Dispatch

Israeli Settlers Escalate Violence in West Bank

“They will certainly come again,” 21-year-old Asil Eid said. They did.

By , a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.
Palestinians extinguish a fire set by settlers in a field near Burin, West Bank.
Palestinians extinguish a fire in a field near Burin, south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, after Israeli settlers from the settlement of Yitzhar set it ablaze on June 29. Jaafar Ashityeh/AFP/Getty

BURIN, West Bank—Incidents of violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians are increasing in frequency and scope, human rights groups allege, becoming a key part of settlers’ push to take over land in the area it captured during the 1967 war.

Rights groups say settler ties with security forces have become closer and that settlers enjoy relative impunity when they attack Palestinian people and property. According to figures published last month by the left-of-center Haaretz newspaper, there were 363 instances of nationalist crime by Jews against Palestinians in 2019 in the West Bank. That rose to 507 in 2020, and in the first half of 2021 there were already 416 cases.

Burin, south of Nablus, was the site of another large-scale settler attack on Oct. 16, part of which was filmed by the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din. Hooded settlers, some dressed in black and some in white, pelted the Palestinian home closest to their illegal hilltop outpost of Givat Ronen with stones and lit multiple brush fires near it. At first there were about 15 settler assailants. Then, another 15 joined them, according to Yesh Din.

BURIN, West Bank—Incidents of violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians are increasing in frequency and scope, human rights groups allege, becoming a key part of settlers’ push to take over land in the area it captured during the 1967 war.

Rights groups say settler ties with security forces have become closer and that settlers enjoy relative impunity when they attack Palestinian people and property. According to figures published last month by the left-of-center Haaretz newspaper, there were 363 instances of nationalist crime by Jews against Palestinians in 2019 in the West Bank. That rose to 507 in 2020, and in the first half of 2021 there were already 416 cases.

Burin, south of Nablus, was the site of another large-scale settler attack on Oct. 16, part of which was filmed by the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din. Hooded settlers, some dressed in black and some in white, pelted the Palestinian home closest to their illegal hilltop outpost of Givat Ronen with stones and lit multiple brush fires near it. At first there were about 15 settler assailants. Then, another 15 joined them, according to Yesh Din.

Three female members of the Palestinian Eid family, which owns the house, were huddled inside. “I felt very afraid, but when I saw more and more joining I felt more and more afraid,” 21-year-old nursing student Asil Eid, who was with her mother, Isra Eid, 46, and sister Aya Eid, 16, told me in early November. Some 30 Burin residents ran to the scene and threw stones in a bid to protect the house, Asil Eid said.

She said that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who arrived on the scene sided with the settlers and, rather than halting their assault, fired tear gas and stun grenades at the house and at the Palestinians; she showed off the canister of an IDF stun grenade she said was found on her roof.

“Ten soldiers came in the midst of the stone-throwing. There was even more stone-throwing by settlers after the soldiers came. Not one soldier intervened to stop the stone-throwing by settlers,” Asil Eid said. “I saw the soldiers talking to the settlers, and the settlers after that continued throwing stones, and the soldiers didn’t prevent them.”

The Yesh Din video shows billowing flames and smoke from fires lit by settlers, with one settler lighting a brush fire while some of his companions threw stones. An IDF soldier appears to be talking to some of the settlers. At least in the footage in the Yesh Din video, the soldier takes no action to stop the settlers. 

“The state is unofficially a party to settler violence,” said Lior Amihai, executive director of Yesh Din. “It shares the same goal as the settlers, to take over Palestinian land, and that’s why it doesn’t have the will to enforce the law.”

An IDF spokesperson said a military patrol “operated to disperse the crowd gathered, both Israeli and Palestinian” and that when reinforcements arrived Palestinians pelted them with stones, and troops responded with “riot control means.”

Beyond thrown stones, Jamal Qadus, a 56-year-old resident of Burin, said 15 of his olive trees were torched as the fires spread. He, too, said that the soldiers “protected the settlers and fired tear gas at us.” It wasn’t his first brush with trouble last month. He recounted a separate incident from Oct. 4 during which, he said, Yitzhak Levy, the security coordinator from the nearby Yitzhar settlement, called in soldiers and ordered them to evict him, his wife, and daughter from a grove of 40 of his olive trees. 

“‘This is our land,’” he quoted Levy as saying. He said that the soldiers told him “you must go” in Hebrew and Arabic. Levy told Foreign Policy he had no recollection of the incident and directed questions to the IDF, which said it had no information. 

Qadus said that 70 of his approximately 600 olive trees in five locations have been torched or chopped down by settlers in recent weeks during the harvest season. “When we get to our land, we find trees chopped down,” he said.

“The olive tree is a symbol of us, the Palestinians, and the Arabness of the land. That’s why the settlers attack it,” he said.

The founding fathers of the settler movement—and its core leaders to this day—believe that by “redeeming” biblically resonant land in what they call Judea and Samaria that they are facilitating the coming of the messianic age. Most ideological settlers see any emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank as a violation of this divinely ordained process.

Over time, the settlers, backed by successive Israeli governments, became one of the most powerful forces in Israeli society. Only Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister from 1992 until his assassination in 1995 by a pro-settler extremist, dared challenge the ideological settlers, saying their settlements had no strategic value and were a drain on taxpayer money. Under governments headed by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, settlement expansion proceeded at a rapid pace, with Netanyahu and the settler leaders sharing the same goal of forestalling the emergence of a Palestinian state. The government allowed the settlers to break Israeli law and continue living in formally unauthorized wildcat settlement outposts, even connecting them to water and electricity.

With Netanyahu’s ouster and the advent in June of a new government headed by Naftali Bennett, former director-general of the council that leads the settlement movement, the pace of settlement activity is exceeding even that of the Netanyahu period, according to the dovish Peace Now movement. 

On Oct. 27, a military planning council approved close to 3,000 new units, most of them deep in occupied territory. And three wildcat outposts have already been established during the Bennett government’s tenure, apparently with its tacit backing. The Israeli moves flout U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration’s stated opposition to the expansion plan and are a blow to prospects for a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict. 

While the Biden administration is focusing its attention on how much building is going on, the spike in settler violence against Palestinians is making matters even worse and setting Palestinian statehood hopes back even further. Several developments stand out in the latest increase in settler violence: an apparently cozy relationship between settlers and state security forces, seeming impunity for settlers who perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians, and a subtle shift in settler tactics to encompass even more land.

Rights advocates say that security forces appear to be cooperating with the settlers, as in the late October attack in Burin. “We are witnessing one of the highest levels of cooperation between violent settlers and the security forces in all of my 26 years in human rights,” said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, head of the Torat Tzedek human rights group. Ascherman, who travels frequently to the West Bank to help Palestinian farmers, said that he was assaulted 10 times by settlers between January and May. 

The IDF denies charges of collusion. “IDF soldiers and other security forces are constantly working to maintain law and order and to prevent violations by both Palestinians and Israelis,” the IDF spokesperson said.

Rights groups allege that settlement security officers across the West Bank, who are government employees, do not defuse violence when they arrive on the scene of incidents and do not ensure that violent settlers are held and arrested. Yesh Din and other rights groups also paint a picture of impunity for these settlers. From testimony it received, the group verified 540 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians between 2018 and 2021. In 238 of the cases, Palestinians filed complaints. Yet there have only been 12 indictments, according to Yesh Din.

But Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll last week denied there is lawlessness and government complicity with settler violence in the occupied West Bank. “Israel is carrying out its obligation to protect [Palestinian civilians] and definitely respects the law. The one thing we look at is the law. Anyone on either side should be accountable; there is a judicial process,” he said.

Another factor exacerbating tensions is the relatively new settler tactic of taking over larger swaths of territory by establishing ranches, according to Dror Etkes, head of the Kerem Navot settlement watchdog organization, who said about 40 ranches have been set up in the last four years. Though they are technically illegal under Israeli law, Bennett’s government allows them to continue operating. Etkes said that ranchers destroy Palestinian crops and try to make sure that farmers don’t tend to their own farmland.

“Violence is not only integral to what the settlers do, it is necessary,” he said.

Veteran settler leader Daniella Weiss said the wildcat ranches are intended to prevent Palestinians from taking over state land, and she denied there is any problem of settler violence.

“In general violence starts from Arabs. You can see it everywhere. It is not in the nature of [settlers] to start violence,” she said.

Yet the violence has grown more audacious across the West Bank all year. In the central West Bank, near the town of Deir Jarir, on May 30, a group of 35 to 40 settlers smashed car windows of Palestinian farmers as soldiers looked on, according to Abdel Dayem Hammad, one of the farmers who was present. Hammad, who lived in Chicago for 30 years and is a U.S. citizen, said that settlers had grazed sheep on his private land, destroying saplings and trees. 

“I have property in Chicago, but this could never happen there, because there is law. Here there is no justice,” he said.

In late September, settlers targeted an entire village, Mufaqara in the south Hebron hills. On Sept. 28, 4-year-old Mohammed Hamamdi was wounded in the head by one of dozens of masked, stone-throwing settlers, according to his grandfather, Mahmoud Hamamdi. He said that settlers destroyed cars, windows, solar panels, and water cisterns, and threw stones at residents.

Back in Burin, things still look grim. Asil Eid said she doesn’t allow her 12-year-old sister and 4-year-old brother to play outside, for fear of settlers. “When my sister comes home from school, I wait for her on the porch until she reaches the door, because I am worried the settlers will kidnap her,” she told me in early November. “All the time I fear they will come again. They will certainly come again.”

They did. On Nov. 6, at least seven settlers again descended from Givat Ronen toward her house and hurled stones, with IDF soldiers looking on and not intervening, a Palestinian eyewitness said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Some men of the house and neighbors threw stones at the settlers to defend the house, the eyewitness added. Asil Eid’s brother Adil Eid was hit by a stone and suffered a broken arm, according to the eyewitness. The settlers began to pull back up the hill, with Palestinians chasing them. It was only then that the IDF troops sprang into action by firing tear gas at the Palestinians, the eyewitness said. “They defended the settlers,” the eyewitness said.

The IDF spokesperson said there was “mutual rock hurling” and that the initial IDF force was not big enough to deal with the situation. Once reinforcements arrived, “IDF soldiers dispersed the crowd to protect the peace.”

Ben Lynfield is a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He has written for the National, the Independent, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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