The human costs of settler violence

Throughout a number of western countries, there is an increasing dialogue on Israeli settlements.  For an explanation of the legality of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and an explanation of settlements and settlers, please see March 4 blog posting “Settlements and Settlers.”  As citizens of Canada and elsewhere engage in this discussion,  an important part of the discussion is the reality of settler violence.  What does this term really mean?  And what impact does it have on the lives of the residents of the West Bank?

As with other scenarios of violence, it’s important to understand how the various parties come to the conflict and how they are armed.  When it comes to incidents of settler violence, the Palestinians are usually trying to go about their daily business – go to school, work in their fields, live in their homes, etc.  They are unarmed, and if attacked can use only stones to protect themselves. Israeli settlers come to these altercations to attack Palestinian property and people, and do so armed with guns, fire starting tools, and rocks.  Israeli soldiers get involved, and come armed with machine guns, rubber bullets, tear gas and a foul smelling liquid called skunk water that is sprayed at groups of people and apparently sticks to the skin, with the odour lasting for several days.

Under International Humanitarian Law, one of the duties of the occupying power is to protect the occupied population, including maintaining public order and safely ( Article 43Hague Regulation, found at http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/WebART/195%E2%80%93200053?OpenDocument ).  However, in actual practice, the Israeli army almost always works to defend the settler population in clashes with the Palestinians, regardless of the circumstances leading to the clash.  This means that the Palestinians injured in these clashes are often injured by well-armed settlers and by the weapons used by the Israeli army.  Palestinians seek to defend themselves with what they have available, usually only rocks.

How significant a problem is settler violence?

“Since 2007 the number and severity of attacks has risen sharply, in the form of arson attacks, offensive graffiti on mosques and churches, physical assault and in some cases, murder.  Human rights organizations say attacks rose by 315% between 2007 and 2011.  Meanwhile, Palestinian violence against settlers significantly decreased.”  (EAPPI Factsheet 2012 No. 1, found at http://eappi.org/en/resources/factsheets.html)

In terms of personal death and injury, there were “3 Palestinians killed and 183 injured by Israeli settlers in 2011, with a further 1 Palestinian killed and 125 others injured by Israeli soldiers during clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.” http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_settler_violence_FactSheet_October_2011_english.pdf.

In 2012, “ one Palestinian was killed and approximately 1,300 injured by Israeli settlers or security forces in incidents directly or indirectly related to settlements, including demonstrations…” ( UN OCHA Factsheet “The Humanitarian Impact of Israeli Settlement Policies Update December 2012”, found at www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_settlements_FactSheet_December_2012_english.pdf) .

When you include numbers showing property damage,  “Figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) record 353 settler violence incidents against Palestinians and their property in 2012, compared to 49 such attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians.  This is a ration of 7:1.” (EAPPI Factsheet 2013 No.1, found at http://eappi.org/en/resources/factsheets.html)

Whatever way you look at it, there are a number of Palestinian lives and property at risk as a result of settler violence and army involvement in these clashes.

It would be reasonable to think that in the democracy that Israeli proclaims itself to be, those who commit such violent crimes would be held accountable for their actions.  Not so.  The facts speak to the contrary.  “Only ten percent of 781 investigations conducted by Israeli police into incidents of settler violence between 2005 and 2011 resulted in indictments.” ( UN OCHA Factsheet December 2012)

What do these numbers mean in human terms, to the lives of real people who live with this problem every day of their lives?

There are countless examples of Palestinians living in justifiable fear for their safety.  On a regular basis, EAPPI and other international organizations provide a protective presence for school children walking to school, children who are at risk of being attacked by settlers.   We provide a protective  presence for farmers as they go to their fields, both for seeding and for harvest.  We intentionally visit Bedouin and other villages on Saturdays, the Jewish holy day when the incidence of settler attacks are usually highest.  But we can’t be everywhere, all of the time.   In our work, we regularly hear of incidents of settlers harassing and attacking Palestinian people who are simply trying to live their lives in as normal a way as possible.  The violence is leaving them physically wounded (and sometimes killed), and it is having a significant economic impact as their personal property (homes, livestock shelters, olive trees, etc are damaged and destroyed), and as they find themselves unable to work their fields, harvest their produce, attend school, and carry out  other regular daily activities.

Here is an example of one Palestinian village that has experienced harassment from both the army and neighbouring settlers.  The agricultural village of Qusra lies in the north central part of the West Bank, 28 km southeast  of Nablus.  For the approximately 4700 people who live in Qusra, settler violence is an ongoing and significant problem.  There have been a number of incidents of settlers stopping residents from working their land, considerable property has been damaged, and there have been a number of injuries incurred.  It is clear to the villagers that the settlers want to take over their land.  Residents report that there have been increasing problems for a number of years, but that things are definitely getting worse.

This past New Year’s eve, settlers arrived around midnight and uprooted 250 olive trees.  Villagers report that the vandals were assisted by soldiers who lit parachute flares over the trees.  The next morning, settlers stoned the home of an elderly woman and trashed a tractor parked outside.  Later in the day, clashes between angry villagers and settlers reportedly resulted in 5 people being hospitalized with another approximately 20 people treated for tear gas inhalation.  15 people were reportedly injured by rubber bullets (tear gas and rubber bullets are used by the army).  In the afternoon, a Red Crescent vehicle was attacked by stones from settlers, with the windows broken and the driver sustaining numerous injuries to his head.  (http://mondoweiss.net/2013/01/settlers-attack-village.html)

In February, there were problems again.

On Feb 14, at around 1:30am, soldiers went to the home of the mayor of Qusra.  8 soldiers, including an intelligence officer, broke into his house and questioned him for one and a half hours.  Before leaving, they instructed him, as the village mayor, to stop the villagers from going out to work in their fields.

On Feb 20, the army arrived and demolished 33 electrical poles leading into the eastern portion of the village, leaving that section of the village without electricity.  These demolitions were said to be carried out because the poles had been built without building permits. This destruction led to clashes between approximately 200 youth from the village, 12 army jeeps and approximately 50 soldiers.  A number of minor injuries were sustained by the youth from rubber bullets and tear gas, and 2 youths required hospitalization.  EA’s who were called to the scene witnessed large amounts of tear gas being fired at the youths, and a number of times the tear gas canisters were fired directly at individuals.  Tear gas canisters are intended to be used as a measure of crowd control and are designed to be shot in the air above groups of people.  When shot directly at an individual, they can cause significant injury.  From this incident, one 15 year old Palestinian was arrested, but was released two days later after the family paid bail of 3500 NIS (approximately $1200).

About 1:00am on the morning of February 21st, settlers arrived in the village on foot and by car.  Four vehicles were totally burned and a fifth vehicle had its tires slashed and all windows broken.

Qusra woman standing beside one of four cars burned in a recent settler attack.  (EAPPI photo)

Qusra woman standing beside one of four cars burned in a recent settler attack. (EAPPI photo)

For more details, see “Photo:  Cars torched in Qusra, West Bank” found at http://eappiblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/photo-cars-torched-in-qusra/.

On the afternoon of Saturday, Feb 23, things got even worse.  At about 1:00pm, 26 year old Hilmi Hassan left his wife and young daughter at home as he set out to drive his sister home.  While enroute, he received a phone call saying that there was a house fire in the village.  He dropped off his sister at her home and headed towards the site of the fire to offer help, picking up a friend along the way.  When they arrived, they found that the house was not on fire.  Hilmi and his friend got out of the car and found evidence of a previous fire, with charred remains and broken glass outside the house.  Hilmi was eager to get home.  However, just as he was about to get back in his car, his cell phone rang.  Standing beside his car, Hilmi answered his phone.  He heard something, and looked up to see approximately 20 soldiers and settlers running towards them.  The settler’s faces were masked.  One or more of the settlers started shooting, and Hilmi was shot in the abdomen.  An elderly woman running from the scene fell and broke her leg, and a young boy was shot just below the eye with a rubber bullet. (Hilmi Hassan verbal report to EAPPI, March 12, 2013)

The Ma’an news media report of this incident can be found at http://maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=568188

According to Hilmi, after he was shot he was taken by private car to a hospital in the nearby village of Aqraba.  From there, he was moved again by private car,  to a highway junction where he met an ambulance that took him to a hospital in the city of Nablus.  He had sustained a major, life threatening injury and was bleeding profusely.  Doctors in Nablus were unable to provide the necessary care.  With his condition very grave, it was decided to bring in an Israeli doctor from Jerusalem (an extremely rare happening) to provide emergency care.  The Israeli doctor was transported to Nablus and was able to stabilize Hilmi sufficiently for the Israeli’s to airlift him by helicopter to Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, where lifesaving abdominal surgery was performed.  See “Report:  Israeli doctor secretly enters Nablus to treat Palestinian man” found at http://maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=569801.

26 year old Hilmi Hassan, recuperating in a Jerusalem hospital from a life threatening abdominal gunshot wound, perpetrated by an attacking settler.

26 year old Hilmi Hassan, recuperating in a Jerusalem hospital from a life threatening abdominal gunshot wound, perpetrated by an attacking settler.

Approximately two weeks after his initial surgery, Hilmi underwent a second surgery to control further bleeding.  He continues his recuperation in the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital. Given the Israeli permit system restricting entry to Jerusalem, Hilmi can only have 2 members of his family visiting at a time.  Throughout this ordeal, his pregnant wife has remained at his side, accompanied by one other alternating family member.  He has missed his young daughter Roneen immensely, and was thrilled to see a photograph of her, taken by EA’s when we visited his family in Qusra after the attack.  Thankful that Hilmi is alive, he and his family look forward to returning home where Hilmi can continue his convalescence, and to being reunited with Roneen as they prepare for the birth of their second child.  There will be no assistance to cover lost wages incurred in this cruel and needless act of violence, but family will help out as they can.  To the best of their knowledge, there have been no arrests in this case.

In various visits with Hilmi and his family, they have always warmly welcomed EA’s.  We have never detected any hint of bitterness about his situation, but there is sadness about what has happened and significant concern for the future if the violence continues.  With the cooperation of Hilmi and his family, we have filed a report of this incident that will go to various international organizations.

Doctors have told Hilmi that the bullet he was shot with fragmented inside his abdomen, breaking into eleven separate pieces.  Bullets with this property are referred to as expanding bullets, or are known colloquially as “dum dum” bullets.  According to http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=dumdum%20bullet,  dum dum bullets are “A bullet with deep user-made cuts in the tip. The cuts help the dumdum bullet fragment into chunks on impact, causing severe injuries and bleeding on a scale normal bullets would be incapable of.”

The use of expanding bullets is in direct contravention of International Humanitarian Law.  (See Declaration (IV,3) concerning Expanding Bullets. The Hague, 29 July 1899, at http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/385ec082b509e76c41256739003e636d/f1f1fb8410212aebc125641e0036317c)

As with other cases of violence perpetrated by settlers, it is also clear that the International Humanitarian Law’s Principle of Distinction has been broken.  “The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives. Attacks may only be directed against military objectives. Attacks must not be directed against civilian objects.” (Rule 7, The Principle of Distinction Between Civilian Objects and Military Objectives) found at http://www.icrc.org/customaryihl/eng/docs/v1_cha_chapter2_rule7.

Furthermore, “Civilians (and their properties) are immune from attack and should never be the target of attack.  Violation of the principles constitutes a war crime.” (Diakonia International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Resource Centre in Israel and the occupied Palestinain territory, 12 February 2013, EAPPI).

The people of Qusra have suffered for far too long from settler violence.  Settler violence has   limited their access to their farmland (and therefore limited access to their livelihood) and it has significantly damaged their property.  Without a doubt, their well-being has been jeopardized and the violence has led to numerous significant injuries.  Now, settler violence has very nearly cost Hilmi Hassan his life.

As EA’s, we hear regularly of other Palestinian communities who suffer from this same problem.  Unfortunately, the people of Qusra are not alone in their suffering. This kind of violence happens frequently across the West Bank, as well as in Jerusalem.

What will it take for the people of Qusra, and other Palestinian communities, to live their lives free of violence from nearby settlers?  At what point will those responsible for this violence be held accountable for their actions?

Human rights groups have documented and reported incidences of settler violence for years.    However, in spite of all of this documentation, nothing changes.  “The failure to respect international law, along with the lack of adequate law enforcement vis-à-vis settler violence and takeover of land has led to a state of (settler) impunity, which encourages further violence and undermines the physical security and livelihoods of Palestinians.”  (UN OCHA Factsheet December 2012)

As Palestinians report and as statistics prove,  the situation is getting worse.  The State of Israel has obviously chosen to ignore these gross human rights violations, and in fact is encouraging further settlement expansion.  As western countries debate the issues of Israeli settlements, settler violence must be an important element of the discussion.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom,

Jan

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One response

  1. Such an important issue for us to know about with regard
    to the settlements. Thanks so much Jan. My thoughts and
    prayers are with you, especially during this Holy Week.

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