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Settler Attacks on Palestinian Spike, Reflecting Israel's Systemic Failure

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Settlers and Palestinian protesters clashing in the West Bank Village of Asira al-Qibliya, in September.
Settlers and Palestinian protesters clashing in the West Bank Village of Asira al-Qibliya, in September.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday convened an emergency meeting with senior figures of the defense establishment to discuss the steep rise in the number of incidents between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank.

It was decided in the meeting to ramp up enforcement and investigation efforts in the West Bank on top of issuing clear guidelines for soldiers forbidding “standing by” and doing nothing during violent attacks on Palestinians.

A large portion of the cases, which occurred in the past two months in connection with the olive-harvesting season, stem from attacks by inhabitants of illegal settler outposts on Palestinians from neighboring villages.

Data presented in the meeting show that this year has so far seen a rise of 150 percent in incidents in which physical confrontation was documented between settlers and Palestinians, compared to all of 2019. (In 2020 there was something of a decline, due to the coronavirus epidemic.)

Taking part in the meeting with Gantz were the chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet security service, the commissioner of police, the head of Central Command, the coordinator of government activities in the territories and other senior figures.

One reason for the meeting has to do with the video clips being posted in the social networks and which sometimes even trickle into the television newscasts (somewhere after the break for commercials), in which Palestinians filmed violent attacks on them by settlers.

Incidents such as these, most of them during the olive harvest, occurred recently near Sussia in the South Hebron Hills, in the Shiloh Valley north of Ramallah and near the settlement of Yitzhar, south of Nablus.

A Palestinian man stands by a wall that is spray-painted with Hebrew that reads, "price tag," in the West Bank village of Marda, last week. Credit: Nasser Nasser/אי־פי

The clips show masked Jews – it’s best to avoid the newspeak term “hilltop youth” – behaving like the lords of the land: beating and threatening Palestinians, in some cases with the use of clubs.

In the rare cases when Israel Defense Forces soldiers somehow find themselves at the site, they behave more like security guards of the Jewish rioters than a force whose task is to preserve law and order.

This is not a new phenomenon, of course. The settler outposts started to spread through the West Bank shortly before the second intifada, and afterward during the intifada itself, in the first years of the century.

A massive evacuation of outposts, many of which stand on private property of Palestinians, was at the center of talks between the Barak and Sharon governments and the U.S. administrations of Bill Clinton and afterward of George W. Bush, but was never implemented.

The settlers in the outposts were quickly identified as a major source of attacks on Palestinians and their property. The police cite two main reasons for this: a desire to deter the neighbors from attacking the unfenced, unprotected outposts (outposts were in fact targeted in a number of serious attacks) and an attempt to deter the state from evacuating the outposts.

The circumstances have changed since then. The danger of evacuation is negligible, with the exception of far-flung outposts, and the scale of Palestinian terrorism in these years is not high.

Still, defense establishment statistics show that this year there have been 60 cases of public disturbances by settlers in clashes with the security forces, compared to 50 in all of 2019. There have also been 135 cases of stones being thrown at Palestinians, up from 90 two years ago.

One of the reasons for the upsurge in the past two months is indeed the olive harvest: Villagers come to pick olives in groves close to settlements and outposts, and settlers try to scare them off. The Palestinian Authority is also not sitting idly by.

The friction with the settlers is perceived in the West Bank as part of the national struggle being waged against Israel, focusing on construction and control of Area C.

In the background of the attacks is the open wound of the incident in which a young settler from an outpost, Ahuvia Sandak, was killed in an accident during a reckless police chase of a car whose passengers were residents of outposts.

Some of the acts of sabotage of Palestinian property have been devoted to his memory. Revenge actions also increased after the murder last May of a young Israeli at the Tapuah Junction in the central West Bank.

A Palestinian protester clashes with Israeli settlers after Palestinian students were prevented from heading to their school in al-Lubban al-Sharqiya village in the West Bank on Wednesday.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

The assailants took advantage of the fact that most of the forces of the Border Police were recalled from the West Bank to inside the Green Line to deal with the riots that erupted in the mixed Jewish-Arab cities during Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip.

The impotence in dealing with the violence is systemic, and little has been done to rectify the situation even though it has been going on for many years. The reasons are all too familiar. One of the major ones is the influence wielded by the veteran settlers’ establishment on Israel’s various governments.

Over the years, ranking IDF and police officers have generally shied away from taking excessively vigorous action in connection with the phenomenon, for fear of getting involved in political entanglements that will haunt them even after they take up a new position. The leniency of the judicial system toward Jewish ideological offenders also contributes to the situation,

A relative success by the security forces was mentioned at Thursday’s meeting: in solving incidents that occurred around Yitzhar. The success is attributed to the formation of joint teams combining IDF, police and Shin Bet personnel.

Now the plan is to form similar teams in other areas where many violent incidents have taken place. Gantz asked the police commissioner to increase police activity in the West Bank, and demanded that the State’s Prosecutor Office and police prosecutors take a harder line against those involved in violence. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said he has issued an unambiguous directive that soldiers must intervene to stop violent attacks, including by Jews.

“These are not attacks by bored children,” a senior security figure told Haaretz this week. “You have to call things by their name. In some of the cases it’s simply Jewish terrorism.

I don’t rule out the possibility that we will see another deadly attack, like the murder of the three members of the Dawabsha family in Duma [a village near Nablus] in 2015. This trend is also harming the country abroad. There is no meeting with foreign ambassadors in which the phenomenon of the attacks on Palestinians doesn’t come up.”

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