The footage is very clear. It shows a man in civilian clothes, wearing an army-issued protective vest, crouching behind a boulder. In the presence of soldiers, he shoots at Palestinian stone throwers. Minutes later he is standing near Israeli soldiers and other young Israeli men who are throwing stones at the Palestinians. The soldiers do nothing.
Although this incident took place a few weeks ago and was documented on video, no one has been arrested and the suspect’s identity remains unknown. The army insists that the man is not a soldier, the police are unaware of the incident and settlers from the area could not identify him.
The incident, recorded by a researcher for the human rights group Yesh Din, took place near the Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank, in proximity to several settlements and outposts. Some settlers speculated that the gunman was a security officer at one of the outposts. But even if he was, the shooting raises questions. A civilian security chief is meant to organize guard duty and brief soldiers; using his weapon such a distance from the outpost is not part of his job.
This was not an isolated incident. In recent months, Palestinians from the villages of Burin, Urif and Einabus, which are close to the settlements of Yitzhar, Har Bracha and Givat Ronen, have reported clashes a few times each week. The Palestinians claim that the settlers come down toward their villages from the settlements and throw stones. Time after time, the Palestinians say, the army comes, soldiers stand idly by, and finally make the Palestinians move away. These claims are backed by a number of videos, but police have not arrested anyone involved for stone throwing. On the contrary, they are not even aware of most of the incidents.
Two such videos were recorded on March 9, one in Burin and the other in Einabus. In them one can see a group of Israelis throwing stones at Palestinian homes in the presence of soldiers, who do nothing. Two days earlier, Israelis threw stones at farmers in Burin. There too, the soldiers stood idly by. This list goes on: an attack in the area of Yitzhar, an attack on a shepherd some of whose sheep were slaughtered. The latter incident was not documented on video, but soldiers quickly arrived on the scene. They called the police, who have yet to find the assailants.
Police are investigating only two of the recent incidents, one at Urif and one at Einabus. No arrests have been made.
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It’s no secret that the area on the outskirts of Nablus tends to be violent. But the situation has gotten more intense in recent weeks.
“They want to prevent any Palestinian from reach his land or coming close to it,” said Nassar Odeh, the mayor of Hawara, located near Yitzhar, about the settlers. “Now they come down all the time. Not only to one village. Once they would attack a Palestinian near the settlement. Now they started to attack houses and areas in Area B as well,” Odeh said, referring to the area under Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control.
This claim corresponds to the videos taken by Yesh Din, whose activists frequently come from areas that are not near the settlements but are closer to the villages. Zacharia Sadah, field director of Rabbis for Human Rights, who lives in the area, was present during many such events. “The incidents began to be more serious and more frequent,” he said. The reason, belives, is that “There’s no punishment and as long as there’s no punishment, you feel free to attack.”
On the other hand, the settlers are also fed up with the situation in the area and have similar complaints of almost daily attacks by Palestinians, who come to their outposts and throw stones and firebombs. The settlers also have videos, like those filmed by the right-wing group Otzma Yehudit, led by Tzvi Sukkot. These show Palestinians throwing stones at Yitzhar, where Sukkot lives. They also claim that Palestinians are building roads close to the settlement.
“There has been a series of breaches into the Bor Hatziporim nature reserve [near Yitzhar],” a right-wing activist in the settlement said. “Today they came right near the settlement and began to plow an area that hasn’t been cultivated for decades. It’s on the mountain slope, there’s no agriculture there ... this is a breach of the status quo.”
The Palestinians always start these incidents, said the activist. “It’s true that if there’s an incident where Arabs come up [to the settlement], then after that there are people who go down [to the Palestinian villages], especially teens, but not only. And there’s friction, that’s true. But it’s always in response, that’s how we see it.”
The question of who started these incidents and where is at the center of the dispute. “It’s not the Palestinians who go up to the settlements,” says Sadah. “They [the settlers] go down and attack Palestinians in Area B and damage Palestinian property. Ninety percent of the incidents happen in Area B.”
Area B, where no Israelis live but where Israel is responsible for security, has become the keyword. Yet the security agencies seem helpless, even when there are videos that show unmasked attackers standing right near soldiers who do nothing to stop them. The army argues that they don’t have the authority to arrest Israelis and that the police, who must do the investigating, don’t come in time, so the enforcement is ineffective.
But Ziv Stahl, Yesh Din’s director of research, stressed that soldiers have an obligation to detain stone throwers.
“They have the authority to hold them until the police come,” she said. “But soldiers don’t know this and don’t try to do it. They are also obligated to protect the Palestinians.”
Stahl also pointed out that the state comptroller reiterated the findings of many previous reports in another one published last week on the coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Judea and Samaria District Police.
“IDF soldiers are generally the first to arrive at the scene of a terrorist or criminal incident, before the police,” the report said. “The division regulations state that the forces must arrest the people involved in an incident, while also separating them. They must close the theater and any secondary theaters, and it is forbidden to move objects or touch them.”
But in practice, the soldiers don’t detain the assailants and the police don’t arrest them. The Judea and Samaria District police said that no suspects had been arrested for throwing stones and that they were unaware of most of the incidents. In contrast, the army insists that some of the assailants were arrested, but would not supply their names, where they were arrested, and the stage of their legal proceedings.
Over a week ago, due to increased security incidents, the army declared the area around Yitzhar a closed military zone in order to make it easier to pinpoint settlers going into the territory between the settlements and the villages. Officials from the settlement even welcomed the order, which led to the arrest of at least one settler, who was later released by the court, which also lifted restrictions that the police had imposed on him.
Difficulty constraining violent activity
Although it may not seem that way from the outside, security sources speak of a worrisome situation.
“Because of the accumulating incidents in the Yitzhar area, police forces have been reinforced in the district,” a security source told Haaretz. The official said that 17 extreme right-wing activists have been arrested in the Samaria hills since the beginning of the year, 10 of them residents of Yitzhar. “Most of those arrested are the ones who agitate the others, who send others down, not only those who throw the stones,” he said.
“The security services are in contact with influential people in Yitzhar to work to stop the violence. The stress is on the hilltop youth that wander around there,” he said. But meanwhile, he explained, “The settlement itself, including the youth coordinators and rabbis, isn’t succeeding in restraining this violent activity. The possibility of beefing up police forces there and stationing a permanent force in Yitzhar is being considered.”
Attorneys representing right-wing activists said that even if the security official’s claim that 17 settlers have been arrested in the northern West Bank since the beginning of the year is correct, they don’t know of any cases in which legal proceedings have continued against the suspects.
“They arrest quite a few people,” said attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, but they don’t come to court for stone throwing. “The evidence they have relates to interfering with the soldiers, and it’s very hard to keep a person in detention for that.”
The IDF spokesman said, “Recently there have been several clashes between residents of Yitzhar and the Palestinians living in nearby villages and in some cases these led to disturbances in the area. In each of these events IDF forces came to the scene and worked to disperse the disturbance. In a few instances, riot-dispersal means were used to end the friction. After a situational assessment, the area around Yitzhar was declared a closed military zone to preserve security and public order in the area.”
“A number of Jewish and Palestinians rioters were arrested by the security forces,” the statement added. “The security forces will continue to maintain security and public order in the area. The IDF works in cooperation with the Border Police and the Israel Police.”