop them. One Israeli attacked him with an iron bar. Eid lost consciousness and was brought to a hospital. Other attackers threw rocks at the house of his neighbor, Bashir Zibn, and broke roof tiles.

After being discharged from the hospital, Eid said in his statement to the police that he could identify two of the attackers, and that photos of them had been taken by a Burin resident. The disk with the photos was handed over to the police. Zibn said one of the three men who attacked the house had not covered his face and could be identified. Despite this, neither Eid nor Zibn were called by the police to identify their attackers from the photos. And there was no police lineup of suspects.

The Border Police arrested two of the attackers when they were throwing rocks at Palestinians and their homes. The two exercised their right to remain silent during the investigation. Despite the police’s eyewitness testimony, the two were not placed in a lineup to be identified by complainants. The case was closed for lack of evidence.

In August 2011, a year after the attack, the investigation file on the incident was transferred to a prosecutor, but it was closed in December 2012 for lack of evidence. Only in August 2013 was Yesh Din told that the case had been closed.

A request to photocopy the file was submitted on September 3 and the file was made available for study only on November 11. Two weeks ago Yesh Din’s lawyers appealed the decision to close the case. The request was sent to Superintendent Shir Kama, head of the prosecutions unit for the Samaria region in the settlement of Ariel, and to attorney Yaniv Vaki, director of the appeals department at the State Prosecutor’s Office.

While Yesh Din lawyers say there has been a failure in the investigation that can be rectified, some residents in Burin, targets of other attacks, doubt that the Israeli authorities can change their attitude.

Reuters