Battles in the Israel-Palestine conflict occur every day. Yet it is not the rocket attacks from Gaza or the retaliatory Israeli missile strikes, most often receiving the attention of the world’s politicians and press, which best represent the fundamental nature of the conflict.
The situation is multidimensional. From Israel’s relationship with its neighbours to its, seemingly unconditional, support from the US. There are the human rights abuses committed during the maintenance of a 44-year long occupation and the challenges the country faces being a modern democracy, while claiming the identity of a Jewish state and possessing a significant minority of non-Jewish citizens.
On the other side there is the struggle of the Palestinian National Authority, established 18 years ago through the Oslo Accords, to operate within a system created to be a temporary measure on the path to a lasting agreement between the two sides, and not be seen as a mere administrator of the Israeli occupation. There is the problem of the representation of Palestinian refugees, with the PNA being an entity based on a territory, while millions of refugees claim nationality and live within the borders of other countries and demand a voice. There is a question mark of legitimacy hanging over President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party’s administration is increasingly assuming the appearance of the regimes targeted by mass demonstrations under the region’s “Arab Spring” banner. Following the electoral support received by Hamas in 2006, the seemingly indefinite wait for fresh elections, long overdue.
Nuances aside, there is one issue that looms dominant on the scene. To a large extent settlements represent the real front line of the conflict. Settlements can be seen as a battle of primitive tribalism in which the raw expression of power is borne through the barrel of a gun. Land and natural resources are the goal and their capture is proudly celebrated with totemistic flag raisings. It is a covetous struggle of inches, with proponents taking a long-term strategy with each gain defended bitterly.
Under international law all settlements are considered illegal.
Palestinian resistance can be an act of non-violence or aggression, such as attacks on the Israeli military or occasionally settlers themselves, rock throwing youths or a peaceful protest. Most resistance, however, takes the simple form of people trying to live as their families have done for generations — farming traditional lands and accessing fields and water sources that have sustained their populations for centuries.
Ever-encroaching into the lands of the West Bank, settlements can act as either suburbs, close to Israel’s major centres and offering state-subsidised housing for families and commuting workers, or places of ideological fervour in which residents are proud to claim the land for a Jewish state.
The neatly rowed streets of red-roofed houses in established settlements lie in stark contrast to the grim sight of outposts. With Israeli flags flying proudly over the portable homes, strategically placed on hilltops, and with networks of attack dogs located around their perimeters, such outposts can be eerie places.
Attack dogs around outposts near Nablus (Nigel O’Connor)
The distinction between the character of these communities can often be explosive and the past weeks has seen a dramatic increase in the number of reported attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian villages and towns — even on the Israeli Defence Force itself.
According to a source within the PNA, acts of violence and vandalism by Israeli settlers have increased dramatically in the past two weeks. He described an incident that occurred at Jalazone refugee camp, near Ramallah, on the night of our meeting.
“A group of settlers entered the camp and set fire to a plantation of olive trees,” he said. “The Israeli military did not stop them and when the Palestinian fire brigade arrived to put out the fire, they were not allowed to access the site.”
Such stories have become all too familiar recently. On Monday, a Palestinian woman had the tent she was living in in East Jerusalem burnt down, after having already been dispossessed of her home by settlers.
Last week, in an arson and graffiti attack on a mosque in the village of Qusra, near Nablus, settlers placed burning tyres were inside the building. A Star of David was sprayed on the outside walls, along with the words “Mohammed is a pig”, in Hebrew.
Esh Kedesh outpost from with mosque at Qusra was attacked (Nigel O’Connor)
The list goes on and includes incidents of physical attacks and property damage. There is a strong sense that many attacks are not being reported.
Palestinians regularly see the perpetrators of such attacks going unpunished, while feeling the full force of the Israeli military when a Palestinian has carried out, or is suspected of carrying out, any act.
The PNA source claims the rise in attacks is due to collusion between the Israeli military and settler groups in the lead-up to next week’s expected United Nations vote on recognition of Palestinian statehood — in an effort to intimidate the Palestinian population.
As the occupying power Israel is legally obliged to guarantee the protection of Palestinian and Israeli citizens.
Saric Michaeli, from the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, agrees there is a lack of accountability when settlers attack Palestinians.
“When a Palestinian attacks Israelis in the West Bank, you see the security forces take many measures to bring people to justice — often using means that violate people’s human rights,” she said. “But when a settler attacks Palestinians you do not see the same response.”
While stressing that such terrorism is confined to a minority, within settler communities, she feels such inconsistency has fostered a culture of impunity amongst some settlers.
“Over dozens of years this policy of a lack of law enforcement has been allowed to develop,” she said.
Perhaps another factor in the development of such lawlessness is the role the Israeli state has played in constructing and supporting settlements and outposts.
In a 2005 report, for the Israeli government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Talya Sasson detailed the involvement of Israeli government ministries, public authorities and civil administrative bodies.
Since 1967 Israel has occupied the two pieces of land today referred to as Palestine — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Up until the mid-1990s the establishment of Israeli settlements was a state-sponsored enterprise. As the international mood for a peaceful solution grew, with the signing of the 1993 Olso Accords, the involvement of the Israeli state in sponsoring and expanding settlements — long seen as an obstacle to peace — became more covert, but no less fervent.
Sasson explains that since the government of assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzakh Rabin froze settlement building, the authority to establish new settlements and outposts was assumed by the World Zionist Organisation, a public authority in Israel.
The report describes the move as “inspired by different ministers of housing, either by overlooking or by actual encouragement and support … from other ministries, initiated either by officials or by the political echelon of each ministry”.
In this way the ministries for housing, defence, education and energy supplied financial, logistical and practical support to settlements considered under international (and often Israeli) law to be illegal.
Increasingly, attacks by radical settlers, and their ideological supporters, are not just targeting Palestinians — but are also focusing on Israeli public bodies and activists seen to be working against their Zionistic ideals. Using the name “Price Tag”, this movement is now openly referred to by the Israeli press as a terrorist campaign.
This follows threatening graffiti being sprayed on the home of a Jerusalem-based peace Israeli activist, on Monday, from the group Peace Now.
Last week, in retaliation for the demolition of three houses in Migron outpost, after the Israeli courts deemed them illegal, settlers attacked a military base, slashing the tyres of 16 military vehicles and the daubing the walls with the words “Price Tag. Greetings from Migron”.
Such an attitude of open defiance towards the Israeli state was on display last Saturday when I witnessed settler residents from Karmei Tsur, near Hebron in the West Bank’s south, attacking IDF personnel.
Israeli soldier prevents Palestinians from farming their land as settlers watch — Karmei Tsur settlement (Nigel O’Connor)
The settlers sought to exit their community to attack Palestinian farmers attempting to farm their land. They were prevented by the military. “What is this sh-t?” they shouted at the soldiers in Hebrew. “Stop them, this is the Sabbath.”
Local farmers, from the nearby Palestinian village of Beit Ummar had organised the work following the recent construction of a children’s swing set and an Israeli flag on their land, outside the boundaries of the settlement. One of the farmers, Riyad Abuayyash, explained he and the workers were fearful that it marked an attempt by the settlers to acquire his farmland.
“This is how they take over,” he said. “They hold the fences and say they need them for security. This is how they do it all over the West Bank.”
The Israeli military soon rushed the farmers, who were joined by international activists. One Palestinian man required medical attention after being arrested for singing a song and waving the Palestinian flag and a British man was detained for 10 hours when he attempted to assist in clearing a field.
In the lead-up to the United Nations vote on the recognition of Palestinian statehood, there is an overwhelming sense, in Israel and Palestine, of uncertainty as to what will happen — whatever the outcome. Thus far, one of the only certainties appears to be that the battles taking place around the settlements and outposts will continue.