The last week and a half alone has seen more than four instances of Israeli settler violence aimed against Palestinians and activists helping them with the olive harvest in the West Bank.
In a particularly brash display, settlers took over a playground in the Palestinian village of Susiya one Saturday afternoon. As in almost all such cases, the military let them enter the village, break into the playground and use the children’s facilities. It took the authorities almost an hour to disperse them.
Israel uses countless lies and excuses to deflect allegations of settler violence: it’s a “seasonal” occurrence, limited to the olive harvest; it’s the work of “bad apples” – a handful of disaffected fundamentalist teens; it happens out of sight, in remote illegal outposts; law enforcement agencies are on it, the police are investigating, and the military is refining protocol yet again.
The truth is that settlers use violence against Palestinians all year round, on a daily basis, throughout the West Bank: in established settlements, in isolated outposts, and in the dozens of “farms” formed in recent years; at the hands of teens or adults, ordinary settlers or settlement officials. Some areas suffer more, but none are exempt.
Every few years, the violence reaches a new level of sophistication. Twenty years ago, settlers from outposts were violently expropriating private Palestinian land. Then came “price tag” incidents, in which settlers vandalized Palestinian homes and burned fields, groves, and mosques in the name of vengeance. Now, we are in the throes of a violent takeover of tens of thousands of dunams by settlers from outposts termed “agricultural farms”.
The result: tens of thousands of dunams of land misappropriated from Palestinians using the same methodical violence we are witnessing now. For example, “Uri’s farm” – an outpost established in late 2016 on the land of Khirbet al-Mazuqa, a Palestinian village in the northern Jordan Valley destroyed in 1967 – has violently taken over almost 15,000 dunams used by local Palestinians to graze flocks. That is roughly the size of the Israeli city of Holon. And it is only one of about 50 “farms”.
Over the years, the state has protected violent settlers. The military protects them while they carry out assaults and take over land; branches of government subsidize outposts - settlement established without formal permits - on the expropriated land, while the State's Attorney Office and other authorities protect them from eviction. In the few times, the state has been forced to evacuate settlers from Palestinian land – in Migron, Amona, and Derech Ha'avot – it has compensated them generously.
In addition, violent settlers and those who send and finance them enjoy near complete immunity from the resulting harm to Palestinians. They are very rarely arrested, investigated, or prosecuted. Soldiers often times stand by while settlers go on a rampage. Last May, an armed settler wearing military pants was filmed shooting at Palestinians in the village of 'Urif, near Nablus, while standing next to a soldier.
There are never enough soldiers or police to stop violent settlers – but always enough to demolish a water cistern in an isolated Palestinian community (which Israel refuses to hook up to the water grid) - or to stop volunteers from paying a solidarity visit to the children of Susiya, armed with markers and a coloring book, as we saw just last Saturday.
None of this is random. The intimidation of Palestinians by settlers in the West Bank is a tool in the hands of the Israeli regime. After all, the regime does exactly what these settlers do – it expropriates land, water, and natural resources and blocks sustainable Palestinian development.
Officially, the state abides by the law, aided by a slew of military orders, civil and military court rulings, and detailed Civil Administration procedures. Unofficially, but under the auspices of the state, violent settlers use other means of oppression – assaulting Palestinians with clubs, pepper spray, stones, live fire, and dogs, raiding homes, driving shepherds out of pastureland, stealing crops, cutting down trees, instigating arson, and more. Both the formal and the informal track serve the same purpose - an attempt to drive Palestinians from their lands and homes.
It is convenient for Israelis to play make-believe: To pretend that settler violence is separate from us, hooliganism that has nothing to do with the state. Yet it is more of the same violence carried out through other channels. When the violence is legitimate, permitted and backed for so many years, it is not the work of a handful of settlers - it is state violence.
Eyal Hareuveni is an Israeli journalist and human-rights researcher for B'Tselem