Helium Balloons Fly Over Israel to Protest Settler Attacks

Annual rate of settler attacks against Palestinians has almost quadrupled in last eight years, according to UN figures.

Dozens of Israelis released giant helium balloons Wednesday to protest settler attacks against Palestinians, the annual rate of which has almost quadrupled in eight years, according to UN figures.

The balloons were released by Jewish and Arab protesters at several sites simultaneously. Most of the sites are in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or in between: Dormition Abbey on Jerusalem's Mount Zion, Latrun, Route 1 near Abu Ghosh, and Tel Aviv's Hashalom Bridge and central bus station. They were also released in the northern Israeli Arab town of Baka al-Garbiyeh.

There have been 2,100 so-called "price tag" attacks on Palestinians since 2006, the year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs started counting. The annual totals are up from 115 in 2006 to 399 in 2013.

The rate of these attacks, in which thugs cut down trees, deface mosques and beat Palestinian farmers, has risen by 40 percent just since the current round of peace talks began, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Wednesday.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly denounced such attacks — Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon last week branded them "outright terrorism" — and the military says soldiers are under strict orders to stop them.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police have formed special units to deal with "price tag" attacks. A West Bank unit with 30 officers began working a year ago, focusing on surveillance, intelligence gathering and undercover operations, he said.

The army said Palestinian complaints about settler attacks during the annual olive harvest dropped by half, to 20, from 2012 to 2013.

Still, critics say Israeli governments stacked with pro-settler politicians have often been reluctant to confront settlers, even those seen as a hardline fringe.

"There is not enough pressure from the prime minister, the defense minister, the interior minister to prevent this," said Gadi Zohar, a former senior army commander in the West Bank.

In the past eight years, 10 Palestinians were killed by settlers, and 29 settlers were killed by Palestinians, according to OCHA figures.