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Rising tide of settler violence threatens to overwhelm Israeli government

Sept. 28, 2008 6:40 P.M. (Updated: Sept. 28, 2008 6:40 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - For the third time since August Israeli politicians are worrying about the increase in violence directed towards Palestinians by angry Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank.

Coming at the same time as increased pressure from foreign countries for Israel to stop settlement expansion, and even consider the evacuation of West Bank settlements, the calls for legal or military measures to regain control over "rampaging" settlers have grown louder.

The most recent attacks have shocked Israeli politicians even more than earlier incidents. On Sunday Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested taking a "tougher stance" on settler violence in response to individuals taking the law into their own hands.

Barak was particularly concerned about the increased aggression that settlers were exhibiting towards Israeli soldiers charged with their protection.

According to Israeli media sources, Barak said that even though those who perpetrate violence are documented, they have "rarely been brought to court or tried for their actions, [and] those who are brought before legal authorities are discussed with light penalties."

MK Ramon called Sunday for an emergency meeting to discuss the increase in violence. A second Israeli news source quoted him as saying:

"Several hundred unruly Jewish settlers are running amuck, beating IDF soldiers and attacking the likes of Prof. Ze'ev Sternhell [an Israeli peace activist]. the government is helpless before them and all the law enforcement agencies just say there is nothing that can be done."

The renewed concern came on the same day as Israeli army radio announced the existence of a map delineating the borders of a "final status" Palestinian state. While the map itself has not been revealed, the radio broadcast said it included the evacuation of Israeli settlements in parts of the Jordan Valley and southern Hebron district as well as the Gaza Strip.

In return, Israel would keep three major settlement of Ma'ale Adumim near Jerusalem, Gosh Azion south of Bethlehem, and Ariel in Nablus.

The deal promises Palestinian sovereignty over the Jordan Valley - which is land already recognized as Palestinian - and insists on the three largest settlement blocks (two of which have bread the violent settler movements) remaining as Israeli islands in a Palestinian nation. While the deal is inadequate, and does not mention any exchange of land taken by the large settlements, more importantly, it is beginning to be unclear how Israel will go about delivering sovereignty even in limited areas in the West Bank.

It is clear that Israel either has no control over the citizens it sends into Palestinian areas who lay claim to land for the state, or that the government has no desire to control the violent actions of its citizens. Either case does not bode well for negotiations.

The most recent wave of settler violence included the execution of 18-year-old Palestinian shepherd Yahya Atta Rayahin Bani Minnah, who was shot at least 20 times in the neck, chest and legs. Minnah's body was found on Saturday in an area under the strict control of Israeli forces, and eyewitnesses saw a white car carrying setters stop and chase after the boy shortly before his body was found.

On the same day settlers raided the Palestinian village of Kafr Addik, with much the same results though only 4, rather than ten, Palestinians were injured.

Two weeks earlier 100 settlers from the illegal Yitzhar settlement near the West Bank city of Nablus rampaged through the nearby village of Asira Al-Qibliya, burning cars, destroying Palestinian property, shooting life ammunition in the air and spraying graffiti throughout the area.

In both cases Israeli soldiers did nothing to stop the settlers, and sent shots into the air when Palestinians attempted to leave their homes to defend their property. Again in both cases there was a military curfew put in place by Israeli soldiers as settlers rampaged around the village.

Though some of the attacks have either been nominal or direct responses to Palestinian violence, they are always out of proportion and -more worrying for the Israeli government - out of control.

After attacks and growing unruliness of settlers during August including one which sent a pregnant Palestinian woman and her daughter into hospital, members of the Israeli Knesset called for an increase in military presence around northern and southern settlement blocks. This increase in military presence was meant to help keep settlers in line.

After the second set of shocking attacks in mid-September, MKs called the settlers in the West Bank "anarchists" and "hooligans" and most suggested that those settlers propagating violence against their West Bank neighbors be tried and prosecuted for their crimes.

At the same time MK Haim Ramon proposed his controversial "evacuation-compensation" plan to entice settlers away from West Bank homes for large compensation packages.

What has yet to be seen is whether hardening rhetoric will stand up against the swell of settler violence, and the even more powerful settler voices claiming the right to defend the state when the state itself will not act.

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