The Israeli Air Force has a long-standing tradition of treating every near,mid-air collision as if it had in fact occurred. This is how security forces should investigate the incident that took place on Tuesday in the village of Qusra, north of Ramallah. According to senior officers in the Central Command, it all happened in a matter of minutes. If Israeli military forces had not arrived in the nick of time, and were it not for the courageous and exceptional initiative taken by a few Palestinian activists, who protected with their own bodies the Israeli thugs who had come down the hill to the village from the settlement of Esh-Kodesh, Israel and the Palestinian Authority would now be dealing with the aftermath of a massacre.
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It would have started with a lynching of ten settlers, including a 12-year old boy. It would have continued with a killing of Palestinians by the army, as it tried to break through to the building in which the Palestinians were holding the settlers, as more and more enraged Palestinians from Qusra and adjacent villages were streaming to the site. Luckily, and despite the fact that the rampage-intent Israeli thugs were beaten up, they were separated from the mob surrounding them. At the same time, security coordination mechanisms between the army and Palestinian forces kicked in. A force headed by an armored battalion commander entered the village in order to extricate the settlers. This complex mission required no fewer than four army and police companies, under the supervision of the regional brigade commander, Col. Yossi Pinto. Ultimately, the settlers were removed after sustaining only minor injuries.
A few tactical aspects of the incident require investigation by the IDF and the security services. It appears that a long time elapsed between the time an army observation post sighted the settlers heading to the village and the summoning of military forces. Whether the settlers were intent on a show of force or on inflicting damage to Palestinian property, unluckily encountering the villagers, or whether they were about to engage in a planned “price tag” operation aimed at setting fire to cars or houses, their action should have been anticipated. That morning, the Civil Administration had uprooted an olive grove that the settlers had planted on private Palestinian land. Revenge was in the air. Furthermore, since two known extreme right-wing activists lead the group of settlers, they should have been under surveillance. The officers had no pity for the settlers they saved. This was a mess of their own doing, and no one in the IDF or security services accepted the lame excuse that they were only out on an excursion. The settlers from Esh Kodesh were not in Qusra to pick mushrooms.
It’s almost redundant to point out that a massacre, if it had taken place, would have swept the West Bank into a new cycle of bloodshed. Since September there has been a sharp rise in the number of incidents in the territories, some ending in deaths. However, these were separate, isolated cases, which weren’t quite enough to stoke emotions on both sides. The confrontation in Qusra had the potential to inflict much greater damage. The village has been the target of earlier incidents. In September 2011, on the day the Authority’s chairman Mahmoud Abbas was delivering his historic speech at the UN General Assembly, a village boy was killed in an incident involving settlers and the army. Already at that time people in Qusra and other nearby villages started talking about establishing local defense groups that would confront settlers outside the villages.
Esh Kodesh is not alone. The whole Shilo valley is considered, along with the area of Yitzhar and Bracha west of Nablus, to be one of the most troublesome foci of friction between settlers and Palestinians. Esh Kodesh is renowned for its extremist conduct. However, even after the condemnations issued by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and even by Rabbi Haim Druckman, no one believes that the Netanyahu government will evacuate the outpost, despite the multiple violent incidents associated with it.
Esh Kodesh, according to a report prepared by Peace Now, was established in December 2000, right after the start of the Second Intifada, at the end of Ehud Barak’s term in office. It is a satellite of Shvut Rachel, which is itself a satellite of the more veteran settlement of Shiloh. The placement of settlements in the Shiloh valley was carried out after careful planning. They constitute a “finger” thrust eastwards, bringing the cluster of settlements surrounding Ariel closer to the Jordan valley. The location ensures easy control over Highway 60, the central highway in the West Bank. Five years ago, settlers in these outposts expanded their activities to include agriculture, which included de facto annexation of Palestinian lands. The “price tag” actions they carry out are also meant to act as a deterrent vis-à-vis the state of Israel. The settlers believe that if they are perceived as violent and determined, the state will hesitate to confront them, a balance of terror already consolidated by the residents of Bracha and Yitzhar.
The defense establishment describe Esh Kodesh as the epitome of a dangerous situation, whereas the adjacent outpost of Kidah is viewed positively. Kidah residents include several senior army officers who serve in elite units, but both outposts were declared to be illegal by the state. This did not stop the authorities during Ariel Sharon’s term from giving them logistical support, nor does it prevent the IDF from continuously protecting them.
The fact that the incident in Qusra only ended in an “almost-disaster” should not detract from the severity of the failure to deal with rampages by extreme rightwing thugs. Over the last two years, the main success of the security services that deals with Jews has been the persuading and restraining of rabbis and educators and the collection of enough intelligence to enable issuing removal orders for eight leading activists. Hard evidence that will allow convictions in court has not been brought forth, partly out of concern for divulging intelligence sources during a trial.
There is no similarity between the investigation of a Palestinian suspected of terrorism and the investigation of a Jewish suspect. The former is subject to sleep deprivation, psychological and sometimes physical pressure. The most a Jewish suspect has to contend with (according to suspects accused of belonging to the second Jewish underground almost a decade ago) is a monotonous reading of the cultural supplement of Haaretz. In its struggle with Jewish terror, the security services have not managed to escape this trap. At the start of the second intifada, at least seven Palestinians were murdered in the West Bank in Jewish terrorist acts. Even though security service directors Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin believed that among the people called in for questioning were the perpetrators, none of them was ever charged or convicted, except for one small exception. Members of the Bat Ayin underground group, who had not murdered anyone, were jailed for planting bombs at a school.
The police and the IDF are partners in this failure. The Judea and Samaria police district, despite its reinforcement in recent years, has remained a second-class branch of the police force. The army cannot overcome an built-in obstacle – young soldiers and officers identify with their basic mission of protecting Israelis in the territories, namely the settlers. When extreme fringes among the settlers commit violence against Palestinians, few soldiers can internalize this and change their behavior. It takes the involvement of senior and experienced officers to motivate the army to act as is expected of it.
A year and a half ago, I attended educational training sessions and some preparations for service in the West Bank, meant for a Nahal unit headed for Hebron. Potential problems were identified and mapped in advance, with simulated scenarios enacted with actors. When the soldiers reached Hebron, they fell into all the pitfalls that were marked in advance, including difficulty in exercising authority over extremist settlers and getting caught up in incidents involving the cameras of human rights activists from B’Tselem.
This organization released a video this week, showing the reality seen from the Palestinian side and was documented by Palestinian photographers in Qusra. In the video, filmed on Monday in the village of Ureif near Nablus, settlers are seen casting stones at villagers. Soldiers accompanying the setters do not intervene. Only when the Palestinians start throwing stones too do the soldiers react by using tear gas against them. In many cases (over the years many of these were documented near Yitzhar) soldiers accompany settlers as they rampage through Palestinian villages, in stark contrast to declared army policies, claiming to maintain law and order throughout the territories. Sometimes the settlers go by themselves and get into trouble and the army has to show up and extricate them.
As expected, the hilltop youth drew different conclusions from the Qusra incident. In most cases they roam around without weapons, since most of them are known to the security services and can’t get a permit to carry guns. In many photos of past incidents, armed settlers can be seen in Palestinian villages with fake guns. This week, while promising to avenge their humiliation in Qusra, there was talk of acquiring real guns. What begins as just talk about self defense may end up in much worse scenarios.
This small and ugly local picture of undying hatred between settlers and their neighboring villagers cannot be separated from the larger political scene. When the police and security services investigated cases of Jewish terror during the Second Intifada they concluded that these incidents stemmed from two main factors. One was a wish for revenge and deterrence after the murder of settlers, and the second was a concern about their evacuation as part of a political settlement. As long as John Kerry’s political initiative shows signs of progress, with increasing talk of the evacuation of settlements, tensions in the West Bank will rise along with the risk of terrorist acts committed by Jews in addition to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.