Settlers attacked American consular officials Friday during a visit the officials made to the West Bank to investigate claims of damage to Palestinian agricultural property, Israeli police said.
Several settlers hurled rocks at personnel from Jerusalem’s US Consulate near an illegal West Bank outpost. Initial reports said American security staff drew their weapons; settlers were quoted saying the security personnel had drawn an M-16 and a pistol. The State Department later denied this. The clash ended without injuries, though light damage was caused to consulate cars.
Consulate staff were touring near the Adei Ad outpost, northeast of Ramallah, along with a number of Palestinians from the nearby village of Turmus Ayya. According to Ynet News, villagers said thousands of olive tree saplings in their lands had been uprooted by local settlers in recent days. A number of villagers with US citizenship invited consulate staff to view the damage up close.
When the American visitors arrived and exited their vehicles, a number of settlers pelted them with rocks. This led security guards to draw their weapons, first reports said. The consulate staff promptly left the scene, ending the incident without anyone being hurt. The rocks caused some light damage to consulate cars.
Police confirmed the incident to Ynet, and noted the tour had not been coordinated with Israeli authorities. Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police had opened an inquiry following the filing of an official complaint.
There was no immediate comment from the US Embassy; later, the State Department expressed its concern. US sources confirmed the incident to Ynet and said they were looking into the details in cooperation with Israeli authorities.
Awad Abu Samra, who owns the land in the village of Turmus Ayya where the damage to the olive trees allegedly took place, said he accompanied the officials with two relatives. He described the officials as security personnel who had arrived in the village in advance of a larger party from the American consulate in Jerusalem, which was scheduled to arrive in the village later that afternoon.
“There were six security guards from the consulate riding in two cars,” Abu Samra said. “When they got out of the cars they were attacked by young settlers from the outpost who were carrying clubs and axes. They struck the cars with clubs but the security guards did not respond with their weapons.”
Abu Samra said that after the attack began the American security guards returned to their vehicles and drove away, explaining that they were under strict instructions not to engage the settlers in any way. He said that the planned visit of the additional officials from the consulate was called off after the incident.
The Associated Press reported that it was the first known physical attack by Israelis against diplomatic personnel.
A senior PA official, Ziad Abu Ein, died in a protest in Turmus Ayya against Adei Ad last month. Turmus Ayya residents say the residents of the illegal settlement are encroaching on their lands.
Abu Ein’s death — which Israeli coroners have said was likely caused by a heart attack, but which Palestinians have blamed on soldier violence during the demonstration — caused severe tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Settlers have often been accused of vandalism against Palestinian farmers in the West Bank — particularly of slow-growing olive trees. Palestinians say some settler groups use violence and intimidation to discourage them from working their lands.
Though police investigate such accusations, they rarely end in indictments.
In October 2013, an Israeli NGO accused police of “miserably failing” to protect Palestinian olive groves in the West Bank from vandalism, producing just a handful of indictments in over 200 documented cases of tree destruction over the past nine years.
According to Yesh Din, a human rights watchdog active in the West Bank, out of 211 complaints filed with the Judea and Samaria District police for cases of alleged olive tree vandalism documented by the organization between 2005 and 2013, only four investigations ended in indictment. That, claimed Yesh Din, was a “failure rate” of 97.4 percent, given that the vast majority of cases were closed either due to police’s inability to locate the perpetrators or for “lack of evidence.”
This last October two Israelis were arrested in the West Bank after a group attacked a Palestinian family picking olives at the start of harvest season.
There are some 10 million olive trees in the West Bank and the crop is a critical sector of the Palestinian economy, employing 100,000 workers and raising up to $100 million (70 million euros) each year.
Elhanan Miller and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.