Analysis

There's a Different Kind of Escalation Brewing in the West Bank

The rise of settler violence against Palestinians is likely to continue as the army, the police and Israeli society stand by passively – or even encourage attacks

A graffiti reading 'enough with the administrative edicts, price tag, revenge' spray-painted on a wall in Palestinian village in the West Bank, 2018
Israel Police Spokesperson

The noticeable escalation in the West Bank is firstly due to settler violence toward Palestinians. And the assumption among Palestinians must be that this escalation will only continue, as the army and police, as well as Israeli society as a whole, stand by without trying to or succeeding in halting it, in the best case, and supporting and encouraging it, in the other case.

This anxiety can be felt in everyday Palestinian conversations about what the near future might bring, in the choice of travel routes that stay as far from certain settlements as possible and in deciding not to go out to work in the field or to take animals to graze because of the proximity of violent settlements. The expected entry of avowed Kahanists into the Knesset, and with the prime minister’s encouragement yet, shows the breakdown of more barriers in Israeli society against the wish-fulfillment of those who dream of mass expulsion.

At the same time, the sense of popular urgency isn’t finding expression in the politics of the rival Palestinian leaderships. Hamas and Fatah continued this week with their mutual flexing of muscles: Hamas organized a mass protest in Gaza calling for Mahmoud Abbas’s ouster as Palestinian Authority president, while the latter attended a first-of-its-kind summit of EU and Arab countries in Sharm al-Sheikh, asking for the participating countries’ protection against the hardening of Israeli policy against his people. Fatah responded with demonstrations for Abbas in West Bank cities, while Hamas arrested dozens of Fatah members in Gaza who had also called for shows of support for their leader. Police in Gaza dispersed and attacked the Fatah protesters in the Nuseirat and Jabalya refugee camps, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported in a critical statement about the Hamas actions.

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Political activists outside these two movements have been appalled at the waste of time and energy over this sectarian rivalry. Even the previous Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, was uncomfortable with the demonstration to “oust” Abbas that was organized by Hamas. According to a report on the Gazan news site Sama, he said that despite Abbas’ moves against Hamas and Gaza (i.e., budget cutbacks and freezing salaries and stipends), the Fatah leader was firm in his opposition to Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” and should be supported in this.

With all the rivalry and mutual disparagement, the praxis of the two leaderships have much in common. They both are operating at two opposite extremes: As employers and those responsible for paying salaries in the public sector, they are the ones running the daily lives of the people in the Palestinian enclaves. For example, due to the stormy weather in the West Bank, a spokesman for the government in Ramallah announced that all schools would be closed on Thursday and government offices would begin work at 9 A.M. The Interior Ministry in Gaza announced which passengers were due to cross the Rafah terminal Thursday on their way to Egypt, and which bus to board. You must arrive at the departure terminal in Rafah by 6:30 A.M., said the Interior Ministry announcement. And on the other hand, both leaderships represent, at least to themselves and their supporters, the principle of resistance to the Israeli occupation and the struggle for independence.

Israeli police confronts Palestinians in front of the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, February 18, 2019.
Mahmoud Illean,AP
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 12

The tactics being used now by Hamas – mass protests of unarmed demonstrators, arson balloons, building up arms and the showy use of weaponry as a response to Israeli military incursions – is similar in two key ways to the tactics of the Palestinian Authority: diplomacy and more diplomacy, along with feeble, obligatory verbal support for an unarmed popular struggle that isn’t taking off. Both tactics preserve “the Palestinian cause” on the international agenda, even at a time when there are plenty of other burning issues. And both are failing on the main front of the Israeli occupation: They are not stopping the spread of settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem, nor protecting the Palestinians who are vulnerable to settler violence. European and Arab countries continue to donate money to avert a Palestinian economic catastrophe, which would adversely affect Israel too. But they suffice with feeble criticism of the settlement policy.

Settlers attackers have no reason to fear

Israeli security officials have noted the rise in nationalist crime byJews against Palestinians (see Amos Harel, January 6). A month ago, armed Israeli civilians killed Hamdi Na’asan in the village of Al-Mughayyir. The police collected testimony from witnesses in the village, but there are no reports of any suspects being arrested. On February 21, Israelis raided the area between the villages of Jania and Ras Karkar west of Ramallah, punctured the tires of nine cars and sprayed graffiti in Hebrew. A week before that, about 20 cars in the village of Iskaka near Salfit were vandalized and sprayed with Hebrew graffiti.

The recurrence of these sorts of actions shows that the perpetrators feel emboldened and confident they won’t be apprehended or punished. Palestinians who are attacked are becoming less inclined to go to the police since experience has shown that the police and Shin Bet don’t do much about cases of violence committed by Israelis that fall short of murder. Thus there is a growing fear that the law enforcement authorities won’t be able and will not know how to prevent future operations by Israelis that could include chasing Palestinians from their villages or even mass shootings.

The success of settler organizations in evicting Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, with the imprimatur of Israeli judges, indicates the direction of this growing sector of Israeli society. The cessation of the operation of the TIPH observers in Hebron was also made in the spirit of the settlers’ demands. Although the team of international observers did not succeed over the years in preventing the center of the city from emptying out of Palestinian residents – due to the aggression of the settlers and the military orders limiting the mobility in the city of anyone not a Jew or a tourist – now that it’s gone the Palestinians feel even more vulnerable to the whims of the army and the aggression of the Israeli civilians. The daily entry of Israelis to the Al-Aqsa plaza is also perceived as an invasion with the ultimate goal of seizure and dividing prayer times and areas between Jews and Muslims, as is done at the Ibrahim Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Outposts of Israeli shepherds, unauthorized and illegal, have multiplied in recent years and are systematically pushing out Palestinian shepherds and their flocks from areas they used for many years, and keeping people away from their olive groves and fields. The army and police stand by the settlers, and in order “to avoid friction” they heed the orders of the violent settlers and chase the Palestinians off. These outposts receive the full backing and protection of the army, despite the demolition orders issued against them by the Civil Administration, and are continually expanding the settlement areas.

Abed al Hai Na’asan, with a butchered olive tree. The people of Al-Mughayyir say their problems have never been with the army, only with the settlers.
Alex Levac

This is the situation, for example, with “Uri’s Farm,” an outpost that borders on the Umm Zuka nature reserve. It was built two and a half years ago and initially received water from the nearby military camp. Then it moved a few hundred meters. Now it gets running water from an adjacent settlement. A security source says that even though the Civil Administration issued demolition orders for all of the structures at the outpost, it continues to develop due to an explicit order by the head of the army’s Central Command not to dismantle it. The IDF Spokesperson Unit says, “Decisions to evacuate outposts are made on the basis of operational considerations and priorities and in accordance with the instructions from the political level.”

In the last weeks, the people from this outpost have started erecting a fence around a wide area in the reserve. The fence is being built without a permit from the Civil Administration. Palestinians in the area and Israeli activists who accompany the Palestinian shepherds believe it is an electrified fence designed to keep out the Palestinian shepherds’ sheep and goats. The shepherds have been taking their flocks to graze here for decades without any trouble.

Since the outpost was erected, the threat from its armed inhabitants, along with the closure orders for the area that army commanders issue on the settlers’ behalf, the shepherds’ livelihood has been badly hurt. The same thing is happening near other outposts that were built in the northern and central Jordan Valley, some of which are now being retroactively legalized. At one outpost set up by a fellow named Omer Atidiya, he and a few other young men regularly menace dozens of shepherds from ‘Uja village and the Bedouin encampments north of Jericho. At other outposts such as Havat Ma’on and Mitzpe Yair, settlers order the commanders and soldiers to remove the Palestinians, and they are obeyed.

Even though these are illegal outposts, the army is called upon not just to protect their residents but also to protect their ability to deprive the Palestinians of their livelihood and compel them to remain in Area A or B, thereby leaving most of the West Bank open to the development and expansion of the settlements. Meanwhile, the Civil Administration is perpetuating the policy of prohibiting Palestinian construction in Area C and demolishing even simple vital structures like water pipelines.

The escalation the Palestinians are experiencing daily appears to be part of both an official policy and of private initiatives to push the Palestinians into congested enclaves designed as temporary during the Oslo negotiations. Will the frustration and anger they feel find expression in a new wave of attempted individual or organized attacks against Israelis? This is what Israel calls “escalation” while ignoring the escalating reality that causes it.