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From the field

Tacit Consent: Law Enforcement towards Israeli Settlers in the Occupied Territories

March 2001, Summary

Over the course of the present Intifada, the scope and intensity of settler violence toward Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories has increased dramatically. Several settler leaders have warned that they would "take matters into their own hands", and use force, if they did not find IDF conduct satisfactory. These were not idle threats. In the last few months, settlers have shot Palestinians, thrown stones at Palestinian cars, damaged property, uprooted trees, burned a Mosque, hurt Palestinian medical crews, attacked journalists, prevented farmers from getting to their land and prevented Palestinian vehicles form using the roads.

Since the beginning of the present Intifada, Palestinian attacks on settlers have also sharply increased. These attacks include shooting at settler vehicles and at residences. The establishment of settlements is forbidden by international law. Yet, the fact that the settlements are illegal does not give license to hurt the individuals who live in them. Deliberate attacks on civilians are a clear violation of the basic principals of international law. Nevertheless, being exposed to such attacks does not give the settlers the right to use violence toward Palestinians, except in self-defense.

Settler violence toward Palestinians is not a new phenomenon: such violent acts have been regularly carried out in the Occupied Territories since the beginning of the first Intifada and even earlier. Since 1987, 119 Palestinians have been killed by settlers and other Israeli citizens in the Occupied Territories. Of these, 23 were minors.

These acts are perpetrated in an atmosphere of Israeli law enforcement impotence and laxity. Israel, as the occupying force, bears the responsibility for the safety and well-being of the Palestinian population under its control.

In recent years, law enforcement vis-a-vis settlers has been harshly criticized by many, including the Attorney General and the High Court of Justice. The Shamgar Commission, established in 1994 following the massacre at the cave of the Patriarchs, censured law enforcement policy in cases of violence against Palestinians. It determined that no real measures were taken to improve the situation, despite repeated warnings. A report published by B'Tselem, prior to the establishment of the Commission stated that all of Israel's law enforcement authorities - the military, the police, the State Prosecutor and the judicial system - have adopted an undeclared policy of absolution, compromise and mitigation for Israeli citizens who harm Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

All of these conclusions remain true today. Testimonies gathered by B'Tselem demonstrate that soldiers are present when settlers attack Palestinians, but do not intervene to prevent the attack. Settlers plan, organize and establish roadblocks to prevent Palestinians from using the roads. The settlers put up these roadblocks in broad daylight and after having notified the media. Despite this, no real effort is made by Israeli authorities to prevent these acts.

In several areas in the West Bank, settlers have instituted independent armed patrols. Participation in these patrols is by individual initiative, and is not sanctioned by the IDF and the Israeli police. The IDF has made its opposition to this activity clear, but seems to do nothing to halt it. The police continue to avoid investigating cases of settlers harming Palestinians, unless a complaint has been filed. For example, the police never investigated the death of two Palestinians at the hands of settlers during the current Intifida, despite the fact that the killings were reported in the media. This policy defies the police departments' legal obligation to investigate every suspected case of wrongdoing. The police ignore the many difficulties Palestinians face in filing a complaint. When under siege, for example, it is impossible for Palestinians to do so.

Even in those cases which the police does investigate, offenders are seldom punished. Between 1994 and 2000, B'Tselem collected testimonies regarding dozens of incidents where settlers attacked Palestinians, and monitored the authorities' treatment of these cases. Two-thirds of the investigations were closed on the grounds of "lack of evidence" or "offender unknown."

Official response to Palestinian homicides stands in marked contrast to cases of Israeli homicides. A Palestinian who kills an Israeli is punished to the full extent of the law, sometimes along with his family. By contrast, it is likely that an Israeli who kills a Palestinian will escape punishment or receive a light sentence. In some of the cases of Palestinians killed by Israelis, no investigation was launched. The police or the State Attorney's Office closed half of the files. In contrast, when Palestinians killed Israelis, less than ten per cent of the files were closed. The sentences of Israelis convicted of killing Palestinians have invariably been commuted. No Palestinian convicted of murdering an Israeli has ever had their sentence commuted.

The fact that law enforcement vis-a-vis settlers has remained deficient for many years, despite repeated warnings, from official agencies among others, shows that this is not a coincidence but rather a policy. Even if Israeli authorities do not directly encourage violent attacks against Palestinian citizens, the fact that they turn a blind eye to the phenomenon carries the same result. This policy also defies the basic principal of equality before the law, and thereby undermines the foundations of the rule of law in Israel.

In a report Israel presented to the Mitchell Commission, it promised to investigate every case of suspected harm done to Palestinians by settlers. It is clear, even now, that Israel has not lived up to its promise.

B'Tselem urges Israeli authorities to prevent settlers and Israeli citizens from harming the lives, well-being and property of Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories:

  • The state of Israel, in its capacity as an occupying force responsible for the safety and well-being of the Palestinian population, must protect this population in the same manner it does Israelis. The Israeli government must direct its law enforcement authorities to act resolutely to prevent settler violence toward Palestinians. To this end, it must provide its authorities with the necessary resources.
  • IDF soldiers must be informed of their duty to intervene whenever settlers attack Palestinians. Action must be taken against soldiers who fail to carry out this duty.
  • The Israeli police must investigate every incident of which it is made aware. It must not use the fact that a victim did not filed a complaint as an excuse to ignore the case. The police must make an effort to reduce the number of files closed on the grounds of lack of evidence or "offender unknown."