By Jared Malsin
Hebron - Ma'an - "They were deeply involved. It was obvious," explained Jamal Abu Sa'ifan of the role Israeli police and military forces played during the settler riots in the aftermath of the evacuation of the "House of Contention" Thursday.
Abu Sa'ifan filmed the now-famous footage of an Israeli settler shooting two of his relatives during the riots. His account of Thursday's violence suggests that not only did Israeli forces fail to prevent the settlers' violent and apparently ethnically-motivated attack on the local population, but in fact facilitated these attacks.
By Sunday, even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had labeled what took place on Thursday a "pogrom" against "innocent Palestinians."
On the day Hebron was set on fire by settlers, however, Olmert released a statement praising his military for a "quick and efficient evacuation."
Olmert also pledged on Thursday that "any attempt by violent elements to attack the Palestinian population and cause unrest in Judea and Samaria [Israel's term for the West Bank] will be met with a sharp and immediate response by the security establishment."
According to witnesses, the response of the Israeli troops in Hebron to settler violence was neither sharp nor immediate. On the contrary, the soldiers actively enabled the settlers in their attacks. The testimony of Palestinians present in Hebron during the riots suggests that Israeli forces in the area were negligent in their failure to stop what now appears to be a coordinated assault on the civilian residents of the neighborhood.
"When they pulled the settlers out of the house, a large number of settlers came down [from the nearby settlement]. I was filming them. I went down to by uncle's house, where settlers shot by cousin and uncle," said Abu Sa'ifan.
"Five minutes later, when my relatives were taken to the hospital, the army came and took all the young [Palestinian] men in the area and put them in one house in the valley," he said, indicating that soldiers wanted to remove individuals most likely to fight against violent setters. "Then the settlers came and set fires. They doused palm leaves in gasoline set fire to them in piles." And few were able to prevent the attacks.
Abu Sa'ifan's house abuts the Kiryat Arba settlement, home to some 7,000 Israeli Jews. Following the evacuation, masked settlers jumped down from the settlement on to the roof of his house, smashing his water tanks, solar panels, and satellite dish, while most of the family took shelter inside. The settlers smashed windows, rained stones on the house, attacked Palestinians with clubs and occasionally shot at them with firearms.
Still imprisoned in one house, the young men of the neighborhood were unable to put out the fires or confront the rampaging settlers. Most of the women were soothing children, though others were outside with the older men of the neighborhood doing their best to dissuade settler youth from torching more homes.
The Israeli soldiers and police in the area stood by during the rampage.
After attacking Abu Sa'ifan's house, the settlers "continued to house after house. They tried to burn four or five other houses. Also they destroyed more water tanks and solar panels." In other words, the settler mob acted systematically, assaulting every Palestinian dwelling in the neighborhood. Settlers across the city joined in the violence.
The riots that took place were expected and militant settlers from the area were prepared to act when the time came. In the settler enclaves in Tel Rumeida and Hebron's old Souq, half of which has been shut down by the Israeli military, settlers poured out of the Israeli-controlled "H2" zone and into the center of metropolitan Hebron, smashing cars, hurling stones, and setting houses ablaze. At that time, witnesses said, the newly deployed Palestinian security forces vanished from the streets.
When Ma'an's reporter and photographer visited Abu Sa'ifan on Saturday, piles of half-burned debris lay around his modest concrete house. The windows were broken. A plastic bottle of gasoline with Hebrew writing had been discarded in the yard. Above the house, settlers peered down through the fence from Kiryat Arba as if observing animals in a zoo.
Thursday's riots were the culmination of two weeks of violence. Abu Sa'ifan said he and the 25 members of his family living in the houses bordering Kiryat Arba have not had a good night's rest in 15 days.
Abu Sa'ifan's house was just one target of a "price-tag" campaign settler groups announced weeks in advance of the evacuation. The premise of this "campaign" was simple: if the Israeli state evacuates just one building containing 250 of the nearly half a million settlers in the West Bank, the settler movement "exacts a price" from the state, rampaging through Hebron and other points in the West Bank.
When Israeli border police and soldiers in riot gear surprised the settlers occupying the Rajabi family house, only a handful were arrested. The rest of the 250 right-wing Israelis were turned loose into Hebron streets. They turned their rage on the Palestinians in the neighborhood.
Many found themselves asking why the settlers were not detained or otherwise separated from the Palestinians in the area after being dragged from the home. Separation of hostile populations only seems logical, especially after weeks of escalating violence by many settler groups in the area. The government must have foreseen the violence.
Officers in the Israeli military Spokesperson's office claimed that the Israeli police made the decision to remove settlers from the Rajabi home and release them into the Hebron area. Police Spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said the decision not to arrest the settlers was made by the military. He added that the police were instructed to remove the settlers "quickly" and with "minimum injuries," there was no mention of arresting settlers. "We accomplished [our] mission," he said.
Later the military Spokesperson responded to Ma'an saying: "The IDF, the Israel Police and the Border Police did the maximum to prevent and contain the riots. Arrests were carried out on the scene before, during and after the removal of the settlers. The majority of the rioters were dispersed."
"It should be noted that the evacuation was completed in less than an hour," the Spokesperson added.
Yet the unanswered questions are legion. Ten days earlier, shortly after the High Court's order to have the settlers evicted, settlers cut through the fence separating them from the Palestinians in the Wadi Hussein neighborhood. When the eviction finally took place the fence was still missing, allowing settlers to leap from the raised settlement wall above the Palestinain neighborhood onto the defenseless Palestinian houses.
The actions of the Israeli security personnel and government officials must be questioned on several fronts. Why did the Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, wait more than two weeks before implementing the court order, allowing the settlers time to prepare? Why were the consciences of the extra 600 Israeli troops deployed for the eviction not stirred by the sight of Jews systematically attacking people for their ethnicity?
The Israeli state, meanwhile, secured the publicity it sought, despite the riots. A photo of an Israeli officer dragging a shrieking settler from the house appeared accompanying the New York Times' staff-written account of the evacuation. The drama communicated to the world is that of the Israeli state boldly confronting its extremists. Only a sentence is devoted to the anti-Palestinian pogrom that was directly caused by the eviction.
What is not mentioned is that the entire conflagration over the "House of Contention" was created by Israel, beginning with the state's acceptance of the militant settler enclaves throughout Hebron, and ending with the very details of how the evacuation was carried out.
***Updated at 00:21 Bethlehem time