Tensions are rising following the death of a Palestinian in Israeli prison and a settler attack on a Palestinian village, which took place despite the fact that IDF soldiers were on the scene. Indifference to the Palestinian issue and lack of progress on the ground are building up frustration and anger among Palestinians.
This weekend saw a series of confrontations between Palestinians, soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories. Hundreds of Palestinians confronted soldiers in Beitunia (near Ofer prison), in several places near Road 60, in Hebron and near the village of Qusra, where at least two people were reportedly shot by settlers from a nearby Jewish outpost.
These protests are still much smaller than the ones that took place in the first Intifada and the first few weeks of the second Intifada, but their frequency is unique, and it suggests not only a growing frustration with the status quo but also a certain willingness by the Palestinian Authority to challenge the occupation on the ground – something Ramallah avoided in the last five or six years. The Palestinians are absent from the political debate in Israel and the planned visit by President Obama next month is not expected to lead to any breakthroughs in their situation – hence the Palestinian incentive to remind the world that they cannot be ignored.
Much of the protest is focused on the prisoner issue and the hunger strike of four Palestinians, two of whom were released in the Shalit deal only to be arrested again by Israel on minor charges. One prisoner was reportedly arrested for traveling to a nearby village, the other for joining a political organization which is recognized by Israel. Eight-hundred prisoners took part in a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with the four last week.
Yesterday, a young Palestinian man named Arafat Jaradat who was suspected of stone throwing, died in Israeli prison under unclear circumstances. Reports in the Israeli media claimed that the prisoner collapsed after his meal (he wasn’t on hunger strike) but Palestinian sources claimed that his health deteriorated during or following an interrogation. The investigation of the death was transferred from the prison service to an external unit, and a Palestinian doctor, Saber Aloul from Al-Kuds University, was participating in the autopsy.
This morning, 4,500 Palestinian prisoners returned their meals as part of a hunger strike in protest of his death. Palestinian factions in Gaza held an urgent meeting Sunday morning to discuss their response to Jaradat’s death, according to a BBC journalist.
Less reported but not less important is an increase in settler violence against Palestinians. There are several reports every week on “price tag” attacks by settlers against Palestinians and their property – those usually include torching trees, cars and mosques, spray-painting threatening and insulting graffiti, and violent attacks on civilians.
On Saturday, several armed settlers – some of them with their faces covered – entered a Palestinian plantation near the village of Qusra (in the Nablus region) and confronted local Palestinians, who threw stones at them. The settlers uprooted several olive trees and tried to torched a house. Last week, six of the village’s cars were torched.
A couple of Palestinians were wounded by live ammunition, apparently fired by the settlers. As can be seen in the photos below, soldiers who were present at the site didn’t try to stop the settlers, even those who threatened the Palestinians with their guns.
The settlers came from the outpost “Esh Kodesh” – officially an illegal settlement according to Israeli government documentation, but one which enjoys government support and financing. A spokesperson for Rabbis for Human Rights has confirmed to +972 that the pictures were taken in the plantation area of Qusra, where representatives of RHR participated in planting trees with local farmers a couple of months ago.
As can be clearly seen in the pictures above (and many more from the series that I have received), the soldiers are not even trying to prevent the settlers from confronting the Palestinians – but those same soldiers use force against Palestinians who try to defend themselves against the settlers – the army used rubber coated bullets and tear gas in Qusra yesterday – resulting in a (justified) Palestinian feeling that the army and the settlers are two faces of the same threat.
The settlers claim that the reason for the confrontation this weekend was damage done by Palestinians to their olive grove, yet even if this is true, one should examine the events in the West Bank in the larger context of the occupation. The settlers have the army on their side so they don’t “need” to take the law into their own hands. The Palestinian farmers, on the other hand, have nobody to protect them. The legal authority – the military – views them as the enemy and is actively aiding and protecting the settlers, even when they break Israeli law. This, by the way, is the reason that young Palestinians often throw stones at settlers and soldiers who enter their villages – they view it not just as a form of resistance to the occupation, but as a way to protect their lands and property in a reality where no one else does.
Last year, a settler named Tzi Struck was sentenced to 30 months in prison for kidnapping and abusing a 15-year-old Palestinian from Qusra in July 2007. Struck’s mother, Orit Struck, a settler from Hebron, was elected to the Knesset in the last election as part of Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home list.
And then there is the larger picture: the Esh Kodesh outpost sits on Palestinian land – partly public land and partly private land. Even according to Israel’s distinction between legal and illegal settlements, Esh Kodesh is illegal and should have been removed the same way Israel evacuated villages Palestinians recently tried to construct, or the way Israel destroys homes in the south Hebron Hills every month or so. But like so many outposts, Esh Kodesh has existed since 1999 and it enjoys government support and defense like all other settlements. Netanyahu’s government not only refuses to take actions against the outposts, except when it is forced to do so by the Supreme Court, it also created a legal panel to help it to avoid future evacuations.
Most of the people – who live or work in the West Bank – whom I’ve spoken to recently still think the chances of events escalating into a large-scale confrontation are still relatively low. Palestinian society was badly hurt during the second Intifada. Thousands lost their lives, and many more were imprisoned or injured. The civilian infrastructure took years to rebuild. While still feeling the pressure of the occupation, many Palestinians do not seem eager to welcome the chaos that another round of violence might bring into their lives. The problem is that during periods in which there are no direct confrontations in the West Bank, the Israeli government feels no urgency to end the occupation, and the international community believes “the problem is contained,” thus leaving the Palestinians no options other than more active resistance.
UPDATE: Rabbis for Human Rights and Yesh Din have sent an urgent letter to the army’s regional commander and to the West Bank’s police demanding that the people of Qusra be protected from the violence of the settlers, in accordance with the duties of the military force during occupation.