Fighting Settlers’ Impunity and Immunity

JERUSALEM – The outer stone walls of the unused 12th century Ayyubid mosque in the Israeli center of the city carried the black scars of attempted arson and hatred. "Price tag", the signature read.

"Price tag" attacks are perpetrated by vengeful settlers against innocent Palestinians and their property. It involves not only the defacing and torching of mosques, prayer books, and cars, but also the uprooting of olive trees and the destruction of crops. Recently, settlers have also vented their rage at soldiers, military bases, and equipment. 

On Monday, a dozen settlers penetrated a closed military area on the Israeli-Jordanian border, barricading themselves in vacant churches located near a Christian baptism site on the Jordan River. 

The action was targeted at the King of Jordan’s opposition to the planned dismantlement of a passageway known as the Mughrabi Bridge for fear it may collapse. The bridge allows foot access by Jewish visitors, tourists and Israeli police to the holy compound located inside the occupied walled Old City, and revered as the Temple Mount in Judaism and as the Noble Sanctuary in Islam. 

The initial plan was to destroy the wooden structure and replace it with a safer one. However, after repeated pleas by King Abdullah II of Jordan that the plan might inflame Muslim sentiment, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that the plan be put on hold. The bridge was closed. 

The settlers were eventually evacuated from the churches. Fifteen were apprehended. But the bridge closure was rescinded. And, it was decided that the actual structure would be reinforced. 

During the same night of the churches takeover, scores of stone-throwing settlers invaded a key Israeli military base located in the occupied West Bank, burnt tires, vandalized vehicles, and lightly injured the base commander. 

The settlers were reacting to rumors of a demolition order against settlement homes built on Palestinian-owned land and judged "illegal" by the Supreme Court. 

The customary condemnations by Netanyahu, by army officers, even by the settlers’ establishment, exposed the commotion provoked by the base attack, and the powerlessness of the authorities, civilian, judicial and military. A former defense minister suggested that the army tame the specter of a settler insurgency by shooting at their Jewish aggressors. 

Barak invoked the necessity of enacting "emergency legislation", "expulsions" (of radical elements from settlements) and "administrative detention" (an extra-judicial procedure involving arrest without charges or trial imposed on Palestinians posing a "security risk"). 

"There’s no question that this is terror behavior," Barak told Army Radio, wondering aloud, "Is it an organization, individuals, how can they be defined collectively?" 

Hours later, an organized group of "expulsed" radical settlers that had been "relocated" in Jerusalem and suspected of having perpetrated the arson attack on the historical mosque clashed with police forces who came to arrest them. 

As the "price tag" attacks persisted and intensified, triggering emotional reactions within the Israeli polity, Netanyahu finally approved a series of measures on Wednesday: the issuance of administrative detention orders against radical settlers and trials in military courts allowing expedited sentences and more severe punishments. 

But he rejected recommendations from the Left that the "price tags" attackers be officially labeled a "terror group", a step which would have allowed the enforcement of anti-terror legislation on extremist settlers, yet still an anathema for most Israelis accustomed to branding Palestinian stone-throwers as "terrorists". 

On Friday, during a standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinian demonstrators near the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, an unarmed activist, Mustafa Tamimi, was hurt in the head by a tear-gas canister fired at close range by a soldier, and died of his wound. 

Though unrelated, this event showed the glaring inequality in response to disturbances. The all-too common laissez-faire by the law enforcement authority vis-à-vis the settlers, their impunity and quasi- immunity before the law, indeed raise taxing questions. 

Often, settler stone-throwers confronting soldiers and Palestinians face arrest and interrogation before they’re sent home with a reprimand, or to a forced ‘exile’ in Israel proper; Palestinian stone-throwers confronting Israeli settlers or soldiers face possible death, or imprisonment. 

Since the army is not responsible for enforcing the law on Israeli citizens – the police is, together with the General Security Services (or "Shin Beth") – rioting by settlers has continued unabated. Netanyahu decided to give the army the power to arrest radical settlers. 

Moreover, Israel’s police in the West bank show signs of helplessness, even "negligence" and "incompetence", according to an inquiry recently published in the liberal daily Haaretz. 

The report found that charges pressed against settlers (even against Palestinians) are often closed without trial, or discredited in court, due to police failure to conduct proper investigations. Netanyahu also decided that the teams investigating attacks by settlers would be enlarged, and that more resources would be allocated. 

But the root of the problem remains. Israel’s military judicial system rules over West Bank Palestinians since 1967. The Israeli occupation, particularly the future of wildcat settlements built by settlers without formal government approval has been a simmering issue ever since their creation during the 1990s. 

In 2005, former head of the State Prosecution Criminal Department Talia Sasson published a landmark report on the question. Commissioned by then prime minister Ariel Sharon, the report found the Israeli government guilty of "institutional lawbreaking" and of the theft of private Palestinian land to covertly establish over a hundred "illegal outposts". 

The damning irony is that the "outposts" were a 1997 initiative by none but Sharon himself, then foreign Minister under Netanyahu, who’d urged settlers to seize hilltops in order to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. 

The report recommended criminal investigation against those allegedly involved in the scheme, but it was shelved. Repeated injunctions have since pressed successive governments to address the issue. 

Netanyahu, now again at the helm, has until March 2012 to dismantle the "illegal outpost" of Migron. Erected on Palestinian-owned land, it has, with time, grown to the size of an "authorized" settlement.

(Inter Press Service)