Israel's West Bank settlements are on high alert before the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership. Some fear it may trigger a Palestinian uprising; Palestinians say settlers try to provoke them.
Israeli border police remove a demonstrator during a weekly protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah last week. Police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators protesting against Jewish settlements in the West Bank. (Darren Whiteside, Reuters / September 18, 2011)
By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times
September 18, 2011, 4:32 p.m.
Reporting from Nili Settlement, West Bank
Sitting at his computer, security officer Nitsan Brizel pans his remote surveillance cameras out to the main road below the West Bank settlement of Nili, then zooms back in to focus on a Palestinian worker at one of the construction sites in the expanding community.
Every settlement has conducted exhaustive emergency drills and training with the Israeli army for possible clashes, including reviewing rules about how and when to use deadly force if necessary. Last week, the French branch of the Jewish Defense League — a group banned in Israel for its extremist ideology — said it would be sending military-trained activists to help protect West Bank settlements.
Beyond defensive measures, settlers are preparing to launch counter-demonstrations to face off against Palestinian protesters at checkpoints or settlement gates. And extremist settler groups have stepped up violent attacks against Palestinians in recent weeks, burning mosques, cars and olive trees.
Some worry that such actions will worsen the already-tense environment in the West Bank.
"The greatest fear is that the settlers become an autonomous element on the ground," said Shlomo Aronson, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Palestinian leaders say Israel is exaggerating the threat of potential Palestinian violence and accuse settlers of trying to provoke the Palestinians.
"If we are expecting a campaign of terror and violence, it's coming from the Israeli side," Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki said.
Leaders of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem say they are not looking for a fight but must prepare for the worst.
"We don't want an escalation," said Danny Dayan, head of the umbrella settler group Yesha Council, which is calling for Israel to annex West Bank settlements in retaliation for the Palestinians' U.N. bid. "But we don't scare so easily."
Every settlement keeps an emergency response team of volunteer residents who are trained and armed by the military. Their purpose is to hold off attacks until the army arrives. But in anticipation of this month's U.N. standoff, such preparations have been strengthened.
In East Jerusalem, Jewish activists are training neighborhood guards in hand-to-hand combat and plan to distribute riot gear, such as tear gas and helmets. In the restive West Bank city of Hebron, Jewish settlers last week conducted a dress rehearsal of a possible clash, using students dressed as Palestinian protesters to rush settlement security guards.
Standing instructions from the army authorize settlement security teams to open fire if they feel threatened, but in the age of popular protest such rules are subjective.
"What constitutes a threat to life may be a matter of interpretation," said Shlomo Vaknin, the Yesha Council's chief security officer.
If a Palestinian kindergarten teacher paraded her charges to the settlement gate waving flags, Brizel said, he'd greet them with a glass of water. But if a high school teacher arrived with a group of youths, things could be different. "I'll have to decide when I feel threatened," he said.
If Palestinians use new weapons of popular protest and social media, Israeli activists say they'll do the same. A Facebook page launched by the right-wing group My Israel has signed up 12,000 people to participate in or provide transportation for "defensive" demonstrations. Volunteers agree to respond on short notice after receiving email or text messages.
The group says its aim is to deny Palestinians the "good visuals" that might come from news coverage of civilians confronting Israeli soldiers. Instead, the group's volunteers will attempt to intercept Palestinian demonstrations with their own activists. For example, if Palestinian children march toward a checkpoint, activists will deploy their own children to confront them, according to the group's website.
Settler groups say that they plan to rely chiefly on the army to protect them but that they will not sit back if Palestinians approach their settlements.
"We'll have to respond," Vaknin said. "We won't allow our communities to be penetrated."
Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem bureau.
Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
While the diplomats haggle,deadly tensions are mounting in the nascent Palestine
The quest for Palestinian statehood at the UN has worsened a climate of fear on the ground in the Occupied Territories
Harriet Sherwood in Qusra
guardian.co.uk < http://guardian.co.uk/> , Saturday 24 September 2011 15.35 BST
Women at the Jewish settlement of Pnei Kedem practice firing pistols and high-powered rifles.
Photograph: Nati Shohat/Flash90
The settlers come down the hill from the outpost, mostly on foot, but occasionally on horseback or in tractors or 4x4s. They carry Israeli flags, and sometimes bring guns, shovels and dogs. There may be as few as three or as many as 40. They taunt the local villagers and sometimes attack them. Often the Israeli army arrives and trains its weapons on the villagers.
In Qusra, deep among the terraced hills of the West Bank, fear is on the rise. "The settlers are provoking us continuously," said Hani Abu Reidi, head of the village council. "They uproot olive trees, kill our sheep, burn our mosques and curse our prophet. They want to drag us into the sphere of violence. We do not want to go there."
As the Palestinian quest for statehood looks set to be mired in diplomatic back rooms for weeks or months, tension on the ground is mounting. Both Palestinian villagers and Jewish settlers say each other is responsible for a spike in attacks over the past fortnight; mostly small-scale incidents such as throwing stones, molotov cocktails and insults. Both sides claim the other is preparing to invade their communities and attack their people. It has created an edgy climate of fear and menace, and is a forewarning of potential battles to come if the struggle for the land moves up a gear with impending Palestinian statehood.
The request by the Palestinians to be admitted to the United Nations as a full member state, formally submitted on Friday, will now be considered by the security council for an undefined period, during which efforts to get both sides back to the negotiating table will intensify.
If no progress is made, the Palestinians will press for a vote at the security council, a move the US has pledged to veto. The Palestinians would then have the option of asking the 193-member general assembly for enhanced status, albeit short of full statehood. As this process inches forward, anger on the ground is rising.
On Friday, violence between settlers from the outpost of Esh Kodesh and around 300 Qusra villagers ended in a haze of teargas and bullets fired at the villagers by Israeli troops, two of which struck Issam Odeh, 33, killing the father-of-eight.
Qusra set up a defence committee earlier this month after one of the village's four mosques was vandalised in a settler attack condemned by the US and the European Union. Up to 20 unarmed men patrol the mosques from 8pm to 6am every night, and Abu Reidi claims they have already foiled at least one attack. Other Palestinian villages have followed suit.
On the hilltops, preparations for clashes have also been under way for weeks. Security around settlements and outposts has been reinforced with extra barbed wire, CCTV cameras, security guards and dogs. And the settlers themselves are armed and primed in anticipation of what they believe will be incursions by Palestinians intent on making their hoped-for state a reality on the ground.
This week, photographs were published on a pro-settler news website,Arutz Sheva, showing women from Pnei Kedem, an outpost south of Bethlehem, learning to shoot. In Shimon Hatzadik, a Jewish enclave in the midst of the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in east Jerusalem, settlers are preparing to invoke a law allowing self-defence against intruders. "We are talking about shooting at their legs and if that doesn't work, and our lives are in danger, we won't be afraid to shoot straight at them. Most of the residents here are armed," spokesman Yehonatan Yosef told parliamentarians two weeks ago.
Activists in the settlement of Qiryat Arba, on the edge of Hebron, have distributed clubs, helmets and teargas to nearby outposts. "They've been given all of the tools we could provide for them in order to protect themselves," Bentzi Gopstein, a member of Qiryat Arba's council, told the Ynet news website. "But we must remember that the best defence is offence. We can't stay close to our fences. If the Arabs can come to us, they must learn we can come to them."
The settlers believe Israeli soldiers will be hampered by restraints imposed by commanders fearful of negative publicity. "They are not receiving the right orders," said radical activist Itamar Ben-Gvir from Qiryat Arba. "There's no state in the world that would allow the enemy to cross its lines and enter its communities. If the IDF will not act properly, we will have to defend ourselves."
Women and children would take part in defensive action, he said. "We want to present an equation: women against women; children against children. The Arabs are intending to use their children and we will not sit still."
Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Bethlehem, expects the focus in the coming weeks to "move from hypothetical issues in New York to practical terror here in Judaea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank]". Gush Etzion had a comparatively good relationship with its Palestinian neighbours, he said. "We are trying to talk to them to reduce friction and tension. But if the Palestinians march towards the settlements, there is a red line. If they try to cross, to penetrate our communities, it will be a big problem."
As well as fighting on the ground, many settlers believe they must also wage a political battle against the Israeli government. "Netanyahu is a weak leader, not standing for the values he was elected for," said Goldstein. "The [settlement] construction freeze was the first in history – and this from a rightwinger. So we have to push him, to press him, to keep him to hold the line."
The settlers are not just fighting to hold on to the land they already occupy; they intend to expand and grow – as they see it, reclaiming the land that has been willed to them by God.
"Our purpose is to build new towns and communities, new outposts in Judaea and Samaria," said veteran activist Daniella Weiss. "It's our role as Jews to build the land of the Jews."
In Qusra, Abu Reidi agreed the land is at the heart of confrontations between Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers. "Their ultimate goal is to drive us from our land," he said. "Defending the land is a holy task. If we let them succeed, they will take more and more."