Violence between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank appears to be worsening, say UN agencies, NGOs, and the Israeli and Palestinian communities living there.
An increased number of Palestinian civilians have been injured and had property or land damaged in incidents involving Israeli settlers living in the West Bank since the start of 2011, reports the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Meanwhile, a systematic lack of law enforcement against settlers by Israeli authorities is being reported by Israeli and Palestinian NGOs and Palestinian victims.
Israeli NGO Yesh-Din says nine out 10 investigations of Israeli attacks against Palestinians are closed, with no indictment served, according to a 16 February data sheet on its monitoring of police investigations of a variety of offences.
However, only a fraction of the actual number of incidents are reported, says Yesh Din, as many Palestinians do not feel comfortable dealing with the Israeli police.
Five settler-related incidents in the West Bank resulted in Palestinian injury and property damage on 9-15 February, according to OCHA, including a 17-year-old boy who was allegedly shot by Israelis settlers from a neighbouring outpost while walking from his farm to his home in Jalud village, Nablus Governorate.
Since the beginning of 2011, settlers have killed two Palestinian teenage boys and injured another 14 in various incidents, says OCHA.
Wael Toubasy, a 16-year-old high school student from Jalud, told IRIN that when he and his brother Shadi, 19, were returning from farming his family’s olive groves on 15 February, three male Israeli settlers from neighbouring Kida outpost shot Wael in the stomach.
“They were hiding near the road and jumped out and attacked us. All three were armed,” recounts Wael. “I was terrified when they attacked me, but I will return to our farm with courage since their goal is to force us from our land,” he said.
Wael’s father, Mahmoud, filed a complaint with the Israeli police the same day, but he does not expect a response. Mahmoud says he was shot by settlers, also from Kida, in 2001 and attacked again last month while driving his tractor, which was damaged in the incident.
Spokesperson for the Israeli police Micky Rosenfeld was unable to confirm that a complaint had been filed.
Abdullah Tawfiq, mayor of Jalud for 15 years, said his community of about 600 residents was suffering from violent settler attacks, mostly from the neighbouring outposts of Kida and Ahiya, both with a population of about 50 and just a few kilometres from Jalud.
“These outposts have confiscated almost 70 percent of Jalud’s agricultural land,” said Tawfiq, which has driven unemployment to nearly 50 percent in this small farming community. He estimates about 500 residents have migrated to larger cities since 2001, due to dwindling farmland and the threat of settler attacks.
“Settler attacks are a strategy to stop our demonstrations asking for our land back,” said Tawfiq, and “they can be a reaction to the dismantling of an outpost.”
“Settlements” is the term used to denote Israeli civilian communities in territory conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, now called the West Bank by Palestinians and the international community, and known to Israelis as Judea and Samaria.
“Outposts” are settlements built without official Israeli government sanction, typically after the mid-1990's. There are about 100 outposts to date, and many were established with unofficial Israeli government support.
Like many Palestinian villages, Jalud is situated among Israeli settlements. Six outposts and two larger settlements, Shilo and Eli, surround the Jalud area.
Tamara Assraf, spokesperson for the Matah Binyamin Regional Council, comprising 44 Israeli West Bank communities, including 52,000 people, told IRIN the Council had not heard about the attack against Wael, but is aware the police are investigating the incident.
“There is an escalation of violence in the area near Shilo [settlement] in the past weeks between settlers and Palestinians, and the reason is that people from the Palestinian communities have started coming much closer to the houses in the Jewish communities, making them feel threatened, said Assraf.
People here are still afraid from the history of “terror” attacks against settlers in the area, she explained.
“About a month ago the IDF [Israeli army] ruined a few homes near the small outpost, Alei Ayin [near the outpost Esh Kodesh], which started the decline,” said Assraf, adding: “We hope to return to a peaceful coexistence.”
UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory Max Gaylord told IRIN the recent spike in settler violence could be related to the “price-tag” policy.
This pattern of violence, named by Israeli settlers as the “price tag” strategy, emerged during 2008, in which “groups of settlers would exact a `price’ against Palestinians and their property in response to attempts by the Israeli authorities to dismantle `unauthorized’ settlement outposts,” according to OCHA.
When linked to the Israeli occupation, settler violence can be a mechanism of displacement, said Gaylord, and “the pattern of bringing settlers to justice is not reassuring.”
“The main violent activity in this area is Palestinian terrorism that targets civilians,” said Dani Dayon, chairman of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. “Civilians [Israelis] should not retaliate themselves to the incidents in the Shilo [settlement] area,” he said.
About 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, and 200,000 in East Jerusalem, according to UN estimates. Both areas are regarded as part of occupied Palestinian territory.
Dual system of law
Sarit Michaeli, spokesperson for Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, said there is a dual system of law in the occupied territory.
“Palestinians are under Israeli military rule and Israeli settlers are under Israeli’s civilian court system, which provides benefits and protection,” said Michaeli.
Menachem Klein, political scientist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said Israeli society’s perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shifted from a border conflict to an ethnic conflict.
“The land grab is an expression of a greater struggle. The settlers want the Jewish people to own the land and to limit the Arab/Palestinian presence,” said Klein.
“The current Israeli government is the result of society’s shift towards an ethnocentric state,” he said.
Israel’s February 2009 legislative council elections led to a coalition agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and far-right Yisrael Beitenu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, known to support the settlement movement.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights began monitoring settler violence in the West Bank in 2009, and it remains one of their priorities as lead of the “protection cluster”.
According to OCHA, there were 87 Israeli-settler related incidents leading to Palestinian casualties in 2010, and eight in January 2011; and 240 incidents leading to Palestinian property/land damage in 2010, and 21 in January 2011.
There were 33 Israeli-settler related incidents leading to Israeli casualties in 2010 and one in January 2011; and 83 incidents leading to Israeli property/land damage in 2010 and none in January 2011.
In this month’s spike, OCHA has documented seven settler-related incidents between February 16-22, resulting in the injury of two Palestinians and damage to property - typically olive trees - on which many households depend for income. Israeli settlers also entered Burin village in Nablus governorate and stoned Palestinian-plated vehicles, setting one on fire.
The Israeli police were unable to verify these figures upon IRIN’s request.
Spokesperson Assraf of the Matah Binyamin Regional Council said she was unaware of the destruction of any trees.