Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called settler violence in the West Bank an "insignificant phenomenon" on Tuesday, but government statistics and conversations with Palestinian organizations show that the scale of the attacks is extensive and still on the rise.
His comment came after Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev raised controversy in Israel when he condemned settler violence in a conversation with a top official in President Joe Biden's administration.
According to government figures, there have been 135 stone-throwing incidents targeting Palestinians this year, up from 90 in 2019, and 250 other violent incidents, up from 100 in 2019. Violence against the Israeli security services also rose, from 50 incidents in 2019 to 60 this year.
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B’Tselem, which collects data on settler violence, said that incidents of such violence are up 28.6 percent this year compared to last.
Yesh Din, which also documents such violence, received reports of 540 settler attacks from 2018 to 2021. Palestinians filed police complaints in 238 of these cases, but only 12 – five percent – resulted in indictments.
Police declined to answer Haaretz’s question regarding how many cases it has opened into settler violence in the last year.
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Musab Sufan of Burin, near the settlement of Yitzhar, said settlers have been stoning his house since 2000, but the situation has worsened in the past two months after quieting down during the previous two years. His home is on the edge of the village, near Route 60.
Usually, he said, the settlers come in groups of 20 to 30 people.
“They break our windows and solar heaters with stones; in the past, they’ve also killed our sheep,” he said. “They’re trying to drive us out.”
The situation is particularly hard on the children, he added. “What does a young child who experiences something like this do? He’s constantly hiding behind his mother; he’s afraid.”
Sufan said the latest attack came from a small tent that settlers erected not far from his home a few months ago.
“We call the police every time,” he added. “They come and go, but nothing happens and nothing changes.”
Ziv Stahl, head of Yesh Din’s research department, said she has seen “a steady decline in the willingness of Palestinian crime victims to file police complaints ... due to long years of an absence of effective enforcement against criminals and a tailwind from state agencies” for the settlers. Consequently, she added, “lawbreakers are gathering the nerve to increase the pace and severity of their attacks.”
From 2018 to 2021, 43 percent of Palestinians who reported attacks to Yesh Din declined to complain to the police. Asked why, 21 percent told the organization they feared vengeance or losing their permit to work in Israel and 22 percent gave no reason. Others said they had despaired of the process, or that they worked for the Palestinian Authority and therefore couldn’t file a complaint in Israel.
Mohammed, who owns a plant nursery in A-Sawiya, said settlers have uprooted or stolen his plants six times in the last 18 months, most recently this week. He complained to the police every time, but nothing happened.
“I brought them photographs and videos, but they didn’t do anything,” he said, adding that he once saw four of the vandals, all in their late teens and early twenties, enter the nearby settlement of Rahelim.
“It’s clear they’re doing this because I’m Palestinian,” he said. “They don’t just come and steal, they make sure to do damage every time.”
Similar attacks by Palestinians against Jews would have been dealt with long since, Mohammed argued. “But it’s easy for them to do this to us.”
Peace Now recently studied the location of settler attacks reported to Yesh Din from 2012 to July 2021. It concluded that 63 percent occurred near illegal settlement outposts.
An Israeli defense official agreed. “There has been a rise in crime in the vicinity of the outposts around Yitzhar and Shiloh, whether it’s destroying olive trees or throwing stones at Palestinian cars at intersections,” he said, explaining that such outposts “are places where there’s more friction with the Palestinians.”
Another place where violence has risen is the South Hebron Hills, where several outposts and settler farms have been established in recent years. One of the most serious cases of settler violence in years occurred there in September, when dozens of Israelis went to Khirbet al-Mufkara and threw stones at homes even though soldiers were on the scene.
Several people were wounded, including 3-year-old Mohammed Hamamda. But so far, only two people have been indicted, both minors from settlements in the area.
Khamis, from the Jalazun refugee camp, said that settlers stoned his 14-year-old daughter’s school bus near the settlement of Beit El last month. One stone went through the window and hit her head, while the driver was hit in the shoulder.
Since then, his daughter has had trouble concentrating and has undergone medical tests twice, he added.
Asked whether he filed a police complaint, he replied, “What’s the point? The Israeli system is on their side; soldiers protect settlers who throw stones. When Palestinians throw stones at settlers, they turn the entire Jalazun refugee camp upside down. But when it’s the other way around? Nothing.”
Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, said that “talking about a particular trend misses the big picture – this is the permanent reality, and it produces strategic achievements in the form of taking over Palestinian land. This is something Israel does in numerous ways – some organized, with court approval, and others through violence that has strategic results.
“There’s a propagandistic façade here that’s convenient for Israel,” he added. “There’s a few bad settlers, or more, on one side, and on the other is the good state of Israel, which seeks to enforce the law. But that isn’t the truth. Both the state and the settlers want the same thing – to dispossess Palestinians of their land.”
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benny Gantz has been pushing for a plan that would place more soldiers in the police in a bid to send more police officers to the West Bank, partly to fill roles related to combating extremist violence. The plan was the result of a discussion a few weeks ago between the defense minister, military chief of staff, head of the Shin Bet and the police commissioner in which the commissioner said the police's Judea and Samaria district lacks sufficient personnel.
The police said that "[a]ny report or complaint that are received by the police and raise suspicion of a criminal offense are investigated and handled thoroughly and professionally. Following a report about stone throwing at residences in Burin, the police has opened an investigation in which a variety of actions are being carried out in order to investigate the truth and bring those involved to justice. The Israel Police will continue to act at all times against incidents of violence and disturbances of any kind with determination and regardless of the identity of those involved. As for the other case that was mentioned, because the full details were not given to us, we are unable to respond to the incident."