|Israeli soldiers tore down signs urging settlers to protest near Nablus on September 20 [Gregg Carlstrom/Al Jazeera]
Huwwara, Occupied West Bank - If there are violent confrontations later this month, as the Palestine Liberation Organisation requests full membership at the United Nations, they might well happen at a place like this, Israeli security analysts say.
The Israeli army checkpoint here, notorious for the abuses committed by soldiers during the second intifada, sits about seven kilometres south of the Palestinian city of Nablus.
About 50 protesters marched to the checkpoint on Tuesday night from Itamar, an illegal West Bank settlement of 1,000 people just to the east. The demonstration dispersed after 15 minutes, though, and none of the protesters tried to walk towards Nablus, an area which is off-limits to them. The Israeli army closed the road to Palestinian traffic during the protest.
“We are here!” one man yelled, waving an Israeli flag. “This is our land.”
The Itamar march, like a small Palestinian protest at Qalandiya checkpoint on Saturday, was small and uneventful. It began at the house of the Fogel family, five of whom were murdered in their home in March; a Palestinian from the nearby village of Awarta pleaded guilty to the murders last month.
Two other peaceful demonstrations took place on Tuesday, one at Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, the other at Beit El, near Ramallah.
But a few kilometres away from Itamar, Israeli settlers from Yitzhar marched to the village of Asira al-Qibiliya, where they threw stones at Palestinians; some of the settlers were armed, and fired their weapons. A local Palestinian journalist was among those attacked.
The Israeli army was eventually called in to end the clashes, and a Palestinian boy was injured by a tear gas canister fired by the army.
Skunk and land mines
The Israeli army says it is prepared for any protests which might erupt later this month. It spent 75 million shekels ($20 million) on “non-lethal” weapons this summer, including tear gas and water cannons.
The army has also come up with a plan to drop “skunk bombs” from helicopters; the foul-smelling stuff has been used for years to disperse protests, but it is typically fired from water cannons, not dropped from the sky.
The army has also called up three battalions of reservists, roughly 1,500 people, and deployed them in the occupied West Bank, an Israeli army spokesman said this week.
In the north - where Israeli soldiers shot dozens of unarmed Syrian protesters who stormed the border in May - the army has laid down hundreds of new land mines.
The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, has spent the last few weeks buying riot-control gear, a request which - due to the occupation - had to be approved by the Israeli government. PA president Mahmoud Abbas has urged that any protests remain peaceful, and ordered the PA’s security forces to keep protesters away from Israeli-controlled areas.
The preparations might turn out to be unnecessary; indeed, General Benny Gantz, the Israeli army chief of staff, said on Tuesday that widespread unrest “was not imminent”.
The wild card, Israeli analysts say, is what happens in and around the settlements, whose residents have a long history of provoking confrontations with Palestinian villagers - and who often do not trust the army, either.
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“You are asking me what the settlers will do?” said an Israeli soldier outside Itamar on Tuesday afternoon. “I have no idea. We can never guess. But if they try to go to Nablus, we will stop them.”
Tuesday’s demonstration did, in fact, appear to be coordinated with the army. Protesters emerged from Itamar more than an hour late, and when they did, an army jeep led them to the roundabout near the checkpoint. The army made little effort to block off the road leading north to Nablus.
The army - which of course has committed its own widespread abuses in the occupied territories - is often the stabilising force which keeps these confrontations from escalating. But as Tuesday’s fighting in Asira would suggest, the army is still stretched thin in the West Bank; it often arrives only after violent clashes have taken place.
“We have, in every community, an intervention team that is for security, defensive purposes, and it is responsible for first reaction if there is an aggression against the community,” said Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, a lobbying group which represents Israeli settlers.
These teams have recently received additional weapons - mostly tear gas and stun grenades - from the Israeli army over the past few months.
Some of these armed settlers, though, instead of staying inside their communities, try to march into nearby Palestinian villages. Asira is one example; a similar incident took place on Saturday, when settlers, some of them armed, tried to enter the Palestinian village of Qusra. One Palestinian was shot, and one settler was stabbed, before the army intervened.
Settlers depend on the army to provide security in the occupied West Bank, but in recent weeks they have been critical of the army: A brochure circulated this month by several settler groups actually faults the army for trying to minimise “Arab casualties,” because General Avi Mizrahi, the commander of the army division in the West Bank, ordered his troops to “avoid bloodshed” during any protests later this month.
The pamphlet urges women and children from Israeli settlements to “meet” Palestinian protesters in the West Bank.
“No more soldiers and border police against groups of Arab children and women,” said the pamphlet, written by Michael Ben-Ari, a member of Knesset and a member of the extreme right-wing Kahanist movement. “Instead, children versus children, youth versus youth, and women versus women.”
A right-wing group is calling for Israeli teenagers to “protect” illegal settlements in the West Bank this weekend.