Nour Samaha (AlJazeera English)
Fadi Quran is little different from any other Palestinian living in the West Bank, where violence from Israeli settlers is part of daily life. Hailing from the town of Al-Bireh, less than one kilometre from the settlement of Psagot, the 23-year-old Master’s degree student has been forced to deal with attacks and harassment for years.
“Settler violence is a daily occurrence,” he told Al Jazeera. On one occasion, he was playing football with friends when they came under fire from settlers with machine guns. In another altercation, settlers threw stones at him while he was driving. Their guns discouraged him from stopping. “I’m telling you my story, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of other cases that are much worse.”
Last week, Quran was arrested after attending a non-violent protest in Hebron which demanded the re-opening of a street in the centre of the city. The Israeli army had made it a settler-only road 11 years previously, despite the presence of Palestinian families still living there.
Following a verbal dispute, Israeli soldiers pepper-sprayed him, beat him, arrested him, blindfolded him and took him to an interrogation centre at a nearby settlement. Once there, he discovered the arresting soldiers were actually from one of the area’s settlements.
“I asked where they were from and they told me: ‘Kiryat Arba’,” he said. “One of them then asked me if I knew Baruch Goldstein [an Israeli settler who, in 1994, opened fire inside a mosque in the West Bank, killing 29 and wounding over 125 others]. They said he was a hero and they would do the same thing.”
Quran was charged with attacking ten soldiers. In court a few days later, the judge stated there was no proof that Quran did not attack them. The hearing was postponed until the following day, by which point a video capturing the events leading up to Quran’s arrest had gone viral. After the video was presented to the judge (which clearly showed Quran had not attacked troops), he was released on bail.
Settler violence has been forcing people to significantly change their lives, Quran said: “There are communities who don’t use main roads because they are afraid they will be murdered. Many farmers can’t farm anymore because their lands are being burned or vandalised, so they have to find another job.”
A report published in January by the Washington-based Palestine Center revealed a 39 per cent increase in the number of settler attacks – from stone-throwing to arson and shootings – between 2010 and 2011.
Furthermore, in the five-year period between 2007 and 2011, the occupied West Bank has witnessed a 315 per cent increase in settler attacks – while, over the same period, there has been a 95 per cent decrease in Palestinian violence against Israeli settlements and settlers.
The report found “over 90 per cent of all the Palestinian villages which have experienced multiple instances of Israeli settler violence are in areas which fall under Israeli security jurisdiction”.
The report revealed a geographical shift in violent acts; previously settler violence was concentrated in the southern West Bank city of Hebron and its environs. Over the past few years, the Nablus governorate, in the northern West Bank, has also been on the receiving end of a large proportion of the documented settler violence.
This shift to the north, “where rural villages are predominantly targets, suggested that settlers are exploiting unfettered access to isolated Palestinian villages to perpetrate violence more than ever before”.
‘Open hunting season’
“What we have here is a complete failure to enforce the law and uphold the obligations to protect Palestinians,” Yousef Mounayer, director of the Palestine Center, told Al Jazeera.
“The Israelis really need to uphold their own obligations, otherwise we will continue to see violence and it will be open hunting season for settlers to attack Palestinians.”
International law states that occupying powers have a duty to protect local populations, while maintaining security and ensuring public order.
Issa Amro, a Palestinian from Hebron who heads the Youth Against Settlements activist movement, was forced with his family to leave his home – now designated a “closed military area” – after years of attacks from settlers.
“Every time settlers attack a Palestinian house, they are escorted by the army who protect them,” he explained. “I have filed dozens of cases and complaints, and not one time has anyone gone to court.”
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 90 per cent of monitored complaints filed by Palestinians have been closed without indictment.
“I have death threats against me, and I’ve been attacked many times by settlers,” said Amro. “[The settlers] say to me ‘I hope God erases your name’, and they say this to me in front of the army and the police, who stand by and do nothing.”
‘They are there to protect the settlers’
Ezra Nawi, an Israeli activist who has been working with Palestinians against settler violence for the past decade, said the Israeli military in the West Bank was complicit through inaction.
“Settlers attack Palestinians, but the army has orders preventing them from arresting or stopping them,” he said. “They are simply there to protect the settlers.”
Nawi is no stranger to settler violence, with his work frequently making him a target. He said the attacks “serve the state’s interests”.
“The violence scares the Palestinians into not moving around or using their land for farming and agriculture,” he said.
Further OCHA statistics also state approximately 10,000 Palestinian-owned trees were damaged or destroyed by settlers in 2011, while 139 Palestinians were displaced due to settler attacks.
The UN group also found that “80 communities with a combined population of nearly 250,000 Palestinians are vulnerable to settler violence, including 76,000 who are at high-risk”.
“Every day there are attacks by settlers,” said Amro. “What is new is that they have started burning mosques.”
Sarit Michaeli, spokesperson for B’Tselem, an Israeli group which documents violence in the West Bank, told Al Jazeera that increasing violence was a result of a lack of law enforcement.
“The Israeli authorities have an obligation under international law to protect both settlers and Palestinians,” she said. “While they fulfill their obligation to protect the settlers, with the Palestinians, we see a systematic failure to protect them from attacks.”
“It is worth noting that Palestinians who are arrested by the Israeli army are prosecuted and charged through the military court system, which is very low in terms of protection of their rights, while settlers, if they get arrested, are held and tried in the civilian court system, which offers greater protection of their rights,” she added.
‘It’s actually calmer now’
Yet not everyone agrees with the assertions made. David Ha’ivri, spokesperson for the settlement council covering the northern West Bank region, told Al Jazeera he felt the area “is over-exposed in the media in comparison to other areas in the world”.
“I’ve lived here for many years and we have experienced violence, but that is not the situation currently,” he said. “It is strange that someone is saying that there is an increase, while we’ve experienced a decrease in the violence. It’s actually calmer now than in the past.”
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, reiterated Ha’ivri’s assertion, saying the levels of violence had decreased in the past two years, and that media had a tendency to “inflate and exaggerate things like the price-tag attacks“.
“Life in Judea and Samaria [the Biblical term for the West Bank] is normal,” he told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think violence during the last year has been a crucial problem, not for Jews and not for Arabs.
“Let’s not forget that the numbers provided are actually the other way around,” he added. “There have been at least 12 settlers who were murdered by Arabs in the last 24 months.”
According to B’Tselem statistics 13 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians in the West Bank over the past two years, while four Palestinians were killed by Israeli civilians, and a further 22 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army. In Gaza, 173 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military during the past two years.
Both Ha’ivri and Dayan state the Israeli authorities were doing what was required of them in terms of protecting civilians and arresting perpetrators.
“I don’t think there is less accountability, the state and the police are very serious about enforcing the law on both sides,” said Ha’ivri. “For example, there are individuals in some communities in Samaria who have been arrested, or banished from living in this area.”
“If the Arabs feel there is less accountability then they are not aware of the facts.”
While Dayan agreed the authorities were performing their duties, he acknowledged flaws in the judicial system.
“There are very few indictments, if at all, presented to the courts,” he said. “I do not have an explanation as to why there are so few indictments, and it is not my place to provide an explanation, but it does create problems, leading some to believe one side has a sense of immunity and can get off without punishment.”
“I do know the government and police have a high interest in the public opinion, so I don’t think they lack the motivation,” said Dayan. “It’s not a question of leniency, but maybe one of capability.”
‘They want Palestine’
The analysis of the Palestine Center’s Mounayer focused on causes of settler violence and whether it was responsorial (a reaction to either Palestinian violence and/or Israeli government actions), or structural (a product of demographics and security arrangements).
“What we found actually is that instances of Palestinian violence trigger a decrease in settler violence,” said Mounayer. “Palestinian violence tends to receive an official response from the Israeli army, so in these instances the settlers don’t intervene.
“We also found that some of it is motivated by Israeli government actions, but … it doesn’t necessarily have to be provoked by anything. As settlers can get away with it at any given time, they will continue.
“The message the settlers are receiving is that ‘this is okay, and the state is not going to stop them’.”
B’Tselem’s Michaeli, however, was keen to emphasise that violence was not something the majority of the settler community participated in. “The mainstream leaders in settler politics have denounced these attacks,” she said, adding that settler violence and clashes with local Palestinians dated back to the 1970s.
“Having said that, the settlement community as a whole in an occupied area is violent,” she said, referring to the illegal nature of the expanding settlements in the West Bank, frequently condemned by the international community.
Ha’ivri said that in most cases, when there is violence, it happens as a response to attacks on settlers. “I don’t think it happens on a daily basis. All acts of violence that have occurred are isolated on both sides,” he said. “I don’t think either side is going out and actively looking for targets.”
For Israeli activist Nawi, the motivations of settlers are much more straightforward.
“Most of the settlers are motivated by religious ideas; that the Arabs are unwelcome people and they need to leave,” he said. “It is not an argument you can reason with.”
“They want Palestine.”
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @samahanour