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ToI investigates

Settler attacks on Palestinians are on the rise, but justice remains elusive

Violent assaults against Palestinians in the West Bank went up by nearly 50 percent over the past year, but arrests and indictments remain scant in all but the most extreme cases

Israelis descend a hillside during an alleged assault on Palestinians and left-wing Israeli activists near the Bat Ayin outpost in the West Bank, on November 12, 2021 (Credit: Shai Kendler)
Israelis descend a hillside during an alleged assault on Palestinians and left-wing Israeli activists near the Bat Ayin outpost in the West Bank, on November 12, 2021 (Credit: Shai Kendler)

AL-MUFAQARA, West Bank — A hail of stones cut through the afternoon calm in the tiny West Bank hamlet of al-Mufaqara on a Saturday in late September. As children who had been playing outside scurried for cover behind the walls of houses, a group of masked Israeli assailants stormed into the South Hebron Hills village, hurling stones at Palestinians and then at their homes.

By the time the attack was over, at least 12 Palestinians needed medical treatment. Any remaining sense of security previously felt by the villagers was gone.

“It was insanity. There wasn’t a window in the village that hadn’t been smashed to pieces,” recalled resident Mahmoud Hamamdeh.

According to Palestinian and Israeli witnesses, the violence began when a group of Israelis attacked a Palestinian herder near the village, stabbing several of his sheep. Palestinians arrived on the scene to confront the Israelis, some of whom were armed; some Palestinians hurled stones at them. From there, the scene devolved into chaos, with Israelis smashing solar panels and overturning a car inside the hamlet.

Dozens of Jewish Israelis appear to have participated in the mob violence, which Palestinians in the area called the most extreme incident they had seen in years. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned the attack as “terror.”

But in the aftermath, only two Israelis were charged for their involvement in the assault.

Among those hurt was Hamamdeh’s grandson Mohammad, 3, who was hit in the head by a stone allegedly hurled by an Israeli into his house. He was rushed to an Israeli hospital in Beersheba for treatment; according to witnesses, the attacking Israeli extremists hurled stones at the ambulance that sought to evacuate him as well.

Doctors have told the family that Mohammad might yet face long-term cognitive damage following the direct impact on his young skull.

“Two were charged? How can that be? There were dozens of settlers who attacked us on that day! Tell the world that ‘justice’ in Israel is going in the wrong direction,” fumed Hamamdeh during a phone call after the charges were announced.

Rising tide of violence

Security officials say that this year has seen a drastic spike in violence by Jewish extremists in the West Bank. In 2020, the Shin Bet registered 272 violent incidents in the disputed territory; so far in 2021, the domestic security agency has recorded 397, with two weeks still to go before year’s end.

The incidents flicker past in news reports and police blotters. The same towns are mentioned again and again: Burin, Burqa, Kafr Malik, Huwarra, al-Tuwani. Few arrests are made, and the tension never seems to lower.

According to statistics compiled by the Yesh Din rights group, which tracks Jewish nationalist violence in the West Bank, 91 percent of police investigations into attacks by Israelis on Palestinians between 2005 and 2019 were closed without indictments.

Mohammad Bakr Hussein, 3, allegedly wounded by stones thrown by Israeli settlers in the south Hebron hills, on Tuesday, September 28, 2021. (Courtesy)

Jewish extremists made the months of September and October particularly fraught. That is when hundreds of Palestinian farmers across the West Bank harvest olives in groves outside the boundaries of their villages, often on land close to Israeli settlements or illegal outposts.

The violence is often perpetrated by so-called “hilltop youth,” young Jewish ultra-nationalists who reside in unauthorized settlements and their ideological brethren. Some are not West Bank settlers — but rather young Israelis from inside the country who have fallen through the cracks and become radicalized.

“They’re not all settlers or the children of settlers. There are many who come from inside the Green Line,” said Dvir Kariv, a former Shin Bet commander who specialized in tracking Jewish terror. “Many have problems at home, they struggle academically, and they drop out of whatever school or framework they were in — and get caught up on the hilltops.”

With some of the more extremist Jewish outposts only a few hundred meters from Palestinian groves, settler “gangs” can attack with speed and hope to get away with it, said retired major-general Eitan Dangot, currently a fellow at the MirYam Institute, a public policy think tank.

“It’s the closeness, above all else: we’re talking about 30 seconds, a minute’s distance. If you’re not properly prepared with units in the area, you won’t be able to deal with it. And that same closeness allows them to strike and then vanish,” said Dangot, who served as Israel’s liaison to the Palestinians, a post widely known by its acronym COGAT, between 2012 and 2014.

Palestinians collect olives from a tree during the annual harvest season, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on October 23, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The Israel Police says the number of incidents is decreasing by the year even as indictments go up. According to official police figures, from 2019 to 2021 there has been a 61.1% drop in so-called “price tag” attacks, in which extremist settlers assault Palestinians or vandalize their property in response to Israeli authorities taking action against them. They also say that the number of indictments of Jewish extremists has doubled from 16 to 32 over the past year.

The Shin Bet and the Defense Ministry disagree with that relatively sunny picture. A senior Israeli defense official who spoke to The Times of Israel emphasized that matters were deteriorating and extremists were becoming emboldened.

“Over the past few weeks and months, we have seen that [they] are growing in strength and entrenching themselves,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

‘Whoever talks, gets punished’

One explanation for the discrepancy is that Palestinians often do not file formal complaints with police. The prevailing attitude is that such cases are unlikely to go anywhere, given the low rate of indictments against Israelis, even when the incidents are filmed and recorded.

Palestinians also say they fear going to the police; rumors prevail that Palestinians who report being attacked will no longer be permitted to work in Israel. The Shin Bet denies the claim, but Palestinians say that the fear of losing the prized permits has a chilling effect anyway.

Ahmad, a Palestinian from Huwarra who works in Israel, said a group of masked Israelis from a nearby settlement attacked him not far from his hometown in late October, putting him in the hospital.

“We were maybe five. They came down by the dozens from near Yitzhar. The army just watched us from a nearby hilltop,” said Ahmad.

Describing the incident, and showing photos to back up his account, Ahmad asked that he not be identified publicly for fear of retribution.

“Whatever you do, don’t put my full name — otherwise they’ll take away my permit. It’s well known that they do this. Whoever talks, gets punished,” he said as The Times of Israel wrapped up an interview at his home on a rainy November day.

Other Palestinians, such as Burin farmer Emad Zaban, say they filed complaints with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which is charged with forwarding claims to Israeli authorities.

Zaban says settlers have repeatedly torched his olive groves. But when they followed up with Israeli police, officers said the complaints had never been passed on to them.

“In some ways, it was better when we had the Village Leagues,” said Zaban, referring to a period when Israel exercised direct military rule over the West Bank, before the Palestinian Authority was created in the 1990s. “Now, we have a powerless Authority in the middle, which can’t protect us. Where does that leave us?”

‘Root them out’

Attacks by Jewish extremists against Palestinians in the West Bank, particularly during the yearly olive harvest, have continued unabated for years. Government officials have occasionally condemned the violence, but promises to crack down have rarely been followed by any concerted action to arrest and prosecute suspected perpetrators.

The new government — a tangled coalition of leftists, centrists, settler advocates, and Islamists — has sent contradictory signals as to its readiness to tackle the phenomenon.

The coalition’s center and left have said they will move forcefully to crack down on the extremist violence, but its right has angrily criticized their statements as overblown. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a long-time supporter of settlements, formerly served as the director-general of the Yesha Council, an umbrella body of Jewish local leaders in the West Bank.

But in a rare move, Defense Minister Benny Gantz convened a meeting of senior security officials — including police commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar in late November to discuss the recent spate of attacks.

Gantz’s statement following the meeting sought an elusive middle ground. He condemned “hate crimes,” but never mentioned the words “Israelis,” “Jews” or “Palestinians.”

“What starts with a tree can end with bodily harm or — heaven forbid — loss of life. Hate crimes are the root from which terror grows and we need to root them out,” Gantz said.

Although the West Bank is the Israeli police’s largest division, it has the fewest stations. According to the official, the police have asked for more manpower and resources in the West Bank to deal with the problem. Special Israeli military task forces are also being established to take on nationalistic Jewish violence, the official said.

The official added that most settlers did not support the acts of violence.

“The vast majority of this community does not act violently, and they understand the reasoning for co-existence and for maintaining calm,” they said.

Settler leader Oded Revivi, who heads the Efrat Regional Council, emphasized that the violence was done by a marginal few, and said it was far outstripped by Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis.

Revivi said he hoped law enforcement would crack down to end the phenomenon. But he added that increasing enforcement was only part of the solution.

“In the past, there were educational frameworks, there were therapeutic frameworks. Social workers and counselors were present on the ground,” Revivi said.

“There were years that the Israeli government worked to deal with the welfare and education of these people. It allocated budgets for it. But over the past one and a half to two years, that funding has totally vanished,” Revivi added.

This week, the controversy erupted again: Public Security Minister Omer Barlev from the center-left Labor party elicited a fierce backlash when he announced that he had discussed “settler violence” with a visiting American official.

On Tuesday, Bennett rebuked his coalition partner — without mentioning him by name — arguing that although “marginal elements” existed among Jews living in the West Bank, “we must not generalize about an entire community.”

“The settlers are the salt of the earth,” hard-right Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked wrote on Twitter. “The violence that one needs to be shocked by is the dozens of cases of the throwing of rocks and Molotov cocktails at Jews that occur every day, just because they are Jews.”

Nonetheless, the senior Israeli defense official stressed to The Times of Israel that the current Israeli government takes the apparent rise in Jewish Israeli violence seriously. The actions of extremists can damage Israel’s standing abroad, exacting a stiff diplomatic price, the official argued.

“We are convinced — there is no argument at all — that anyone who hurts a civilian who does not pose a threat is acting immorally, illegally and in a way that can ignite regional violence — as well as hurting Israel abroad, vis-à-vis friendly countries, especially the United States and Europe,” the official said.

‘Legitimacy to kill’

While a few of the most violent incidents in recent months have led to arrests and indictments, most of those who participated in what were apparently mass attacks remain at large.

In early November, around twenty Jewish Israelis descended a hilltop near the settlement of Bat Ayin and attacked Palestinians and left-wing Israeli activists who had come to pick olives, according to police and witnesses.

As masked men and teenagers gathered on a nearby hilltop, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who was among the Israelis helping the Palestinians, called the military and warned them that the group might soon be attacked. But security forces did not show up until after the assault began, said Ascherman, a prominent human rights activist.

Left-wing activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman after an alleged attack by Israeli settlers near the West Bank settlement of Bat Ayin, on Friday, November 12, 2021 (Credit: Shai Kendler)

The masked assailants — allegedly Israeli extremists — came down the hillside armed with clubs, hurling stones at the group, witnesses said. The Bat Ayin security coordinator — a town resident responsible for security inside the settlement — can be seen in photos from the scene, observing the incident from the top of the hill while armed with a rifle.

After the assailants began to throw stones at the Palestinian olive harvesters, two broke off and headed for Neta Ben-Porat, an Israeli woman who had begun filming them. One of them approached her, brandishing a club, she said.

“For a moment, he paused. Then he slammed into my head with his club. Then into my leg. Even as I was bleeding, they kept beating me. After that, I don’t have memories of the attack,” said Ben-Porat, who was one of at least two Israelis beaten during the attack, according to prosecutors and witnesses.

“I didn’t speak to them, or provoke them, I didn’t have a weapon. I’m an Israeli, I’m Jewish, I’m a woman — I didn’t think they would do anything to me,” said Ben-Porat.

Two police jeeps showed up several minutes later. But officers waited for two minutes, at which point most of the crowd had dispersed, before exiting the vehicles, left-wing Jewish activist Gil Hammerschlag said.

Out of the twenty Israelis who police say participated in the assault, only one — one of the two men who attacked Ben-Porat — has been charged. Prosecutors identified him as a 19-year-old Israeli from Kiryat Ekron, in central Israel.

Three Palestinians were later arrested for throwing stones during the melee, although Ben-Porat and other activists said that they only began to hurl stones once the attack began.

A military judge agreed and ordered their release after several days in jail. No Israeli stone-throwers were charged.

“It feels like they’ve been given the legitimacy to kill. There’s no other way to put it,” said Ben-Porat in evident frustration.

Masked Israelis descend a hilltop during an alleged assault on Palestinians and left-wing Israeli activists near the Palestinian village of Surif, which borders the Israeli settlement of Bat Ayin, on November 12, 2021 (Credit: Shai Kendler)

“If we’d been Palestinians, of course, would they have even brought any charges at all? We all know that the answer is no,” she said.

Standing by?

The footage has become so ubiquitous, so quotidian, as to almost cease to be newsworthy: Green-uniformed Israeli soldiers idling as masked figures nearby — often wearing the distinctive fringed garments mandated by Jewish law — hurl stones at Palestinian homes.

During the attack in al-Mufaqara, Israeli soldiers could be seen in the distance, watching as Israelis hurled stones into houses and at cars in the tiny shepherding village. In Burin, soldiers stood by as masked Israelis set swathes of farmland ablaze.

In response, the Israeli army often argues that the clips circulating on social media are misleadingly edited.

“I can say this from experience: those clips don’t always reflect the full story. They don’t show what happened during the incident as a whole. When you film a small clip, you see that the soldier doesn’t respond — but perhaps he’s waiting for reinforcements,” argued Dangot.

But even though Israeli soldiers regularly film violent incidents in the West Bank for internal use, the military rarely releases footage to back up its side of the story.

And no one disputes that most of those involved in the incidents evade arrest. If police do eventually open a case, it is often closed due to the inability to identify suspects or due to what authorities say is a lack of evidence that a crime was committed.

Former army officers say the problem of soldiers and police standing by during attacks is real. According to retired major-general Nitzan Alon, the phenomenon flows from a basic dissonance in the troops’ mission.

“The fundamental identity of soldiers is that they are there to protect Jews and Israeli citizens against Palestinian terror attacks. They don’t see themselves as a force of law and order to enforce the rule of law for all the communities in the area,” said Alon, who oversaw the Israeli military’s West Bank command from 2012 to 2015.

With many Israeli perpetrators still at large, the Israeli army has a policy of “coordinating” Palestinian access to their groves. On a few days scheduled well in advance, Palestinians arrive to harvest under the watchful eye of Israeli soldiers, who are there to protect Palestinians from assaults.

“In general, I prefer to go with coordination, so that I’ll feel safe and secure,” said Zaban, the farmer from Burin.

This year, Zaban’s “coordination day” fell in early October — far too early for his olives to be ripe. But feeling that he had no other choice, he elected to harvest anyway. The olives, picked well ahead of their time, yielded almost no oil, Zaban said.

“I took massive losses this year,” he lamented.

In another recent incident, soldiers accompanied dozens of settlers into a playground inside the Palestinian village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills. According to left-wing Israeli activists on the scene, the settlers ejected the Palestinian children who were in the playground.

Soldiers escorted the Israelis along without a struggle. The settlers milled about in the playground, surrounded by the army. They remained in the playground for around a half-hour before they were told to head home, according to witnesses.

An Israeli soldier stands by as Israeli settlers enter a Palestinian playground in Susiya, a Palestinian hamlet in the West Bank, on Saturday, November 6, 2021 (Credit: Guy Butuvia)

The army said the clips and photographs were “not reflective of how the incident unfolded.” Local Israeli settlers blamed “anarchist leftists,” who they said had incited the Palestinians against them.

In al-Mufaqara, Mahmoud Hussein saw little reason to be optimistic. His family had been told that his grandson Mohammad might suffer long-term cognitive difficulties because of the bleeding in his brain, from where the rock struck him.

“The army is always with the settlers. Otherwise, they would have tracked down the dozens who attacked us,” Hussein said. “When it’s a government of settlers, what would you expect?”

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