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Palestinian night watchmen stand guard in PA's absence

Feb. 22, 2016 10:41 P.M. (Updated: March 13, 2016 11:48 A.M.)
A Palestinian man looks at graffiti scrawled in Hebrew at the entrance to a mosque in the Salfit district on Jan. 15, 2014. (AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh, File)
By: Emily Mulder

QUSRA (Ma'an) -- Every night watchman knows there is a chance they could be killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers, Walid said. The remark brought little reaction from the four men sitting on couches next to him: they had been over this before.

They are residents of Qusra, a village in the northern occupied West Bank. The Israeli military, stationed just kilometers away, has for decades facilitated the wishes of the settler movement, whose illegal and often violent presence in the village has removed any sense of security felt by its Palestinian residents.

Walid works in the Palestinian security sector, but the position is rendered useless once he enters his hometown, designated Area B where security affairs lie entirely under Israeli military control.

The lives of Walid and the men in the room with him embody the failure of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to provide security to Palestinians: they are among the watchmen of Qusra’s night patrol.

Autonomous from the government and unarmed, the group formed an organized system of self-protection against settler attacks that Israeli authorities are complicit with and the PA has no jurisdiction to prevent.

They mark one of nearly 90 Palestinian villages in the West Bank currently implementing nightly patrols.

The formation of now long-running night guard systems in villages and towns across the West Bank marks the inability of the PA to provide security to Palestinians, that analysts say the PA from its inception was never intended to give.

An illegal Israeli settlement lies on the ouskirts of Qusra's farmland. (MaanImages/Emily Mulder)

Addressing the threat

A village of some 5,000 people, Qusra lies around five kilometers from the town of Duma, whose name gained international fame after Jewish extremists carried out an arson attack on a Palestinian home that killed an 18-month-old and his parents last summer.

Driving into Qusra from the north, Palestinian residents skirt around the illegal settlement of Migdalim. To the south lies the Esh Kodesh outpost.

“When they came, they started expanding little by little, closer to the village,” one of the guards, Muataz, explained. Around five years ago farmers began waking up in the morning to find their fields damaged and livestock stolen.

“The people of Esh Kodesh, they don’t just steal our land; they attack farmers, attack families, burn land, steel sheep, and cut olive trees,” Muataz said.

Established in 2000 and never officially recognized by the Israeli government, Esh Kodesh is reported to be home to several ultranationalist Israelis who have made a name for themselves through their oft-violent attempts to displace Palestinians living next to them.

A handful of Esh Kodesh residents have been tried and charged in Israeli courts for so-called “price tag attacks,” but Qusra residents said the settlers carry out attacks freely and without prosecution, often in the presence of armed Israeli forces stationed in the area for the settlers’ protection.

Residents told Ma’an that filing complaints following attacks can lead to punitive reprisals from Israeli authorities, including the revocation of work permits into Israel or increased military presence.

Qusra residents eventually proposed organizing a night patrol in 2011, the same year that settlers set the village mosque on fire following Israel’s demolition of a number of structures in nearby illegal outposts.

A view from the main watchman's building overlooking Palestinian agricultural land in Qusra's southern outskirts, bordered by the illegal Esh Kodesh outpost. (MaanImages/Emily Mulder)

Forming patrols

A small concrete building fortified with metal bars for protection now lies atop a hill overlooking agricultural land and roads skirting across the southern end of the village below Esh Kodesh.

Every night of the week, a guard stations himself inside, waiting for calls and observing the village outskirts for activity.

“It’s a connected system,” Samir, one of the younger men of the patrol explained. “One guard stays in the center while others get in their cars and start moving around the parameters of the village.”

“All of this happens with the help of the neighbors. If they see Israeli settlers on the land, they call the guards, who call the central mosque, which alerts residents that settlers are there. Residents then will go out to the land, men and women,” Samir said.

Qusra made international news in 2014 after the patrol alerted the village of settlers attempting an attack in nearby fields, in what was reported to be a response to the Israeli military’s demolition of a Esh Kodesh agricultural plot earlier in the day.

Residents rushed to the area and captured the settlers, holding them in a farmhouse until Israeli forces arrived.

Watchmen by night, farmers and workers by day, the group of men said their system of protection has likely prevented a number of attacks. But residents are still scared, and unable to turn to the PA for support.

The center of the village of Qusra, located in the occupied West Bank's Nablus district. (MaanImages/Emily Mulder)

PA 'can’t help'

Ghassan Daghlas, a PA official who monitors settler activity in the northern West Bank, estimates 89 West Bank villages regularly implement self-organized night patrol systems.

According to Daghlas, none of the patrols use arms -- Israeli military law that governs the West Bank prohibits Palestinians from owning arms, while Israeli settlers tote them freely -- and most function similarly to Qusra, comprised of a communication chain among residents, linking to the loudspeakers of the village mosque in the event of emergency.

Daghlas told Ma’an that Israeli forces occasionally prevent settler attacks, but for the most part Palestinian villagers are left to fend for themselves.

“The people of the village probably have more of an effect against the settlers than any authority, Palestinian or Israeli,” Muataz said. “[The PA security forces] have zero effect over what’s happening with the settlers.”

“When clashes happen with settlers,” Walid jumped in, “people might call the [PA] police, but police aren’t allowed to move from village to village unless they call the Israeli office for coordination, which of course isn’t going to give them permission to move to protect Palestinians from settlers.”

“[The PA] can give economic help to the village, but not security. They give trees for free to the farmers, or equipment. This is all they can do,” Walid added.

“We really don’t have a full power government,” Said, another member of the night guard, said from the couch, leaning forward.

“The PA can’t do what they want to do. ... It’s not that they don’t want to help. They can’t.

“People in this village and in all of Palestine know that the PA can’t do this. They know that the Israeli soldiers try to make its power even smaller. Like I told you, it’s hard. All of the people know it’s hard for the PA to do anything. The PA’s main role is only to organize civilian life. They can’t do anything against Israeli settlers, or soldiers.”

'Dressing up domination'

Said’s statement -- “we don’t really have a full power government” -- would be considered a bleak understatement for many analysts and critics of the PA today.

The most recent wave of unrest that spread across the occupied Palestinian territory in October ushered along with it a tide of renewed criticism of the PA and its security forces, which many see as working in line with Israel’s interests rather than those of the Palestinian people.

For Alaa Tartir, program director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, the PA security apparatus was slated from the outset to serve Israeli security while being unable to protect its own people.

Initially established through the Oslo Accords, Tartir told Ma’an that the agreements were not about peace, but rather consisted of security arrangements between a powerful body and a powerless one.

“From its inception, the PA was inherently designed -- and its doctrine was dictated -- to mainly address Israeli security needs, the security of Israel as a state, and the security of the Israeli people including those who live in occupied territories.

“The whole Oslo paradigm was framed within an ‘Israeli security first’ approach that forced the occupied to commit to conditions of securing the occupier. This is an expected output for skewed security arrangements that fail to address imbalances of power,” Tartir explained.

“Therefore, as other scholars have also argued, it is not difficult to predict the outcome of the [security] cooperation between an elephant and a fly: dressing up domination as cooperation.”

Over 20 years since Oslo, PA security forces still have no jurisdiction over Area B or C -- over 80 percent of the West Bank -- and continue to appease Israel’s security demands among its own population, Tartir said.

“The PA, as a political organ, is not and will not be able to meet the security needs of the Palestinian people, actually the contrary, especially with the increasing authoritarian trends in its character and practices.

“The inherent limitations of the Oslo Accords and the subsequent structure and mandate of the PA need to be fundamentally altered if the security of Palestine and the Palestinian people is of concern.”

Until then, Palestinians like those in Qusra will continue to be left without any governmental body to provide them security, forced to fend for themselves.

*Some names have been changed following security concerns of those interviewed.
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