The deadly arson attack in the West Bank village of Duma last week may have shocked mainstream Israelis, but international organizations and human rights groups say it fits a pattern of unchecked violence against Palestinian civilians and impunity for the settlers who perpetrate it.
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The attack that killed 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and seriously injured three of his family is only the latest act in a campaign of Jewish terrorism that targets Palestinians and in most cases goes unpunished, according to data compiled by various organizations.
In 2006 and 2007, when the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs started keeping count, about 100 settler attacks against Palestinians were recorded each year. Violence spiked at the end of the decade, as the so-called “price tag” campaign by extremist settlers gained strength, and since 2010 between 300 to 400 attacks have been recorded annually. Despite recent events, the latest numbers point to a possible dip, as 322 incidents were recorded in 2014 versus 397 in 2013, and up to July this year there had been 118 reported attacks.
Incidents are only counted if actual damage or casualties are reported, OCHA notes, and can range from uprooting trees and destroying fields to stone throwing, arson and physical attacks.
While Israeli authorities say they are committed to cracking down on nationalistically-motivated crimes and have stepped up efforts to fight Jewish extremists, human rights groups say that the state largely fails to investigate, prosecute and convict Israeli suspects when their victims are Palestinian.
A report published in May by Yesh Din, an Israeli group that provides legal assistance to Palestinians, looked at the fate of some 1,000 complaints filed with Israeli police over alleged violence by settlers between 2005 and 2014.
The study found that more than 91 percent of investigations were closed without indictments being filed. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, around 85 percent, the investigation was closed due to a failure to find suspects or collect sufficient evidence to file charges, the report says.
“Of course, not every crime can be solved,” said Yesh Din spokesman Gilad Grossman. “But if such a large proportion of cases remains unsolved it is because the police fails to take even the most basic investigative steps such as interviewing witnesses, the complainant and potential suspects.”
Only about 7 percent of investigations lead to charges being filed, according to Yesh Din. Most of these involve violent attacks and high-profile cases, such as a 2007 kidnapping and beating of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, the report says.
For cases that do end up in court, almost 23 percent of indictments are dropped or thrown out, while nearly a quarter of trials end with a guilty verdict but a decision not to convict the defendant. This measure of leniency – which is often applied to minors or people without a criminal record – is used unusually liberally with settlers, the report suggests, noting that such an outcome occurs only in 5.3 percent of cases tried in magistrates courts and 1.2 percent in district courts.
Only a third of the trials end with a full or partial conviction, which may result from a plea bargain, according to the report. Taking into account the amount of indictments originally filed, this means that for Palestinian victims of Jewish violence there is less than a 2.5 percent chance of the perpetrators being found, tried and convicted.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the authorities “take nationalist crime very seriously.” She told Haaretz that the police has created a specially-dedicated unit in the Judea and Samaria District and was “investing efforts and resources in the intelligence, operational and investigative spheres to identify the perpetrators [of such crimes].”
Last year there was an increase of 30 percent in cases handled compared to 2013, while arrests and indictments had risen respectively by 98 percent and 75 percent, she said. However, Samri could not provide further data on the actual investigations and indictments that those percentages refer to.
Critics say that lack of police resources in the West Bank is just one of the factors behind the lax enforcement.
“On a basic level there’s a bias against Palestinians who complain to Israeli police over violence by Israeli settlers,” says Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the B’Tselem human rights group. “These cases are not handled with the same seriousness and efficiency as when Israelis are victims of Palestinian violence.”
Even when indictments are filed, the fact that settlers are tried in civilian courts while Palestinians face military tribunals creates another level of discrimination, Michaeli says – civilian courts offer more guarantees and protections to defendants, while demanding stronger proof from the prosecution to secure a guilty verdict.
Jewish terror suspects are also usually freed on bail and can prepare their defense at home, while Palestinians are held pending trial and more easily pressured into a confession or a plea bargain, she told Haaretz in a telephone interview.
Another factor is the role of the Israel Defense Forces, which, rights groups say, is heavily involved in fighting Palestinian terrorism, but is mostly passive when it comes to stopping settler violence and tends to pass on responsibility to the police.
Yesh Din published another report in May, for which it collected the testimonies of 77 soldiers and officers about the lack of orders and procedures issued by commanders on how to deal with settler attacks against Palestinians – or in some cases toward the army itself.
“If you ask the soldiers they will tell you they are there to protect the settlers,” Grossman said. “Very few understand that under international law they are also supposed to protect the Palestinians.”
As a result, he said, soldiers often stand idly by even when directly witnessing settlers throwing stones at Palestinians or engaging in other forms of violence – something that does not happen when the roles are reversed.
The IDF spokesperson’s unit said in a written response that the army “has procedures in place dictating that when an offense occurs all necessary action to prevent or stop it must be taken, regardless of who caused the event.”
B’Tselem’s Michaeli said that the combined inaction and inefficiency of the army, police and judiciary have sent the message that there is little or no political will to stop Jewish terror and encouraged the spread of violence.
“For years people get to throw stones, burn fields, cut down trees without being stopped, and so some of them advance to more serious attacks, like burning cars and houses,” she said. “We can’t say that it’s just them, just a small minority of extremists, because that would mean rejecting the responsibility we all share for creating this situation.”