Israeli settler attacks surge against Palestinians

Unprecedented settler violence during the past few months in the occupied West Bank is raising fears the situation may escalate out of control.

Saeed Awad lays motionless after being attacked by settlers as Israeli army solders carry him on a stretcher [Courtesy: B'Tselem]

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Palestinian Saeed Alyan Awad was on the way to his land with his wife when 10 Israeli settlers attacked them near the illegal Mitzpe Yair settlement.

The Awads’ land lies east of the town of Yatta, south of Hebron, and the family goes there every Saturday in an effort to prevent the Israelis from expanding their outpost onto their property.

One of the attackers, wielding an iron pipe, cracked Saeed’s skull and broke his jaw on March 10, while his wife suffered severe bruises on her leg. With Awad’s children and nephews screaming in horror inside their vehicle, the settlers then moved towards them and smashed the windscreen and pelted it with rocks.

“The assault on my family and me lasted about seven minutes,” Awad, 49, told Al Jazeera. “My face was bleeding and I lost consciousness for a few minutes. I underwent an operation to re-attach my left jaw and heal the wounds on my face.”

Young Palestinian men in the area heard the screams and saw the attacking settlers and came to the rescue. The Israelis backed away from the scene and soldiers from the Israeli military arrived, providing first aid for Awad. The troops watched, however, as the settlers departed without detaining them.

“The army should have arrested the settlers but it did not, even though it was certain they attacked and tried to kill me,” Awad said.

The Awads’ vehicle after it was attacked by Israel settlers last Saturday [Naser Nawajaa/B’Tselem]

Though he filed a complaint at the Israeli police station at the Kiryat Arba’a settlement on Wednesday, he said he does not expect any justice.

It was the latest in a series of increasing attacks on Palestinians by gangs of roaming Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank.

According to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 94 violent attacks took place against Palestinian civilians between December 21, 2020, to March 13, 2021 – an unprecedented figure.

The group accused Israeli security forces of failing do stop the attacks and said Israeli police routinely close criminal complaints filed by the victims without anyone being charged.

The violent escalation against Palestinians appears to have been sparked after the death of Ahuvia Sandak, 16, from the Bayt Hayen settlement in the southern West Bank. He died when the car he was riding in with four other Israelis overturned while fleeing Israeli police east of Ramallah. The settlers were being pursued after undercover officers saw them throwing rocks at Palestinian vehicles on December 21.

According to Israeli media, Sandak belonged to a group known as the “Hilltop Youths”, which is accused of attacking Palestinians and their property.

“Since Sandak’s death, settlers’ violent attacks against Palestinians continues daily – on average two or three attacks per day,” said Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who oversees settlements in the Nablus governorate.

He said the settlers have also forced the closure of main roads in the West Bank cities of Nablus, Tulkarm, and Jenin.

Violence includes “physical assaults against Palestinian shepherds and farmers while working on their lands, attacking Palestinian houses during the night and assaults on them, and the scattering of iron nails on the streets to damage Palestinian vehicles”, said Daghlas.

‘Asked them to leave’

Izz al-Din, 44, from the village of Majdal Bani Fadel south of Nablus, said he and his father were beaten as they went to work on their farm last month.

“As we arrived and left our vehicle, two settlers who were hiding among the parked vehicles beat us with wooden batons on our heads, arms, and legs. We started screaming until a group of people from our town … rushed to us and saved us from the hands of the settlers,” al-Din told Al Jazeera.

“The Israeli police who were close to the scene of the incident did not arrest the settlers, despite seeing the signs of their assault on us and our bleeding. They led them (the attackers) to their pick-up vehicle and asked them to leave, while we went in an ambulance to receive medical treatment. If we were the assailants, we would be imprisoned now. But being settlers, they are free.”

The Israeli military told Al Jazeera that its authority is limited to separating the two sides when clashes occur, saying it has no power to arrest, detain or investigate settlers occupying the West Bank, which is the responsibility of Israeli police.

Munir Kadus, a researcher with the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, described the recent attacks as an “unprecedented escalation of violence against Palestinians across all of the West Bank”.

Between 2005-2019 the group recorded 1,293 acts of settler violence against Palestinians with just 8 percent of investigations into those incidents leading to criminal charges.

An official from one of the councils governing Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank said the violence was not only being perpetrated by Israelis.

“[We] oppose any manifestation of violence against any person and we demand that those [Israeli] left-wing organisations act against and condemn the stone and Molotov cocktail throwing by Palestinians against Israeli vehicles and civilians,” he told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

About 500,000 Jewish settlers live in more than 250 illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Idan Zendi, an Israeli from the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, said the area is “Israeli land, not Palestinian”.

“Palestinians have many lands to live in – Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt – they have many lands. We have only one land,” Zendi said in an interview with the Anadolu news agency.

Israeli settlers - stone throwing
Israel settlers hurl stones at Palestinians in the occupied West Bank village of Safa in April 2009 [File: Abed al-Hashlamoun]

‘Security chaos’

Some Palestinians have warned the settlers’ growing violence might lead to reciprocal attacks, especially when it comes to particularly brutal assaults or the burning of mosques.

One former Israeli official said it was imperative for Israeli police and the military to rein in settler attacks before the situation grows out of control.

“The Israeli security forces must take decisive and effective steps to prevent any friction between settlers and Palestinians, because it is in the interest of Israeli security to maintain a state of calm and stability, not to create security chaos through settler violence against Palestinians,” David Chacham, a former Arab affairs adviser for the Israeli defence ministry, told Al Jazeera.

Settlers in the occupied West Bank, who long depended on Israeli soldiers for protection, have now established their own security force in every settlement, which works hand-in-hand with the Israeli military.

“The Military Security Coordinators are responsible for securing communities regularly and in emergencies until the arrival of [Israeli military] or Israeli police forces,” the Israeli military told Al Jazeera in a statement.

“The [Israeli military] works closely and consistently with the Military Security Coordinators and even trains them once a year. They are directly subordinate to the locality in which they are employed.”

The Palestinians have considered forming their own local protection forces in villages and towns that are vulnerable to settler attacks at night. Bashar Masri, a Palestinian businessman, has taken the initiative to install surveillance cameras to monitor Palestinian villages.

“Settlers attacks against Palestinian civilians is on the rise and we must stop it and expose the brutality of the settlers to the international community,” Masri told Al Jazeera.

“Technology is an excellent way to give Palestinians early warning of attacks and to expose the settlers who are often unpunished for their violence.”

It remains to be seen, however, if security cameras alone will be enough to stop the settler attacks.

From his hospital bed, Awad told Al Jazeera that he had previously paid a lawyer nearly $40,000 to represent him in an Israeli court against settlers who wanted to seize his land.

“The PA (Palestinian Authority) and its security forces do nothing to help us,” he said. “I tell the PA if they do not help the citizens who live in Area C who are subjected to repeated attacks by settlers, we may have to leave our lands, and the settlers will take them.”

Source: Al Jazeera