In early September, illegal Jewish settlers set fire to the ground floor of Al-Nurain Mosque in the occupied West Bank village of Qasra to the south of Nablus. This was not an isolated act of violence, but one of many incidents which have seen Muslim and Christian places of worship and religious artefacts attacked and destroyed by right-wing extremist settlers. In fact, such attacks have now spread across the Armistice Line inside Israel itself, with a mosque being torched early in October in the Arab village of Tuba Zangaria.
Since 2010, there have been 27 documented attacks on mosques in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem carried out by Israeli settlers, the Israeli occupational forces and, sometimes, both together. There have also been 3 documented attacks on churches in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Israeli attacks against places of worship have been going on for decades but have escalated in recent years as illegal settlers have more or less been given free rein by the Israeli authorities to spread terror among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem and now within the Zionist state.
Israeli settler attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem
According to statistics collated by Palestinian sources, in 2010 nine mosques in the West Bank and Jerusalem were attacked by settlers and three were attacked by the Israeli occupation forces (IOF). In some cases, the IOF stormed the mosques before allowing extremist settlers to enter, looting and causing damage to furniture, the structure and holy books.
A year ago, during the so-called “peace negotiations”, Jewish settlers set fire to a mosque in Beit Fajjar, south of Bethlehem, next to the illegal Jewish settlement of Gush Etzion. Reuters reported that the walls were daubed with graffiti showing the words “Price Tag” and a star of David: “The green-carpeted floor of the mosque was burned to a black crust in a dozen places where it was doused with kerosene and set alight at around three in the morning. A dozen copies of the Koran were scorched by the fire.”
When Israel’s uniformed thugs treat international law with contempt, it is no wonder that extreme right-wing settlers are able to justify their acts of violence using their own twisted logic. The Israeli occupation forces, for example, laid siege to Khirbet Yirza, in East Tubas, Al-Aghwar region, in November 2010, and destroyed the only mosque in the village because “it was built without a permit”. The Palestinian residents confirmed that it did have a permit and that the mosque had been part of the village since 1967. The destruction was simply part of a wider campaign by the Israeli authorities to dispossess the Palestinians in the region.
Muslims are not the only targets of Jewish settlers; in 2010, two churches were attacked in Jerusalem and Ein Al-Hilweh on the West Bank. The one-hundred year old church in Jerusalem was left with substantial structural damage by the settlers, who broke a number of windows and hurled Molotov cocktails, causing substantial damage to the first floor. The Palestinian Authority suggested that the attack was a “response to decisions made by the UN organisation for education, culture and science, UNESCO, the most recent of which was its refusal to include the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Mosque of Bilal bin Rabah on what is known as the [Israeli government’s] ‘list of Jewish heritage sites'”.
In almost ten months of 2011, five mosques have come under attack from Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, the most recent being the aforementioned mosque in Qasra, where the “windows were smashed, tyres set alight inside the building and graffiti in Hebrew sprayed on the walls”. There have been a further four attacks by the IOF on mosques in the area and one attack on a church in Ramallah.
Palestinian residents of al-Mughayyir village woke up for the dawn prayer on June 7th this year to find “smoke billowing from the mosque”. The building had Hebrew graffiti scrawled on the wall which read “Price-tag- Eley Ain”, suggesting that the attack was in response to the removal by the Israeli authorities of the illegal (even under Israeli law) settlement outpost at Eley Ain a week before.
Places of worship are not the only non-Jewish structures under threat; Muslim cemeteries and both Islamic and Christian sites and other artefacts of historical significance have also been targeted. Since 2010, 15 Muslim cemeteries have been attacked, and some have been destroyed, in the West Bank and Jerusalem; in seven of these cases the instructions came from the Israeli authorities.
Apart from structural damage to holy sites and artefacts, Palestinians have also had to deal with direct provocation from both settlers and the Israeli occupation forces. Monitors have recorded 36 separate incidents whereby Muslim and Christian Palestinians have been faced with verbal abuse, oppressive security measures, limited access to their respective places of worship, regular intimidation and threats.
Israeli settler attacks against Arabs in Israel
Terrorism against a largely unarmed civilian population by armed Jewish settler groups is, of course, almost traditional in Israel; the Zionist state was founded on the terrorism of the Irgun and Stern gang terrorists and state terror has been a common tactic of Israel’s armed forces. Today, the illegal settlers are taking their terrorism across the Armistice (“Green”) Line into Israel. When a mosque in the Arab village of Tuba Zangaria, in the northern Galilee district was set on fire earlier this month, the Israeli Prime Minister, and other Israeli politicians, provided sound-bite “outrage”; the attack, said Benjamin Netanyahu, was against the “supreme values” of freedom of religion and freedom to worship. But did his security forces even try to stop or apprehend the perpetrators? Speak up, Mr Netanyahu, we can’t hear you.
That was not the first time that places of worship have been attacked within Israel. In June 2010, a mosque in the Arab village of Ibtin, east of Haifa, was vandalised by Israeli settlers. The graffiti statements scrawled across the walls of the mosque indicated the anti-Arab feeling that was spreading across the region: “There will be a war over Judea and Samaria [the occupied West Bank]”, “price tag” and “this structure is destined for demolition”.
Who is to blame?
The anti-Arab sentiment that is being fostered without any serious condemnation from Israeli leaders is providing what the journalist Jonathan Cooke describes as “Jewish terror groups” with the confidence to continue with impunity their attacks against Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel. Sadly, mainstream rabbis in Israel have played a part in inciting this hatred; Shmuel Eliyahu, for example, is a rabbi in Safed, a few miles from Tuba, and has been leading a strong campaign to expel Arab students who study at the local college.
The majority of these attacks on mosques, churches and Palestinian properties have been part of the “Price Tag” campaign, carried out in retaliation for the Israeli authorities dismantling a few illegal outposts in the West Bank. The campaign, which has been described as a “cancerous growth” by one Arab Knesset member, has gained momentum amongst the extremist “Jewish terror groups”, who have used it as an excuse to terrorise Palestinian worshippers, families, school children and farmers.
Commentators and human rights organisations hold the Israeli authorities and government to blame. Cooke criticised the government’s unwillingness to tackle the surge in the “price tag” attacks effectively. “Since 2009,” he wrote, “when Netanyahu formed the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, Jewish extremist groups based in the West Bank settlements have set fire to more than half a dozen Palestinian mosques, as well as committing several pogrom-style attacks on isolated Palestinian communities.”
He suggests that both Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have been fuelling anti-Arab feeling by describing the continuing presence of Arab citizens in Israel as a “demographic time bomb” which, “if not diffused, will eventually destroy Israel’s Jewish identity”.
According to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, the Israeli authorities have not been doing enough to stop settler attacks. As documented reports by other local sources show, there have been 19 cases where Israeli soldiers have stood by and allowed settlers to attack and act provocatively in or around Palestinian properties. In some cases it was reported that soldiers took action against Palestinians protecting their properties while the Jewish terrorists rampaged through their places of worship, homes and farmland. The settler attacks on Qasra included the uprooting of 200 olive trees in clear view of a new Israeli army post overlooking the valley.
One Israeli commentator highlights the “Palestinian reaction” to settler violence as being a cause of concern for the Israel Defence Forces, with no analysis of the root cause of the potential Palestinian response; the settler attacks on Palestinians. “These are the scenarios that are most concerning for the IDF and the Israeli government since if something like this happens, the intelligence assessments immediately change and the Palestinians will then, officers believe, take violently to the streets.”
Although Netanyahu and his government have condemned attacks on places of worship and removed a handful of illegal settlement outposts in what can only be regarded as a token gesture, he has largely supported and implemented an aggressive settlement policy within the occupied Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem. This is despite pressure from international bodies such as the UN and Israel’s closest ally, the United States.
For many Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, it is hard to distinguish between the actions of the extremist Jewish settlers and those of the Israeli occupation forces. Both are intent on oppressing and terrorising Palestinians; both are intent on solving the “Arab problem” that exists amongst them. The only difference, it seems, is that one group does not try to hide its hatred of the Palestinians, while the other speaks with a forked tongue.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.