RAMALLAH, West Bank -- A video of a Jewish settler kneeling to fire his pistol at dozens of rock-throwing Palestinians was one of dozens of cases presented by human rights groups and United Nations agencies Wednesday in a report that documents a sharp increase in violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank.
The number of attacks by settlers against Palestinians has risen by about 150 percent each year since 2008, with 154 attacks in the first half of this year alone, said Matthias Behnke, who’s with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“There is an issue with accountability in settler violence,” Behnke said. Noting the cases of settlers opening fire on Palestinians, he added, “This isn’t vigilante justice. I would call it criminal behavior.”
The rise in violence – occurring amid a rapid expansion of the Israeli settler population – comes just days after an Israeli government-appointed panel declared that “there is no occupation of the West Bank” and contended that the settlements are legal. Currently, more then 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land that the Palestinians claim is earmarked for their future state.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn into office in March 2009, the Jewish population in the West Bank has grown by 18 percent, according to Israel’s Interior Ministry. The growth is driven both by Israelis moving to the settlements and high birth rates among the settler population.
Many international groups identify Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, and continuing expansion of the settlements, as a key hurdle to peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Within Israel, however, support of the settlements remains strong. The government-appointed Levy Committee’s findings this week – while not binding – could act as cover for sweeping acts of legalization of West Bank settlements.
The agencies behind Wednesday’s violence report – including U.N. agencies, the Israeli advocacy group B’Tselem, the Palestinian group Al Haq and the international Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel organization – said settlers rarely were brought to trial for violence against Palestinians. According to Yesh Din, an Israeli group, of the 642 cases of violence Palestinians have reported since 2005, 90 percent were closed because of a failure by Israeli authorities to investigate properly.
Asked to respond to the groups’ findings, the Israeli military said only, “We investigate all complaints.”
The report didn’t cover Palestinian attacks on settlers, which Israeli nongovernmental groups have said are declining steadily.
One video presented Wednesday – shot by a B’Tselem volunteer – showed several hours of clashes in mid-May between Israeli and Palestinian youths in the hills around the northern West Bank city of Nablus. The two groups threw stones at each other and set several fields on fire, although it was unclear which group started the blazes.
In the final scene of the video, an Israeli settler stands amid several Israeli soldiers and border policemen and fires his weapon at the crowd of Palestinians. Fathi Asayira, a 24-year-old Palestinian, was shot in the face but survived.
“Israeli soldiers do not see it as their job or mandate to protect Palestinians. They have the capacity to do so, but lack the willingness,” said Jessica Montell, the director of B’Tselem.
Israeli soldiers often become complicit in the acts of settler violence, added Pauline Nunu, an officer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel. Videos from the southern West Bank city of Hebron show Israeli soldiers standing by as Jewish youths throw rocks at Palestinian children who are walking to school.
In the B’Tselem video shot outside Nablus, soldiers are seen urging the settlers to return to the direction of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar after the shooting.
Witnesses in both areas who spoke to McClatchy verified the scenes captured on video and described them as a regular occurrence. Earlier this year in the Old City of Hebron, McClatchy witnessed several young Israeli settlers throwing garbage and small rocks at shuttered Palestinian homes. The Israeli soldiers who were escorting the settlers at the time didn’t stop or chastise them.
Around Nablus, similar scenes unfolded in May. On several occasions, masked young settlers pelted Palestinians with rocks in full view of Israeli soldiers.
Montell said there were “predictable” areas – such as Hebron and the Nablus hills – in which violence was more likely to occur. Those areas are home to some founders of the “price tag” movement, which promotes attacks on Palestinian sites in retribution for moves that aim to harm or limit the settlements.
“If there was a will on the part of authorities, they could order a presence in those areas and stop the clashes from taking place,” she said.
She said there was a direct link between the expansion of settlements and the increase in violent attacks.
“Violence – as a means of expanding settlements by displacing Palestinians – is a very real thing,” Montell said.