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Violent settlers condemned, but flawed Israeli security system to blame

Nov. 2, 2008 2:51 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 2, 2008 2:51 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - The issue of settler violence in the West Bank will once again be the top item in the Sunday cabinet ministers meeting in Israel; triggered this time by threats and stones flung at Israeli border police and military soldiers evacuating an illegal outpost neat the West Bank city of Hebron.

Israeli reactions to the latest incidents in the mainstream press condemn yet again the uncontrolled violence perpetrated by many West Bank settlers. The public disgust has been ramped up however, since the targets for the most recent violence were both Palestinians and Israeli officers.

Immediately following last week's attacks, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted in the Israeli daily paper Haaretz as saying "We are already working with all our might to restrain and halt these phenomena, with an iron hand if necessary," and indicated that he would support the use of administrative detention to halt settler violence.

The idea of putting an Israeli settler in administrative detention - a measure that allows the legal process to be bypassed in the interest of "public safety" - reaches at the heart of the issue of settler violence and the current situation in the West Bank.

Most obvious is the inability of the Israeli security apparatus to police its citizens in the West Bank. The Israeli police department of "Judea and Samara" (the Israeli term for the West Bank lands) are meant to act as any other police force; to protect, police and maintain control in the settlement communities throughout the West Bank.

According to Communications Director for the Israeli human rights group B'tselem Sarit Michaeli, the police force for the settlements are "unequipped, understaffed, undertrained and underfunded," and are essentially unable to carry out their duties.

Michaeli explained that the poor quality of the Israeli police forces in West Bank settlements means that they rely heavily on the Israeli military troops for support. The Israeli army, however, "will not explain or at the very least will not enforce its' soldiers role in policing settlers; many soldiers believe it is their express duty to protect settlers, and not to police them when they are on duty in Palestinian areas," said Michaeli.

Palestinians are also becoming more and more frustrated as the swelling Palestinian security forces operating in the West Bank are unable to police and protect Palestinians against Israeli settlers. Israel has total security control in areas outside major cities, and towns labeled "Area C." It is in these areas, close to the totally Israeli controlled settlements in which most setter attacks have taken place, so the Palestinian police are powerless.

The billions of dollars, both local and international, that are pumped into both Israeli and Palestinian military and security have not been able to police or secure the always tense and often violent interactions between Israeli settlers and Palestinian citizens.

The absence of law and legal authority in this arena will be further inflamed if Israeli policymakers officially sanction the use of "administrative" (or extra-judicial) measures, including administrative arrest, to buckle down on Israeli settler violence.

Administrative arrest will likely only stay the increasing number of assaults by settlers against Israeli police and military officers. This may help vulnerable Palestinians if they are assaulted in the presence of Israeli officials, but most of the time attacks against Palestinians go unremarked and even unreported.

Officially - and no one has suggested a change to this process - Palestinians who have been assaulted or whose properties have been damaged by an Israeli settler in the West Bank, must submit a formal complaint to the Israeli police offices in the West Bank. Evaluations of the system of formal complaints, even when they involve the death of a Palestinian, have shown that intentional "omissions" have been customary, ill-treatment of Palestinians by Israeli police is common and the legal process is totally disrespected.

In their estimation, B'tselem says Israeli police in the West Bank settlements "are indifferent toward the life, person, and property of Palestinians."

Supra-legal measures like administrative detention, moreover, cannot be more than a temporary measure; removing violent individuals from the public sphere for a few months at a time. Barak has suggested that violent settlers be banned from entering the West Bank entirely if the illegal behavior keeps up.

While talk on how to treat violent settlers seems to be eerily echoing Israeli policies on the treatment of Palestinians - removing individuals from their homes, superseding the justice system in the interest of "public security," curtailing freedom of movement etc. - the non-existent system of security for all of the residents of the West Bank is not equalizing.

The EU released a statement Friday saying that it "once again condemns in the strongest possible terms" the recent settler violence in the West Bank, and countless other countries have expressed similar reservations and even condemnations over the continued settlement construction across the West Bank.

All parties recognize that the settlements and settlers will play a key role in peace negotiations with Palestinians. The wave of violence, however, has not focused on a solution for any "final status" for the settlers, but rather on the nature of the settlers themselves, or rather a few specific settler groups.

Israeli court justices, members of the Knesset and peace activists alike have called violent settlers "hooligans," "extremists," "anarchists" and "destabilizers of the state." MK Haim Ramon was quoted as saying "Several hundred unruly Jewish hooligans are running amuck in the Territories, beating IDF officers, breaking bones, and trying to assassinate Professor (Ze'ev) Sternhell. And the government stands before them trembling and helpless, and all the law enforcement agencies explain why nothing can be done against them. I am convinced that if these were Palestinians, they would all be behind bars by now."

By focusing on violent individuals rather than on the systematically flawed policing and justice system in the settlements in West Bank, the issue of the settlements and Palestinian autonomy is again shuffled to the sidelines.

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