US ‘deeply concerned’ by settler attack on consulate staff

State Department says Israeli authorities acknowledge ‘seriousness of the incident,’ denies security personnel drew weapons

File photo: Vandalized olive trees with the outpost of Adei Ad in the background, January 2012. (Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)
File photo: Vandalized olive trees with the outpost of Adei Ad in the background, January 2012. (Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

US authorities said Friday they were “deeply concerned” about an incident in which settlers pelted a US diplomatic convoy with stones.

Jerusalem consulate personnel were attacked Friday when they visited the West Bank to investigate a complaint by Palestinian farmers over vandalism of olive trees. Light damage was caused to consulate cars.

State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said no one was hurt and the American security team had not drawn their weapons. Earlier reports had indicated that American security staff had done so; settlers were quoted saying the security personnel had drawn an M-16 and a pistol.

“We can confirm a vehicle from the Consulate General was pelted with stones and confronted by a group of armed settlers today in the West Bank, near the Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya,” he said.

“Our personnel were in the area looking into reports that settlers had uprooted some 5,000 olive tree saplings in that area in recent days,” he said, adding that the visit had been cancelled after the attack.

“We are working with Israeli authorities in their investigation of the incident, including by offering to provide video footage taken during the incident,” he said. “We take the safety and security of US personnel very seriously. The Israeli authorities have also communicated to us that they acknowledge the seriousness of the incident and are looking to apprehend and take appropriate action against those responsible.”

An Israeli police spokeswoman confirmed the incident.

“According to initial findings, settlers threw stones at the US consular vehicles near the Adei Ad illegal settlement, close to the Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya,” she said.

She said the US diplomats’ mission had not been coordinated with Israeli security forces, and had been to assess “damage caused by acts of vandalism in an olive orchard of Turmus Ayya.”

Palestinians in the area have complained that settlers uprooted saplings planted on land recovered after a years-long legal battle.

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.

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.

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