Israel’s security forces are ‘complicit’ in drastic surge in Jewish settler violence, report finds

Bel Trew

The Independent  /  July 21, 2021

The surge in violence also tallies with a spike in settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Israel’s security forces are complicit in a “drastic surge” in violence committed by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, according to a new report that includes dozens of testimonies from former soldiers.

Breaking the Silence (BtS), an Israeli charity staffed by veterans, said its new publication shows that the Israeli military are increasingly part of sustaining an “ecosystem of violence” in the Palestinian occupied territories because they provide a “cloak of protection” for the settlers who are becoming more aggressive.

The Israeli army vehemently denies the accusations and said that Israeli police are the body in charge of dealing with complaints filed by Palestinians regarding the illegal use of their land.

But according to BtS’s advocacy director, Ori Givati, their new report, which includes 36 testimonies from former Israeli soldiers stretching back to 2012, shows “that there is no action nor will from the government or the military to stop settlers from attacking”.

“This is part of a very well-planned strategic mission of the settlers to take over more and more of Palestinian land,” he said.

Data from the United Nations and, separately, data collated by Israeli rights group B’Tselem, shows a marked increase in violent incidents committed by Jewish settlers compared with previous years.

According to B’Tselem, they have logged a 33 percent increase in attacks during the first six months of 2021 compared with the same period last year. The group said this was “enacted with an increasingly open cooperation by Israel’s security forces and with the full backing of Israeli authorities”.

Statistics shared by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) meanwhile shows that more Palestinians were injured either by settlers or members of the Israeli security forces in attacks in the first six months of this year than in the whole of 2020. This was almost on par with the yearly total in 2019.

The surge in violence also tallies with a spike in settlement expansion in the West Bank – in particular, soaring numbers of outposts, which are illegal both under international and Israeli law, according to Israeli monitoring group Peace Now.

The Israeli army denied the accusations in the report, saying that Israeli soldiers and other security forces are “constantly operating, both openly and covertly, to maintain law and order in [the West Bank], and to prevent violations of the law by both Palestinians and Israelis.”

 “The allegations that emerge from the article, claiming that [Israeli] soldiers do not act as required during confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians, are overly generalizing and incorrect,” the statement read.

“The [Israeli army] regularly and thoroughly investigates incidents related to operational activity, in order to examine whether there was a deviation from the orders and procedures and to draw lessons-learned, including incidents in which it was alleged that IDF soldiers did not act as required in response to crime committed by Israelis,” it added.

In the 1967 Six-Day war [1967 June War], Israel captured the West Bank, which is now home to almost 3 million Palestinians. There are now about 500,000 Jewish settlers living there, in settlements that are deemed illegal under international law.

Soldiers patrol the West Bank, but the Israeli police is the main body in charge of dealing with violations of the law, and complaints filed by Palestinians regarding the illegal use of their private lands by Israelis.

Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, have both spoken of the desire to declare sovereignty over the West Bank. But Israel has yet to formally claim it as Israeli territory because of stiff international opposition, particularly from the Biden administration in Washington, as annexation of land captured in war is illegal under international law.

BtS said its report illustrates the impunity of violent settlers to legal consequence, the lack of clear orders for soldiers regarding managing settlers and what the group calls the “duplicitous relationship’” between settlers and soldiers, “at times nurturing close relationship with the soldiers, and at the next moment enacting violence towards them”.

The testimonies document multiple instances of violence towards the Palestinians including arson, theft, physical assault, and shootings, and also instances where soldiers have been attacked.

“Settler violence is not committed in a vacuum. They are the biggest criminal enterprise in Israel, and not only are they immune from repercussions but they receive embracement from the military and government,” said Givati, a former soldier himself.

“By us, the soldiers, standing there knowing this is happening, in the best case this is not helping anyone, and in the worst case we are effectively taking part and attacking the Palestinians.”

“We are a part of this violent ecosystem,” he added.

The testimonies span a nine-year time period, illustrating the problematic relationship. One first sergeant, who served in 2017 around Yitzhar settlement near Nablus told BtS that “your job is to protect [the settler], only to protect him; you’re the gatekeeper of the settlements and you’re, like, the angel who guards the area”.

Another first sergeant operating in Nablus said arresting a settler “was not an option” even if they had been violent towards Israeli soldiers.

A third also operating in Yizhar said: “It wasn’t even an option to bring them to any kind of justice, or try to [think] how you prevent this thing next time.”

One former captain in the Israeli army who was  active between 2009 and 2013, and in 2018 served as a reserve commander in a platoon in the West Bank, told The Independent the problem lay in the fact that soldiers lacked protocol. Instead, he said that “the system is focused on how to operate towards Palestinians”.

“There is no protocol concerning using physical violence to restrain settlers,” he said.

“It is as if the Israeli legal system at the state level won’t imagine the possibility of the scenario where soldiers would have to deal with violence from settlers. We are not given the tools to act.”

He described how settlers who lived near the Palestinian village of Burin, southwest of Nablus, where he served, not only brutally attacked Palestinians but prevented soldiers from reaching the scene by driving metal spikes in the ground stopping army vehicles from getting there.

He also claimed he found a guidebook written by settlers that outlined how to commit a violent act in a Palestinian village, and which was broken up into chapters depending on how many settlers were available.

He told The Independent it had a mock diary section at the end mirroring the type the army used, to give settlers an idea of how long it would take for an army unit to notice an attack was taking place and to respond.

He added that the violence in the West Bank was “expanding” and becoming “more and more extreme”.

“Settlers see themselves as a state within a state,” the former captain said. “Some of them openly talk about arming militia groups in order to fight the Israeli army if they ever change policy and try to enforce the laws against the Palestinians against them.”

Palestinians who have been subject to the violence also described a recent surge.

Waidan, 39, who lives in Burin, said her son was shot in the head inside their own property two months ago. She said her life increasingly felt like “a horror movie”.

“It was bad, but over the years it has got worse and worse,” she said.

“I turned my house into something like a prison, erecting fences and walls around the building because of the attacks.”

She said settlers had also shot at children in the local school, and burned olive trees and land.

“100 per cent the army contribute and protect settlers. I can really feel that this year is worse than last year,” she said.

Data compiled by the OCHA shows that 349 Palestinians were injured in attacks initiated by settlers in the first six months of 2021, compared with 248 in the whole of 2020 and 384 in 2019.

OCHA have documented 273 incidents when settlers injured Palestinians or damaged their property in the first six months of 2021, compared with 360 during the whole of last year and 340 in the whole of 2019.

B’Tselem meanwhile logged a 33 per cent surge in attacks on Palestinians in the first half of 2021 compared with the same period last year.

“Settler violence targeting Palestinians and their property – on the rise, and enacted with an increasingly open cooperation by Israel’s security forces and with the full backing of Israeli authorities – is part of Israel’s policy in the West Bank, designed to promote its own interests,” B’Tselem told The Independent. “This violence is a constant element of Israel’s apartheid regime, aspiring to remove Palestinians from their lands in order to facilitate their takeover,” it added.

The Independent reached out to the Israeli army and COGAT, a unit within the Israeli Ministry of Defence, to ask about the number of attacks perpetrated by Palestinians against settlers and the Israeli army but has yet to receive a response.

The surge in violence accompanies a worrying surge in the number of settler outposts that have been built, as well as the expansion of pre-existing settlements, according to Israeli monitoring group Peace Now.

Since July 2018, Peace Now has counted the creation of 42 illegal outposts, in comparison with just 16 created during the three years prior to that.

“Meanwhile, settlers feel they are the landlords in the West Bank, and that the army and police are there to serve and protect them,” Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran said.

The Israeli military said: “The civil administration works on a regular basis to enforce planning and construction laws against illegal construction in Area C in [the West Bank] both in relation to Palestinians and in relation to Israelis in accordance with the relevant authorities and procedures.”

“As for the complaints filed by Palestinians regarding the illegal use of their private lands by Israelis – the Israel police is the body in charge of dealing with complaints of this nature,” it added.

Bel Trew – Middle East Correspondent