Settlers from flashpoint West Bank settlement said to torch Palestinian field

COGAT changes enforcement policy against illegally dug Palestinians wells, after Israel panned over video showing one serving hamlets not connected to grid being filled with cement

Settlers from Yitzhar walk away from a fire started on fields belonging to the Palestinian village of Burin on July 29, 2023. (Screen capture/Yesh Din)
Settlers from Yitzhar walk away from a fire started on fields belonging to the Palestinian village of Burin on July 29, 2023. (Screen capture/Yesh Din)

Israelis on Saturday descended from the flashpoint northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar and torched fields belonging to the adjacent Palestinian village of Burin, according to the Yesh Din rights group.

Footage shared by the organization showed masked settlers standing on a hilltop as flames and smoke engulfed the fields, before slowly walking back toward the settlement.

No arrests were made, as is largely the case in incidents of settler violence. Indictments are more scarce and convictions are even rarer.

A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces told The Times of Israel that troops had arrived at the area after receiving reports of Palestinians setting fire to tires near Yitzhar and Israeli settlers setting fire to lands near Burin.

“Upon receiving the reports, IDF forces arrived at the scenes and dispersed the gatherings,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Israel Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The alleged arson was the latest incident of apparent settler violence, which has gone largely unchecked for years and frequently takes place on the Jewish Sabbath, when lighting fires and destroying property is prohibited according to the religious laws ostensibly kept by members of the Orthodox settlement and surrounding illegal outposts.

In recent months, there have been several settler rampages in Palestinian towns following deadly terror attacks against Israelis, with two Palestinians killed in unclear circumstances and scores more injured.

The government has pledged to hold the rioting accountable. Two suspects and eight Israelis have been held under administrative detention for their involvement. Hundreds were filmed taking part in the attacks.

Saturday’s incident came three days after Israel came under fire over a separate case in which authorities were filmed filling with cement a well dug by Palestinians to serve villages in the South Hebron Hills not connected to the water grid. Footage of the incident near the al-Hijrah village garnered tens of thousands of shares on social media.

The Civil Administration unit responsible for the enforcement said in a statement that the well had been dug illegally, potentially damaging the natural water resources in the area.

But by Thursday, the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Ghassan Alian issued a directive that every case of enforcement against allegedly illegal construction of water installations will have to be examined based on the merits of the case and receive approval from the head of the Civil Administration unit underneath COGAT.

Israel justifies its enforcement against wells such as the one in the South Hebron Hills by citing water agreements that were signed with the Palestinians in the 1995 Oslo Accords.

But Palestinians argue that those agreements were supposed to be in effect for five years and don’t reflect the current reality. While nearly 100 percent of Israelis in Israel proper and the West Bank have running water, only 36% of Palestinians in the West Bank do as well, according to the B’Tselem rights group. Many of those not hooked up to the grid live in Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli civilian and security control.

Israel maintains that it has a right to crack down against illegal Palestinian construction of homes and infrastructure in those areas, while Palestinians point out that they have no choice but to build illegally to account for natural growth since Israel very rarely approves permits for them. Indeed, the Israeli minister now in charge of the Defense Ministry authorities who adjudicate such permits is Bezalel Smotrich, a long-time advocate of annexing Area C.

The Palestinian population size has grown by 75% since the Oslo agreement, yet the amount of water Israel allows the Palestinians to extract remains the same as it was in 1995.

Accordingly, Israelis in Israel proper and the West Bank consume 247 liters of water a day per person, compared to 82.4 liters per day per person by Palestinians in the West Bank. The number is even lower for Palestinian communities not hooked up to the water grid: 26 liters per day per person, according to B’Tselem.

The Oslo Accords granted the Palestinian Authority civilian control over Areas A and B of the West Bank, but these disconnected regions only make up 40% of the territory. Accordingly, the PA cannot develop an efficient water grid to serve its residents in the areas it nominally controls.

Just about any connection between Areas A and B must go through Area C where Israel retains all powers and must consent to any Palestinian drilling for water. The Civil Administration panel that signs off on such projects does not have any Palestinian representation. Even the diameter of the pipes approved for Palestinians is a third of the size of the ones used by Israel.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report

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