Why Palestinians don’t want settlers in their midst

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An anonymous “well-placed official” in the Israeli Prime Minister’s office set off a brouhaha in Zionist politics the other day by telling journalists he would insist that settlers left on the Palestinian side in a potential division of the West Bank have the option of choosing to remain in their homes and live under Palestinian rule.

For this suggestion Netanyahu was immediately slammed from all directions, starting with even-further-right-wing members of his coalition. (For choice quotes, see The Times of Israel‘s roundup “Rift between prime minister, right flank grows over settler statement.”) The latest development: Netanyahu is supposedly going to “reprimand” his colleague and former aide Naftali Bennett for his harsh comments, including “Whoever advocates for the idea of Jewish life in Israel under Palestinian rule is undermining our ability to sit in Tel Aviv,” once Bennett gets back from his current pilgrimage to Auschwitz. (As of Monday night, though, Bennett was safe from Netanyahu’s dressing-down, because he and other Israeli dignitaries were stranded at a Polish military airport near Krakow because of “technical issues” with their Israeli plane. )

Among Palestinian Authority leaders, reaction to Netanyahu’s plan was also quick and  sharply negative. “Anyone who says they want the settlers to remain is actually saying they don’t want the establishment of a Palestinian state,” declared chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat. In turn, Netanyahu’s office denounced the PA’s position as “radical and reckless.”

It’s hard to guess exactly what inspired Netanyahu’s surprising suggestion. Most likely, as 972 Magazine‘s Noam Sheizaf (among others) suggested, it’s just one more effort to guarantee the failure of the current negotiations, in case recent demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and that Israel retain control of the Jordan Valley – on top of Israel’s previously established list of unfair conditions – don’t do the trick. Maybe Netanyahu felt it necessary to toss out something he thought would appeal to the “liberal” John Kerry (who may not have been happy after Netanyahu said a few days earlier that he did not intend to evacuate a single settlement or settler from the West Bank). Or perhaps, as his Justice Minister and fellow negotiator Tzipi Livni implied, the PM was just trying to bait the Palestinians into making statements the Israelis could paint as “rejectionist.”

The PA’s position might indeed sound intolerant, perhaps even anti-semitic, to most Americans, despite the efforts of the ever-diplomatic Hanan Ashrawi and other PA officials to clarify that their objection is to settlers remaining in their state, not to the presence of Jews as law-abiding citizens. After all, Americans typically have little grasp of the realities of the occupation and may not realize that Israel would undoubtedly demand the right to protect any settlers left behind in a putative Palestinian state, and that such protection would mean stationing soldiers and weapons in and around the settlements, giving them free passage to come and go through the Palestinian state, and so on. In effect, it would amount to a continuation of military occupation in a new guise.

PLO official Hanan Ashrawi (photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/Flash90 via The Times of Israel)

PLO official Hanan Ashrawi (photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/Flash90 via The Times of Israel)

But Israeli soldiers are hardly the only problem Netanyahu’s proposal would entail for the Palestinians – there are also the settlers themselves, because in many parts of the West Bank they routinely take advantage of the impunity their military guardians ensure to harass and attack their Palestinian neighbors, with the aim of making their lives so miserable that they’ll eventually abandon their homes. That’s especially true in Hebron, the south Hebron hills, the villages around Nablus, and other outlying areas, which are precisely where settlements would most likely be left under Palestinian sovereignty, in the unlikely event such a plan materializes.

Even among Americans with some sympathy for the Palestinian cause – which is already a tiny minority – few seem to appreciate the pervasiveness and viciousness of these attacks. How could they, unless they’ve spent time in Hebron or rural Palestinian areas (visiting Ramallah, Bethlehem, or even Jerusalem’s Old City doesn’t necessarily make this point clear) or regularly follow  “Today in Palestine” and the columns of Amira Hass and Gideon Levy? If the American mainstream media report at all on settler violence – indeed, there have been occasional stories about “price tag” attacks and unruly “hilltop youth” – they present the problem as one of a radical fringe, a handful of “extremists,” the proverbial “rotten apples” – not as the day-to-day problem it is. Above all, they never acknowledge that Israeli government action and inaction – and the blind eye the “international community” turns on the situation – is what makes these pogroms possible.

As it happens, though, Israeli Jewish columnist Larry Derfner posted a timely and pertinent analysis of the phenomenon of settler violence to 972 Magazine just a few days before Netanyahu offered his proposal. Derfner is still a Zionist of sorts, as far as I know, but by my standards his politics have improved considerably since the Jerusalem Post fired him in 2011. In any case, his discussion of settler violence is terrific. Some excerpts:

 The phenomenon of settler violence against Palestinians, which is as old and as vibrant as the settlements themselves, tells you everything you need to know about how serious Israel is about ending its rule over a foreign people. It also tells you everything you need to know about how serious the world is about forcing Israel to end it.

Settler violence, lately characterized mainly by masked young men roaming the West Bank and attacking Palestinian farmers with stones, clubs or rifles and burning their olive groves, their fields, and occasionally their schools, mosques and homes, is a unique feature of the occupation. Unlike every other aspect of it – the conquest of another people’s homeland by military force and land theft, the brutality, the house demolitions and expulsions, the whole system of officially sanctioned subjugation – settler violence is something nobody outside the radical fringe in Israel will defend. This, alone, they’ll denounce.

And yet it goes on. …Settlers attack Palestinians in the West Bank on an average of once a day, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Last year there were 399 assaults – 93 in which Palestinians were injured, another 306 in which their property was damaged or destroyed. The frequency of these attacks has stayed fairly stable over the last four years, but it is quadruple the rate in 2006, when OCHA began tracking these incidents.

Derfner recounts a few of these attacks in detail. The most dramatic story concerns the firebombing – the most recent of three, over the last few years – of a home in the village of Sinjil. The targeted family – Khaled Dar Khalil, his wife Rowaida, and their five children, ages 16 months to eight years – barely escaped the last attack, when young settlers drove up around 2 a.m., poured gasoline under the porch of the house, then threw Molotov cocktails through the windows.

That whole family happens to have U.S. citizenship – Rowaida told Derfner she lived in Springfield, MA, for many years. What did that get them? “People from the American consulate came here after the [latest] fire,” Rowaida told Derfner. “They’ve called me a couple of times since to see how we’re doing.” But not a word of protest to the Israeli authorities, and no visible effort to protect the family from future attacks.

Derfner insists on something that should be obvious: the Israeli government could certainly prevent most if not all of these attacks – if it chose to make the effort.

It’s understood that Israel could stop the violence if it wanted to, but for obvious domestic political reasons it doesn’t want to: Israel has no intention of taking harsh, extended measures against any part of the settler movement. Thus, the general view is that Israel chooses to turn a blind eye to these Jewish terrorists.

“Israel is a country that zapped Sheikh Yassin from the skies, that seemed to know about every terror bombing a day before it happened. Israel can get shit done. They really can stop this,” said the Israel-Palestine bureau chief of a major foreign news organization.

“The clearest proof that there is no serious intent to stop the violence is the olive harvest. There’s always a spike in violence during the harvest, which comes in October, and the army accompanies the farmers to the olive groves, so it knows exactly where the violence is taking place. It’s a perfect opportunity to catch the settler attackers, but they don’t,” said Reut Mor, spokesperson for Yesh Din.

The columnist also leans hard on the complicity of the “international community,” at least by its silence: “In the seat you’re sitting in,” a Palestinian field worker for Rabbis for Human Rights tells him,

”the ambassador from Belgium sat, diplomats from the EU sat, the UN, the U.S. Next week I’m taking someone from the American consulate so he can see what the settlers are doing. I take foreign VIPs on tours about once a month, and they’re all shocked at what they see.”

After they get over being shocked, do they do anything with what they’ve learned?

“No,” said Sadah. “Some of them say they’re going to talk to somebody, they’re going to change things. Nothing happens.”

Derfner also zeroes in on the extraordinary case of Hebron, where the frequency of settler attacks on Palestinians is messured not in weeks or days but hours:

If there is a single image that illustrates how settler persecution of Palestinians is an accepted fact of life, it is the chain-link and cloth netting hung over stretches of the souk in Hebron to catch at least some of the rocks, bricks, bottles, soiled diapers, eggs, urine, bleach and other ammunition tossed over from the adjacent Avraham Avinu and Beit Hadassah buildings, where most of Hebron’s settlers live. Above the souk are two Israeli army lookout posts with a clear view of what goes on below.

Hebron actually has its own official international monitors, known as the Temporary (ha!) International Presence in Hebron, an operation originally established by the U.N. Security Council in 1994, after the Baruch Goldstein massacre, then renewed in the “Oslo II” agreement in 1995. TIPH puts a rotating cast of retired cops and civil servants from northern Europe on the streets of the old city and the adjacent Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron. But Derfner notes that the TIPH monitors do nothing to stop the harassment – all they do is take notes and produce secret reports that go into the file cabinets of the Israeli authorities, the PA, and their home countries’ foreign ministries. As I myself experienced in 2006, when I spent two months in those same streets as a volunteer with the now-defunct Tel Rumeida Project, the settlers are by now fully aware of TIPH’s impotence, so the monitors’ presence does next to nothing to deter the constant attacks.

After recounting the recent settler retaliation for the Palestinians’ success in foiling an attack on the village of Qusra earlier this month, Derfner concludes by putting his topic in wider context:

This is nothing new in the annals of the occupation, nor in the annals of colonialism; the bold young men of history’s settler movements have never been known for their decency toward the “natives.” The only unique thing about Israeli settler violence is that it grows out of the Israeli occupation, which is the only outpost, excuse the pun, of colonialism still standing in the so-called democratic world. And as long as that occupation lasts, so will settler violence. Literally, it comes with the territory.


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