Concerns over rising settler violence in the West Bank
“These trees are holy to me. They’re so old you can’t put a value on them,” says Nidam Qaraweq, a Palestinian olive farmer from the West Bank village of Awarta.
He pokes at the blackened, and gnarled trunks which are hundreds of years old. A large piece of what is now charcoal breaks off in his hand.
“They’re all dead,” he says angrily.
Last month, around 20 of Mr Qaraweq’s olive trees were destroyed by fire.
He says Jewish settlers from the adjacent settlement of Itamar deliberately set his fields alight in an arson attack.
Some of Mr Qaraweq’s other olive groves lie in land that has been taken over by the Itamar settlement as it expanded.
A high metal fence surrounds the settlement and Israeli soldiers patrol the gate denying Palestinians entry.
Mr Qaraweq says the land has been stolen.
Each olive harvest, the Israeli army escorts Palestinian farmers into Itamar to allow them to pick their olives for a few days.
When this happened in October, the Palestinian say settlers attacked them with sticks.
Israeli soldiers had to intervene and the Palestinians were forced to leave.
There’s been a big rise in Jewish Settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.
The situation around Awarta is especially tense after two Palestinian teenagers from the village were convicted of murdering a family of five settlers including two children and a baby in March this year.
But the broad picture is that settler violence is on the increase across the West Bank.
The United Nations says the number of attacks by extremist Jewish settlers on Palestinians resulting in either injury or damage to property has roughly tripled since 2009.
The UN says so far in 2011 around 10,000 Palestinian-owned olive trees have been destroyed or damaged in attacks by settlers.
“They’ve made life very difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank,” says Ramesh Rajasingham, Head of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
“You have settler attacks on Palestinian property, on shepherds. In some cases, they attack kids going to school.”
In June this year, I visited a mosque in the Palestinian village of al-Mughriah near Ramallah, which had suffered an arson attack.
Burning tyres had been thrown into the mosque and the walls had been sprayed with graffiti in Hebrew.
The imam told me he believed settlers were almost certainly to blame.
It has been just one of several attacks on mosques in the West Bank this year.
The UN says in 90% of complaints filed to the Israeli police by Palestinians against settlers, nobody is ever indicted.
“For a country such as Israel which has such excellent capacities in terms of rule of law, this level of inaction is really shameful,” says Ramesh Rajasingham.
“If you have this level of impunity, people will free to do it. If people feel they can get away with it then they have all the opportunity to continue such attacks.”
Some attacks by settlers are referred to as “price tagging”.
This is a policy of revenge carried out by Jewish extremists if any action is taken by the Israeli government or security forces against settlement expansion.
Typically price tagging happens after the Israeli authorities move to dismantle settler “outposts”, small Jewish communities build on occupied Palestinian land which even the Israeli government regards as illegal.
Usually it is Palestinians or their property which are attacked in revenge but occasionally action is taken against Israel’s security forces.
In October, an Israeli army patrol was surrounded and assaulted by a group of extremist settlers in the West Bank.
The attack on the soldiers came after a Jewish teenager was arrested on suspicion of carrying out an arson attack on a Palestinian mosque.
In clashes between settlers and Palestinians it is the Israeli army who have to intervene, often using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse stone throwing Palestinian youths.
But some soldiers express frustration at the more extremist settlers.
“Both sides are as stupid as the other,” an exasperated looking Israeli commanding officer told me as his troops stepped in to stop fighting between settlers and Palestinians near Nablus last month.
The man who recently left his post as Israeli army commander of the West Bank, Nitzan Alon, went much further.
Brigadier General Alon said not enough had been done to tackle Jewish extremism referring to price tag attacks as “terror”.
“These acts not only should be condemned for their folly and wrongdoing but we should also have done more to prevent them and to arrest the perpetrators,” he said in his outgoing speech.
However many settler leaders say he is wrong.
“I think that Commander Alon is exaggerating. He’s making a mistake, not being careful with his words,” says David Haivri, a settler and spokesperson for the Shomron Regional Council in the West Bank.
Mr Haivri says Nitzan Alon went too far with his accusations and argues there is not as much tension between settlers and Palestinians as people make out. He says the United Nations figures on settler violence are wrong.
“It seems that so-called human rights organisations are bouncing numbers off each other, building up statistics that don’t reflect what I see in the area where I live. There have been much more tense years than this one,” says Mr Haivri.
Around 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, land that has been occupied by Israel since 1967.
Settlements are illegal under international law although Israel disputes this.
Many settlers believe they have a religious right to the land.
The vast majority of settlers are non-violent but some within the Israeli government acknowledge a growing problem with extremists.
This month, the Israeli Education Minister, Gideon Saar, strongly condemned the “price tag” policy conducted by extremist settlers.
“The price tag gangs that harass innocent people, damage property, attack Israeli soldiers and security forces, burn mosques and terrorise political opponents are a violent and dangerous cancerous growth that must be uprooted,” he said.
Mr Saar was speaking at a memorial service for the former Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo Peace Accords that Mr Rabin had signed with the Palestinians two years earlier.
For Palestinians, settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is an obstacle to peace. They say it makes a future Palestinian state less and less viable.
The United States, the European Union and virtually the entire international community feels the same.
The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to return to peace talks with Israel until settlement expansion stops completely.
The Israeli government disagrees with his position and says settlement growth is a symptom of the Palestinians’ refusal to engage in talks.
The survival of the right wing coalition government is, at least to some extent, dependent on political parties that draw much of their support from people who favour settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian territory.
But if ever there is to be a Palestinian state, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders know that tens of thousands of settlers would have to be removed from their homes.
That would not happen easily and the number of settlers and their influence over Israeli government policy is growing by the day.
- Weekly average of settler attacks resulting in Palestinian casualties and property increased by 40% in 2011 compared to 2010, and by over 165% compared to 2009
- In 2011, three Palestinians have been killed and 167 injured by Israeli settlers
- One Palestinian has been killed and 101 others injured by Israeli soldiers during clashes with settlers in 2011
- Eight Israeli settlers have been killed and 30 injured by Palestinians in 2011. In the same period in 2010, five were killed and 43 injured