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From the field

Free Rein: Vigilante Settlers and Israel's Non-Enforcement of the Law

October 2001, Summary

Over the course of the al-Aqsa intifada Settlers have shot Palestinians, hurled stones at them, damaged their property, blocked roads, and abused them in other ways. Some of these acts entailed entering Palestinian villages, damaging Palestinian vehicles travelling along the road, and mistreating Palestinian farmers working their fields.

This report discusses one kind of settler violence against Palestinians: mass rioting by settlers in retaliation for Palestinian attacks on settlers. The rioting is only one aspect of a broader phenomenon that has led to the killing and wounding of Palestinians, extensive property and economic damage, and prolonged hardship among many residents of the Occupied Territories. Although other types of acts have led to more tragic results, B'Tselem focuses on revenge attacks because they involved large numbers of participants, and were anticipated and committed openly.

Below are some sample cases that appear in the report:

  • In March 2001, following the killing of the infant Shalhevet Pass by Palestinians in Hebron, Settlers rioted in the city's Palestinian neighborhoods for several days damaging property and injuring residents.

  • In June 2001, following the injury (and later death) of the infant Yehuda Shoham, Settlers from Shilo entered the Palestinian villages of Luban a-Sharqiya and A-Sawiya. The residents of A-Sawiya were under curfew at the time. The settlers rioted inside the villages for several hours, shooting and damaging property.

  • In October 2001, following the assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, Settlers attacked a Palestinian truck driver near Yitzhar. They shot him and set his truck on fire.

Since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada, Palestinian civilians have attacked Israelis throughout the Occupied Territories. Most of these attacks involved gunfire and/or stone throwing at vehicles and homes. Intentionally harming civilians is a flagrant violation of international law and is absolutely prohibited, whatever the circumstances. Although the settlements violate international law, this does not affect the status and rights of civilians living there and does not turn them into a legitimate target for attack. However, acts of violence against Settlers do not legitimize acts of revenge against innocent Palestinians.

Many of these incidents occurred in broad daylight, sometimes in front of television cameras. In most cases, the settlers attacked by the tens or hundreds. Since these attacks follow a distinct pattern, they are completely predictable. These facts make the inability of Israeli law enforcement authorities to prevent and control Settler violence of this kind all the more grave.

These acts of violence occur in the context of the failure of Israeli law enforcement, which treats settler violence with complacency and forgiveness. This attitude is among the factors that enable the violence to continue. Israel also ignores its responsibility, as the occupier of the Occupied Territories, to protect the safety and well-being of the population under its control. The testimonies and data collected by B'Tselem in recent years indicate that Israeli leniency extends to all aspects and stages of an incident: from the lack of intervention of soldiers and police present when the attacks take place, through superficial and incomplete investigations, to light sentences and pardons of the few settlers convicted of assaulting Palestinians.

For years, officials have severely criticized the bodies charged with law enforcement in the Occupied Territories: The Karp commission in1982, the state commission of inquiry investigating the massacre in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, and recently The State Comptroller, whose September 2001 report states that Police work in the matter is severely deficient. In response to a report published by B'Tselem in the matter in March, Minister Efraim Sneh, said that the system does not deal harshly enough with rioting settlers.

The fact that top officials are aware of the lack of law enforcement on violent settlers and still no real change is made in law enforcement policy shows a blatant disregard of Palestinian lives and property.

B'Tselem urges the Israeli authorities to:

  • Make preparations to prevent the occurrence of acts of revenge of the kind described in this report and to act immediately to stop them.
  • Brief all soldiers serving in the Occupied Territories on the Procedure's provisions relating to their duty to defend Palestinians when settlers attack them. Action should be taken against soldiers who violate the Procedure and against commanders who do not implement the Procedure in their units.
  • Act to improve investigations conducted by the police force's SHAI District. The police must investigate every suspicion of settler violence against Palestinians efficiently and without discrimination.