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Settler Violence: Absence of Law Enforcement

Violence by settlers (and sometimes by other Israeli civilians) toward Palestinians has long since become part of daily life under occupation in the West Bank. These actions range from blocking roads, throwing stones at cars and houses, raiding villages and farmland, torching fields and olive groves, and damaging crops and property to physical assault, sometimes to the point of hurling Molotov cocktails or using live fire. Over the years, this widespread violence toward Palestinians has resulted in injuries to life and limb, as well as damage to property and land.

Under international law, Israel has a duty to protect Palestinians in the West Bank from this conduct. However, Israeli authorities routinely shirk this responsibility, even when the violent actions can be anticipated. Thousands of testimonies, videos and reports, as well as many years of close monitoring by B’Tselem and other organizations, reveal that Israeli security forces not only allow settlers to harm Palestinians and their property as a matter of course – they often provide the perpetrators escort and back-up. In some cases, they even join in on the attack. In other instances, security forces have prevented anticipated harm by removing the targeted Palestinians, rather than the Israeli assailants.

The law enforcement agencies, on their part, rarely make settlers face consequences for attacking Palestinians. In almost all cases, the investigations – if one was opened, in the first place – have not resulted in any action taken against the perpetrators. This undeclared policy of lenience toward settler violence aimed at Palestinians has been documented in numerous reports by human rights organizations, as well as in official state reports (such as the Karp Report of 1982 and the Shamgar Report of 1994).

In a ten-year review published in May 2015, human rights organization Yesh Din found that some 85% of investigations into such cases (including violence, arson, damage to property, mutilation of trees and takeover of land) ended with no further action taken, and that the odds of a police complaint filed by a Palestinian resulting in the conviction of an Israeli civilian were a mere 1.9%. Given the futility of this effort, many Palestinians choose to forgo filing a complaint altogether.

Since it was founded in 1989, B’Tselem has been documenting incidents of settler violence against Palestinians and advocating for security forces to fulfill their obligation to protect Palestinians and their property from such injury. For many years, B’Tselem has stressed the duty of Israeli authorities to make the necessary preparations, including allocating forces, to prevent attacks that can be predicted – especially when they are carried out in the open – and arrest the assailants. We have repeatedly called attention to the responsibility of the law enforcement agencies to quickly and efficiently investigate attacks after they take place. B’Tselem has provided the police and the military with documentation of such attacks, including video footage filmed by volunteers. We have also helped Palestinian victims file complaints with the police and have monitored the investigations – including appealing closed cases. After more than 25 years of this work, there is no escaping the conclusion that the authorities merely make a show of law enforcement in this context and that, with few exceptions, they have no interest in seriously investigating settler violence against Palestinians.

A stark example recurs every year during the olive harvest. After repeated settler attacks, the military forbade Palestinian farmers from entering their own land if it lies near a settlement – instead of protecting the farmers by enforcing the law on the settlers. In 2004, the heads of five Palestinian local councils petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice (HCJ), demanding that the military allow them to access their lands and protect them from settler attacks during the olive harvest. The court accepted the petition about two years later, ruling that the military should not, in general, deny Palestinians access to their land in the name of protecting them. The justices also ruled that the security establishment must “give clear, unequivocal instructions to the forces operating in the field” and also “deploy forces to protect the property of the Palestinian inhabitants” (HCJ 9593/04 Murar et al. v. IDF Commander for Judea and Samaria et al.). As a result, the state created a “coordination system” for supposedly enabling Palestinians throughout the West Bank to access their land for several days, twice a year – during the harvest and plowing seasons. This requires prior coordination with the military, which assigns them a security detail.

In practice, the system does little to resolve this violent reality and is largely another empty show of law enforcement. First, it furthers the assumption that the solution lies with restricting the Palestinian victims, rather than the violent settlers. Second, it is relevant to two specific periods every year, leaving settlers free to roam and vandalize land and trees the rest of the time, while the Palestinian owners are barred access. Third, the military requires Palestinians to undergo such a complicated coordination process and meet so many requirements that, in many cases, attaining access is impossible.

Settler violence has a pervasive impact on life in the West Bank, creating a lingering sense of intimidation. Countless attacks have left their traumatic mark on individual Palestinians and on the collective memory. As a result, many Palestinians now avoid approaching “danger zones” near settlements. Landowners do not dare enter these areas without military escort or Israeli civilians accompanying them. As a result, in some plots, the yield has become so poor that the owners have given up trying to reach the land and tend it. This dynamic has created invisible walls throughout the West Bank, beyond which Palestinians know they face violence to the point of risking their lives.

The rogue settlements euphemistically known as “illegal outposts” – since they were formally established in breach of Israeli law, although they enjoy broad government support and funding – contribute to this reality. These 100 or so outposts, established throughout the West Bank since the 1990s, have effectively taken over large swathes of land, expanding the scope of settlement control. This dispossession has been accompanied by violence towards Palestinian landowners that includes physical assaults, threats, attacks on shepherds and theft of land. A small number of outposts have been evacuated after legal action was taken, but all remain on the ground, and are gradually gaining formal recognition as a substantial part of the settlement enterprise.

Violent actions of settlers against Palestinians are not exceptions to a rule. Rather, they form part of a broader strategy in which the state colludes, as it stands to benefit from the result. Over time, this unchecked violence is gradually driving Palestinians from more and more locations in the West Bank, making it easier for the state to take over land and resources.