West Bank Escalation Reminiscent of Years Before Second Intifada

Escalating tensions between settlers and Palestinians today recall the first days of the second intifada, with the IDF increasing defensive rings around settlements; IDF officers report renewed, systematic settler agression.

Recent events in the northern West Bank recall the sad picture at the start of the previous decade. The March murder of the Fogel family in Itamar, by two Palestinians, once again drove up tensions between settlers and nearby villagers. Particularly in the vicinity of Yitzhar, settlers are engaged in a violent struggle to restore the "balance of deterrence" through attacks on their neighbors.

The result is an expansion of the defensive ring around each settlement; Palestinian farmers know they risk injury if they breach it, and that the security forces are unlikely to respond quickly.

Clashes in West Bank - Yitzhak Levinson - June 2, 2011
Yitzhak Levinson

The situation was similar in the first years of the second intifada, before the Israel Defense Forces established security zones around most settlements with fences, cameras and patrols. As the intifada died down calm returned and the army often arranged for Palestinians to work their lands near settlements, to the settlers' displeasure.

A visit to Yitzhar last week and conversations with IDF officers point to renewed, systematic aggression from settlers living there and on nearby outposts. As usual, there seems to be a confluence of a genuine sense of danger with increasing ideological radicalization, particularly among yeshiva students at Yitzhar. Their rabbi, Yitzhak Shapira has been in the headlines because of his book "Torat Hamelekh." But more significant to the Shin Bet security service is his apparent religious justification for acts of revenge.

Field officers describe as a daily recurrence incidents, most of which they say are initiated by settlers, of arson and of bodily and property damage to Palestinians. Favorite targets include Palestinian groves and orchards, whose trees are cut, uprooted and poisoned.

The IDF, as always, is practically helpless in the face of these acts. True, the Judea and Samaria District Police is particularly weak, and for years the courts have shown lenience lawbreakers from the extreme right, but the videos distributed by B'Tselem should surprise no one.

It takes a lot more than stone-throwing or uprooted trees for a patrol under the command of a junior officer to get mixed up in a direct clash with rioting Israelis. While these are local incidents, their impact on the ground is gradually increasing because they are taking place in an already charged atmosphere, in anticipation of a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood in September.

At the moment, it seems that the heightened sensitivity of the situation is actually imposing greater restrictions on the IDF. After the murder at Itamar settlers established a new outpost with two mobile homes on Hill 590, near the settlement. The IDF has prided itself in recent years, saying that every new outpost is dismantled immediately. But that is not the case for the outpost on Hill 590, which despite being patently illegal is still standing.