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Capturing settlers: Palestinians on guard against Israeli extremism

May 27, 2014 9:50 P.M. (Updated: May 30, 2014 2:21 P.M.)
By: Graham Liddell
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Despite mentions in a recent US report on terrorism, Israeli extremist attacks against Palestinians and their property continue unabated, especially in the West Bank.

With little to no protection from the Israeli army that occupies their territory, Palestinians have on several occasions in 2014 taken matters into their own hands, taking a kind of neighborhood-watch approach to prevent injuries and damage to their property.

On March 28, residents of the village of Lubban al-Sharqiyya caught an Israeli settler trying to steal a mule. A large group of villagers surrounded the settler, and soon negotiated his delivery to Israeli soldiers via Palestinian liaison officers.

Just a few weeks earlier, Palestinians captured a settler as he was destroying olive trees in the village of Talfit, and responded in the same way. These are just two of at least five such incidents reported so far in 2014.

"Palestinians are probably taking matters into their own hands because of the sheer lack of (Israeli) law enforcement," a spokeswoman for the Palestinian human rights organization al-Haq told Ma'an.

She said that Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank were under two different legal systems -- settlers under Israeli civil law and Palestinians under military law.

When settlers attack, Palestinians have to go to an Israeli police station in the nearest settlement or inside Israel to file a complaint, said the spokeswoman, who asked to remain anonymous.

They first need to apply for a permit to do so, she said, citing this as one reason Israeli settler violence often goes unpunished.

Additionally, "if you've just been attacked (by settlers from a given settlement), you probably don't want to then enter that settlement."

According to UN figures, settler attacks have quadrupled over the past eight years.

'Accidental' entry

In the most recent incident of its kind, Palestinians apprehended three armed settlers who rode "provocatively" into the village of Burin on ATVs. After they were detained and delivered to Israeli liaison officers, a Civil Administration spokesperson told Ma'an they had entered the village "accidentally."

"It was agreed to rescue the settlers and take them out," Sapir Mizrahi told Ma'an at the time, confirming that it was considered illegal for them to be there and that they were armed.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld also told Ma'an that the settlers entered the village accidentally, adding that there was no criminal investigation open regarding the incident.

It is doubtful the officials would have made the same remarks had the scenario unfolded in reverse -- if three Palestinian villagers happened to "accidentally" enter Israeli territory.

In numerous cases throughout the past year, Palestinians have been shot and sometimes killed upon entering or attempting to enter Israel without a permit.

On March 19, a teenager named Yousef Shawamreh was shot dead by Israeli forces as he passed through a breach in the separation wall. In October, a volunteer policeman shot and killed an undocumented Palestinian worker in central Israel.

Additionally, Palestinians in Gaza are regularly shot on grounds that they approached the border. "The threat is trying to enter Israel," an Israeli army spokeswoman told Ma'an regarding one such case in May.

'Largely unprosecuted'

The latest US State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism said that in 2013, "attacks by extremist Israeli settlers against Palestinian residents, property, and places of worship in the West Bank continued and were largely unprosecuted."

Yesh Din, an Israeli nonprofit organization that monitors Israel's law enforcement in the occupied territories, came to similar conclusions in October.

The organization followed up on 211 cases of settler attacks on agricultural property that were reported to Israeli police between 2005 and 2013.

Of those cases, only four led to an indictment, Yesh Din said.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Washington-based Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center, told Ma'an that Israeli authorities let settler violence go unpunished because the attacks were aligned with the occupation's goals.

"Armed and violent settlers act as the front line of the occupation," Munayyer said.

"Their violence against Palestinians fill gaps in security jurisdictions and intimidate Palestinians in areas where Palestinian security is unable to aid them."

"This acts as yet another concentrating effect on the Palestinian population which continues to be limited to Bantustan-like pockets due to the infrastructure of occupation and the specter of violence from soldiers and settlers alike," he added.

Though police and Israeli officials have pledged to crack down on hate crimes in Israel and Jerusalem in the month leading up to Pope Francis' visit to the region, Munayyer said stopping settler violence would require a fundamental change in policy.

"I think the Israelis would like to avoid a very damaging public relations outcome which would come from a settler attack on a church, of which there have been many for example, while the pope and the eyes of those who follow him are on the Holy Land," Munayyer said.

"Any real crackdown on settler terrorism would require a fundamental change in the Apartheid nature of the security situation in the West Bank created by the Israeli military occupation which privileges one group of people (the settlers) while treating the others (Palestinians) as a lesser people all together."

Rosenfeld, the Israeli police spokesman, told Ma'an that the US report's assertion that Israeli-on-Palestinian violence in the West Bank went mostly unpunished in 2013 "sounds not accurate enough."

Claims that police investigations into incidents of settler violence only lead to an indictment one or two percent of the time are "absolutely incorrect," Rosenfeld said.

He added that in 2013, there were 271 investigations into nationalistically motivated crimes in both Israel and the West Bank.

Some 111 people were arrested and 51 cases led to indictments, Rosenfeld said.

He added that there were "several cases" currently open regarding these kinds of incidents in the West Bank, but did not provide specifics.
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