European diplomats felt ‘genuine fear’ during chase by pro-settler activists in West Bank

Thomas Helm

The National  /  September 28, 2023

Foreign officials accuse activist group Im Tirtzu of ‘violently’ harassing them, stoking fears the area is no longer safe for diplomats.

It took only 10 minutes for a routine diplomatic field trip to descend into a terrifying “wild west” chase across the occupied West Bank.

A group of armed and “incandescent” right-wing Israeli activists had just tracked down a convoy of European diplomats who scrambled their armoured four-wheel drive vehicles to speed down the dusty, narrow tracks that they had arrived on only minutes before.

But their ordeal at the hands of the right-wing Im Tirtzu group was just beginning.

The activists stalked the group across the barren landscape of the southern West Bank, live-streaming the ordeal on Facebook throughout.

The diplomats eventually abandoned their trip, which took place on September 20, and sought shelter with Palestinian police.

This is the account of a European diplomat who was left terrified after setting out on a trip to learn about the rising problem of Israeli settler violence in the West Bank.

Officials and trip organizers are now raising serious questions about the future safety of diplomats in the region.

“I’ve had training to prepare for hostile and dangerous environments and this was the first time I’ve felt that I needed it,” one diplomat told The National on condition of anonymity.

The diplomat has since had trouble sleeping and had to receive counselling after the encounter.

“This changes the calculus and has raised serious questions among western missions about their security in the West Bank,” the diplomat added.

“I’ve been on previous field trips where local settlers have spotted a large diplomatic convoy and come out to intimidate us. But I’ve never had it with people being physically threatening and right up against us to push us away.

“If you’re Palestinian and that happens every single day, it’s nothing short of a miracle there are any of them left.”

‘I felt genuinely fearful’

Far-right violence is an increasing problem in the West Bank. A UN report released last week found that more than 1,100 Palestinians have been displaced as a result of settlers since 2022, an unprecedented high.

But Im Tirtzu’s interception on Wednesday was different, activists say. Its targets were diplomats who represent some of Israel’s closest European allies.

Protesters from the group screamed that those nations were antisemitic, funding terror and that Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen “would hear about this”, according to the diplomat.

“These [activists] had a confidence you could tell came from being used to doing whatever they want without any kind of challenge,” the diplomat added.

“If you were in a comparable situation in a western country, law enforcement would turn up and grip the situation. Here, you’re on your own.

“I had the luxury of an armoured vehicle, I come home to a safe place in Jerusalem, I have special status as a diplomat and the protections it affords and I have a government behind me if something happens. I still felt genuinely fearful.”

Questions have also been raised about how the trip’s sensitive itinerary, organized by Israeli NGO B’Tselem, was leaked to Im Tirtzu.

An activist from the right wing group was first spotted by diplomats outside the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, where B’Tselem was delivering a briefing before departure, the trip’s organizers said.

The delegation then left for a viewpoint above Al-Baqa, whose population recently fled due to settler violence.

It was there that two Israeli vehicles carrying Im Tirtzu activists interrupted the briefing, according to witnesses.

The activists then followed the convoy to Ein Rashash, a community at risk of displacement because of mounting settler violence.

The tour’s organizers say they then decided to abandon the trip for fear of endangering the local Palestinian population.

The convoy sought shelter in the village of Taybeh, where Palestinian police intervened.

Despite multiple calls for help, an Israeli police car was only spotted by organizers once the group left, B’Tselem spokeswoman Dror Sadot says.

Sadot, who was on the trip, said the behaviour of the right-wing activists “was the perfect example of what Palestinians are suffering on a daily basis”.

“This is very much a showcase of how Israeli settlers and right-wingers are getting support from the state,” she said.

Despite fears among diplomats that their security is now at risk in the West Bank, Sadot said “it is crucial that after moments like this, diplomats who have protection continue to come [to see what happens to Palestinians]”.

Sadot said B’Tselem is “used to these guys … but it was still irregular how they followed us into Taybeh, that they were armed and that one of [the activists] waved his gun towards Palestinians in a Palestinian village in front of Palestinian police”.

Im Tirtzu, which describes itself as the largest grass roots Zionist movement in Israel, strongly denied that its demonstrators waved a weapon and said they “did not get close to the diplomats”, in a statement issued to The National.

“We are working to expose European government involvement in the affairs of the State of Israel,” it said.

It added that “Europeans have never understood the Middle East” and “pay anti-Israeli propaganda organizations such as B’Ttselem … tens of millions of euros a year to produce content undermining the validity of Israel”.

“Im Tirtzu will continue to work to expose the phenomenon of European colonialism, which only continues to falter relations between Jews and Arabs and many other minorities in the Middle East.”

The European missions said no help arrived from Israeli security forces, despite repeated calls made by diplomats and Palestinians.

The National saw correspondence from one consulate complaining to Israeli officials about the absence of support.

“Israeli security forces were told about our trip and movements throughout the day,” the diplomat on the trip said.

“They were informed as soon as the incident started and at no point showed up despite assurances. They were called at the first location by B’Tselem and a number of diplomatic missions.

“We were not far from Ramallah or Jerusalem. We can’t have been that far from a base.”

In a statement to The National, the Israeli military said its forces evacuated two Israeli vehicles from Taybeh after “a gathering of local Palestinians developed around them”.

“The gathering was dispersed after a short time and the Israeli vehicles were escorted out of the village, where they joined the security forces, without injuries,” it said.

It said the Israeli vehicles had entered Taybeh “contrary to the law”.

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National