Final Word: The Violence Must End
Everyone has a stake in stopping the lawlessness in the extremist settlements of the Occupied Territories. by Emily McNeill ’08
“I watched the tears well up in Ahmed’s eyes. I was alarmed, hoping this 75-year-old man, who had spent 40 years in an Israeli prison, wasn’t about to break down in front of three internationals and his adolescent son. But then Ahmed buried his face in his hands and began to sob. I sat, silent, on a plastic chair in his sparse living room baking in the August heat. After a minute he looked up and spoke again. “What can we do?” he repeated over and over.
Across the street Israeli settlers in their teens and early 20s had been camping for almost a month. We were in Wadi Nasara, a valley outside Hebron in the West Bank, where the youths had set up tents on Palestinian land next to an olive grove. They occupied the area in shifts around the clock, intermittently attacking Palestinians and internationals who passed by their camp, throwing stones, kicks, and punches.
Settler violence here was nothing new, but since this camp had been set up the situation had worsened. It had been a particularly bad few weeks for these families who, in addition to living under military occupation, have the misfortune of living near some of the most extremist Israeli settlements. Attacks were taking place almost daily. We had already heard of many of them: a 79-year-old man stoned and beaten, a donkey stolen, children attacked at a wedding.
On most maps the West Bank is a kidney-shaped area in the middle of the Jewish state. At one time the map could reasonably be drawn this way, with distinct territories and borders. Today that map is irrelevant; a more accurate depiction of the West Bank looks like a piece of Swiss cheese, with Palestinian land broken up by more than 120 Israeli settlements
These holes represent not only confiscated land, but also pockets of unchecked violence. I witnessed the effects of this violence this summer, when I worked in Hebron with Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical organization that works in conflict zones documenting human rights abuses, nonviolently intervening in conflicts, and supporting nonviolent direct action. Much of the violence CPT deals with in Hebron and the village of At-Tuwani is settler attacks against Palestinians. There were 551 such incidents of settler attacks against Palestinians as well as Israeli soldiers in 2007, and 429 in just the first half of 2008, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Since 2007 Israeli civilians had killed five Palestinians (two of whom were trying to attack settlers when they were killed). Rarely do Israeli police and military challenge this violence: a mere 15 percent of attacks in 2007 ended in a charge, according to Israeli police (fewer than 10 percent, according to an Israeli rights group).
In Wadi Nasara, police allowed the settlers to remain on Palestinian land and failed to either prevent or respond to attacks, even though they were happening regularly and were being reported to police. The Palestinians I spoke with there were universally frustrated. With soldiers and police turning a blind eye to the violence, there was nowhere to turn for justice or relief. “I just want one day of a normal life without settlers and occupation and soldiers,” one father in his 40s told me. “Just one day — not even two — and then I can die.”
The trauma of violence is not confined to the Palestinians. It is shared by extremist settler communities who conceive of their existence in the West Bank as a battle for “Eretz Yisrael,” a Jewish state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. They feel threatened by Palestinian attacks — which in the past two years have killed four Israeli civilians in the West Bank — as well as by official Israeli support for a Palestinian state. Their vision for Israel is under attack, and they are waging war for it.
The teens camping by the grove reflect the mentality of their communities, which is both belligerent and defensive. Once, when a group of settler boys was blocking us from passing, my Palestinian American teammate told one of them he hoped they would someday live in peace. “I hope someday I will kill you,” the boy responded.
These youth have the support and example of adult settlers throughout the West Bank. The incidents of violence this summer were shocking — homemade rockets fired at a Palestinian village, a farmer tied to a pole and beaten, a shepherd’s tent and possessions stolen, Palestinian children on their way to summer camp chased and stoned by masked (adult) settlers. Such attacks have become part of normal life in the more extremist settlements, and neither Israeli authorities nor settler communities seem willing to challenge them.
But challenge them they must. When it comes to Israeli settlement activity, much more is at stake than the allocation of land and resources. Unchecked settler extremism is fostering a culture of violence that shapes the perspectives and experiences of everyone there. Its legacy will touch West Bank communities — no matter their ethnic composition — for generations to come.
As a student at Ithaca College, Emily McNeill edited Buzzsaw magazine, was a Park Scholar, and played cello in the Symphony Orchestra. She now lives in Washington, D.C. Read more of her observations from the West Bank at h2occupied.blogspot.com.