Settler faces ‘terrorism’ charges over West Bank mosque vandalism

Israelis are rarely punished for crimes committed against Palestinians, particularly in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish a fire set by Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Turmus Ayya
Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish a fire set by Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank town of Turmus Ayya on June 21, 2023 [Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo]

Israeli prosecutors have filed charges related to “terrorism” against a Jewish settler accused of vandalising a mosque as part of anti-Palestinian rampages in the occupied West Bank last month, which drew a rare demand from the United States for accountability.

The spree of vandalism and arson by hundreds of settlers in several villages and towns followed the June 20 killing of four Israelis by Hamas gunmen, which in turn was a response to a deadly Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp that killed seven Palestinians and wounded more than 90 others.

At least one man was killed in the village of Turmus Ayya. Many of the Palestinians who lost property in the subsequent settler rampage were US dual nationals.

The defendant, in his early 30s, was among “a large number [of] rioters” who threw objects at buildings in the village of Orif, wrecked furniture and windows in its mosque and ripped up and threw to the floor copies of the Quran, the indictment said on Wednesday.

Their goal was “to arouse fear or shock in the community through a grave blow to the sacrosanct”, it said, adding that authorities were unable to identify the others who took part.

The Honenu law firm representing the defendant said he denied the charges filed in the Central District Court. The charges were disorderly conduct resulting in damage, the infliction of special damage and insulting religion, all designated as “acts of terrorism”.

Under Israeli law, the designation enables the court to double the penalty for any of the counts on which it convicts. Without the designation, the counts normally carry maximum prison terms of between three and 10 years.

It is rare for the Israeli government to file such a charge against one of its Jewish citizens when it comes to Palestinian-related issues. According to Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din, which has been tracking settler violence since 2005, just seven percent of settler attacks have led to criminal charges, with only three percent of investigations leading to a conviction.

Israeli soldiers and police are also often rarely punished for actions committed against Palestinians. Most recently, a police officer was acquitted despite killing an autistic Palestinian man in 2020.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the occupied territories are tried by Israeli military courts, which have a 99.7 percent conviction rate. The United Nations has described Israel’s “justice system” for Palestinians as violating international law.

The indictment provided to Reuters did not make clear what evidence will be brought against the defendant. It appeared to have redacted the names of three witnesses for the prosecution.

A Honenu spokesperson accused Israel’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence service of having wrongfully detained the defendant “instead of finding the people who killed Jews”.

Asked if that meant the defendant also denied being in Orif during the ramage, the spokesperson declined to comment.

Increase of settler attacks

The limited scale and pace of Israel’s law-enforcement effort against settlers have left Palestinians unmoved, almost a decade since the stalling of US-sponsored efforts to achieve their statehood goals through negotiations.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry described the settler rampages as “state-sponsored terrorism”. The US said it was “actively engaging” with Israel, while the US ambassador to the country said, “We do not stand and watch settler violence.”

The settler rampage was part of a sharp increase in coordinated and armed settler attacks across the occupied West Bank since October, carried out under Israeli army protection, according to Palestinian officials. They have included shootings, arson attacks, rock throwing and physical assaults with pipes and other objects.

This is not the first time settlers have carried out such attacks on Palestinian towns and villages. Last February, at least 400 Israeli settlers attacked several Palestinian villages in the Nablus area, including in Huwara, killing one man and injuring hundreds of others.

Settlers burned down more than 30 homes and at least 100 cars while beating Palestinians with metal rods and rocks.

At least 600,000 settlers live throughout the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, on settlements that were built either partially or entirely on private Palestinian land.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies