Israeli settlers evacuated from Palestinian homes after latest attack in uptick of violence gripping West Bank’s Hebron.
Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – On the evening of July 22, Palestinian youths from the Bethlehem-area village of Wadi Fukin ran to fields set ablaze by Israeli settlers.
Village resident Qais Manasra told Al Jazeera that three dunams (0.7 acres) of wheat on his property were burned that night, adding to about 200 olive trees destroyed on the outskirts of the village during arson attacks carried out by settlers since June.
The incident was one of many carried out late last month on Palestinians or their property in the occupied West Bank, in what the United Nations reported as the highest number of attacks by settlers in a week-long period since the start of the year.
Samer Jaber, a resident of the Bethlehem-area town of al-Khadr, told Al Jazeera that he was recently on his land with a surveyor when an Israeli settler from the illegal Derech Havaot outpost hit him several times. Jaber then captured on video the settler shooting live fire at him and his relatives.
In other areas of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Israeli settlers physically assaulted Palestinians, uprooted local crops, stole sacks of wheat and grain, and damaged vehicles with stones, according to UN documentation.
Jaber and Manasra both said the attacks were reported to Israeli police. Contacted by Al Jazeera, a police spokesperson did not have immediate information, but said the incidents would be investigated.
The attacks came despite a vow by Israeli authorities to stop what Israeli security agency Shin Bet termed “Jewish terror networks”, after settlers carried out an arson attack on a Palestinian home in the village of Duma a year ago, killing all but one member of the Dawabsheh family.
A wave of indictments against perpetrators of attacks on Palestinians and their property followed over the next year, and the weekly average of attacks carried out in 2016 so far stands at around 40 percent less in comparison with 2015, according to UN documentation.
But Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, told Al Jazeera that these recent fluctuations were not likely to be indicative of significant changes, owing to Israel’s systematic impunity for Israelis who carry out violence against Palestinians.
“Nobody [in the Israeli government] ever tried to improve the core problems,” Grossman told Al Jazeera, noting that while the 2015 Duma attack appeared to be a “wake-up call” for Israel, just 1.9 percent of Palestinian complaints of settler violence to Israeli police have resulted in a conviction – and yet another arson attack was reportedly carried out in the village late last month.
“There is still the lack of a proficient, professional [Israeli] police force in the West Bank that takes offences against the Palestinians seriously, takes indictments seriously, or hands out punishment that would deter future offenders,” Grossman said, adding that the long-standing policy “emboldens people who are interested in harming Palestinians”.
The Israeli human rights group Akevot has been among many to point out that – in addition to physical harm to Palestinians and their property – unpunished settler violence has been among several factors leading to illegal expropriation of Palestinian land.
Settlers have long created new outposts using violence or threats against local Palestinians, with the outposts then protected by the military and retroactively legalised by the government.
This trend has repeatedly taken place in Wadi Fukin, Manasra said. “Violence by settlers has helped destroy land where these settlements grow,” he said, motioning to the illegal settlement of Beitar Illit, built almost entirely on private Palestinian land.
After last month’s Duma attack, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, reiterated that Israel has directly violated international law by failing to provide protection to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority has no legal jurisdiction over Israeli settlers living illegally in occupied territory, and as a result of the Oslo Accords, areas where Palestinian communities are frequently targeted by settler violence fall under Israeli military control.
Decades of state-supported settlement expansion and settler violence has led the Palestinian leadership to repeatedly demand the UN provides international protection for Palestinians.
“Instead of sovereignty, we should first ask for protection. The PA can’t do it, and Israel won’t do it,” said Jaber, who was part of a committee to push the Palestinian leadership to take such measures last year.
More than a year ago, PA President Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter to the UN secretary-general on potential methods of international protection, prompting the UN Security Council’s legal department to submit a study in October that included trends of settler violence. Riyad Mansour, the permanent representative of the State of Palestine to the UN, told Al Jazeera that discussions with the Security Council were ongoing.
But Valentina Azarova, an adviser with Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, told Al Jazeera that passing a resolution to implement international protection would either require Israel’s consent, or military intervention justified on the basis of the unwillingness or inability of Israel to control the situation.
“For political and legal reasons, such a non-consensual intervention is inconceivable when it comes to Israel,” Azarova said.
Back in Wadi Fukin, Manasra said that as more time passes without any response to Israeli settler attacks and the settlement expansion that accompanies them, the more his village loses.
As he spoke, Manasra stood on a ridge overlooking the village, which has lost most of its land to three illegal settlements still rapidly expanding on the hilltops surrounding the valley where residents live. Farmland has been slowly confiscated.
“Nothing is happening,” he said, pointing to freshly cut land and the cranes working on it. “They [the Palestinian leadership] have been talking for years in the UN, but this is all new. They’re not doing anything.”
The absence of protection for Palestinians against settler violence has also become apparent through the formation of autonomous night guard systems throughout the occupied West Bank.
Ghassan Daghlas, a PA official who monitors settlement activity in the northern West Bank, estimates that 87 Palestinian villages currently rely on their own residents to carry out volunteer night patrols to protect their communities from settler attacks.
Daghlas told Al Jazeera that while communities continued night patrols to this day, the increasingly violent nature of attacks has been putting local guards on edge. “They [guards] don’t see much purpose to the patrols, because they don’t have weapons and settlers are armed. If something happens, there is nothing they can do about it besides warning residents settlers are coming,” Daghlas said.
“Before they [settlers] came just to draw hate graffiti on a wall, but now when they come, the purpose is to kill.”