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Living next to the settler neighbors from hell

MEMO's Renee Boyer comments on Sharmine Narwani's article "Israel's Human Shields and Live Bait" in the Huffington Post, 8 October 2010. Sharmine Narwani is a Senior Associate, St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

Living in the West Bank in Palestine means dealing with occupation on a daily basis. It means seeing IDF forces at the entrance to most cities and villages of the West Bank; it means dealing with roadblocks and checkpoints, invasions and arrests. It means that an occupying military force controls every facet of life. But living in the West Bank means dealing with more than this massive invasion on one's life. It means dealing with the Israeli settler as well and this is sometimes more frightening than dealing with the Israeli military.

In many ways the settler project is the 'wild-card' branch of the Israeli military, one that often leads to deadly situations. The settler does what even an Israeli soldier sometimes needs an excuse to do and, in fact, according to some, the settler becomes the excuse the Israeli soldier needs to kill.

There are many arguments as to the reason why the settler project condemned around the world continues to grow and expand under consecutive Israeli governments. The call to halt settlement expansion has come from all sides of the globe including Israel's main ally, the USA. Yet the settler movement is expanding at an alarming rate. Living in a village in the Salfit region of the West Bank I could see month by month the encroachment of the settlements on the villages of that region. Marda is a village under the shadow of the Ari'el Settlement and the mountain-side above the village is now a litter place for Ari'el. The villagers of Marda wake up daily to the stench of a rubbish dump on what was once a pristine mountain. A few miles on is the tragedy of the valley of Wadi Qana. The sewage from the settlement Imanuel, built in 1982 now poisons the river there and the orchards are dying. The villagers from Wadi Qana have been forced to leave their polluted valley and now inhabit the village of Deir Istya; itself decimated by Israeli settlements and now only a fraction of the size it once was.

'Security risk'

There is no end to telling the stories of how the settler project is slowly and systematically destroying the land and livelihood of the Palestinian farmers and villagers; but on another level the Israeli settlers are also proving to be a major factor in the violence perpetrated against the Palestinian people. In fact there is an argument that suggests the Israeli government masks its much more deadly goal of annihilating the Palestinian people behind the settler project.

Sharmine Narwani writes the following scenario in her argument that the settler movement is being used in this way:

'"Naatzi! Naaatzi!" This word, amazingly enough, is a settler favorite. "Nazis!" they screech at foreign TV crews, while waving their infants around. "Nazi! Nazi! Natzi!" they chant as they provocatively try to stop Palestinians from harvesting their olive crops. And the IDF soldiers wait and watch – occasionally intervening to push a frustrated and humiliated Palestinian objector away from a taunting, threatening Jewish settler.

Eventually, a half-crazed Palestinian will fight back, even kill some settlers. The Israeli authorities immediately step in and claim the "Security Risk" has increased and more Palestinian land has to be confiscated to ensure Israel's security. More Palestinians are detained, harassed, punished. More Palestinian homes are occupied or demolished. See how that works? Unleash your craziest settlers onto a Palestinian civilian population until someone blows a fuse and hits back. Then use that as the pretext to encroach further into the lives and onto the land of Palestinians.'

Sharmine continues by questioning the motive of the settler movement. If Israel continues to build the wall to 'protect' its civilians and is constantly invading, killing and imprisoning Palestinian people because of a 'security risk' then why 'would consecutive Israeli governments heavily subsidize and incentivize the relocation of young families – women and children – into hostile environments for no reason? Why would Israel – which claims security dangers wherever there are Palestinian populations – deliberately and systematically place its Jewish civilian population in "harm's way?"'

This is a valid question and to Western audiences who are used to the Israeli story hard to answer; infact the generally accepted view in the West is that the settlers are acting freely and the Israeli authorities cannot contain them. But Sharmine argues against this and having lived in the West Bank and dealt with settler violence on a number of occasions I can concur.

When a Palestinian reacts violently to intense provocation from an Israeli settler following a life of harassment by the IDF; the Israeli State steps in and imposes a week of 'terror' on the village of the 'militant' who initiated the violence. I have been in villages when this happened. They are subjected to night after night of sound bombs and tanks rolling around the streets. Random houses being invaded and the children and women made to stand in the dark, dogs unleashed and random machine gun fire. Half the young men of the village rounded up and taken to detention; some stuck in administrative detention for years. This is the consequence of an act of provoked violence of one Palestinian youth.

On the other hand the Israeli settler lives untouched by Israeli law and obviously out of reach of Palestinian law. Walking home from a non-violent demonstration against Israeli land confiscation near the village of Biddya I had a perfect example of this.
I was walking with the women folk and children back towards their village. We were being followed on all sides by Israeli forces, jeeps and soldiers equipped with their weapons of crowd control, which have proved to be deadly on a number of occasions. We were walking 100 meters from a settler road and I saw a truck driving around the bend. I watched in horror as the truck slowed down and then stopped and a settler opened the door and standing on the step of the truck pointed a machine gun at the crowd of women and children. I have never been so horrified as at that moment when I heard the gunfire and saw the women and children falling to the ground for protection. I remember not daring to look up from the ground where I had flung myself. When I did I saw women grabbing at children and hurrying toward their homes. I stood waiting to see if some woman or child would not rise but thankfully all did. Turning to the road I saw the soldiers had approached the truck. One had pushed the settler into the car seat and another had slammed his door and that was it. The truck drove off and the soldiers turned their focus back to the much greater threat of a group of young kids with their mothers walking home.

Sharmine's study has lead her to the 'chilling fact' that 'whichever way you slice and dice the data, settler violence is on the rise, and is consistent, systematic and happening in all governorates in 280 villages and locations across the West Bank. With no repercussions for the settlers who live under the Israeli penal code in a apartheid-system that separates them from the occupation and military laws to which Palestinians are subjected they can get quite literarily get away with murder.'

This means that the Israel government has two military forces. One 'legitimate' one recognized as one of the strongest militaries in the world financially supported and equipped by western powers, and one formed from the settler movement. The settler movement itself has two roles to play, the first is to occupy land and land-grab for Israel, the second is to provoke Palestinian violence that leads to more land grab and depopulation of Palestinian land; 'little by little, by invoking "security threats" resulting from Palestinian retaliation against settler attacks, Israel has made massive gains over the two decades since peace talks were launched.'

Who are the settlers?

The question you can't help asking when you are talking about this issue is what motivates the settlers themselves to choose this way of life? Who are they as people? I want to illustrate this question without suggesting answers because in the end it actually makes little difference. Whether the settlers are a majority of religious zealots, profiteers, uninformed followers or passive idealists they are a part of a force that is being used to destroy a whole country and the international community needs to step up the pressure to stop this.

In the south Hebron hills in the village of Al-Tuwani I remember standing every morning on a hill top waiting for the twelve children from a neighboring village to appear on the horizon. An Israeli jeep was also waiting for them and a bizarre procession would then follow. A jeep leading twelve little Palestinian children to school because their way lead them past the Israeli outpost of Havat Ma'on where a settler used to ambush the children, jumping at them from behind bushes and screeching obscenities at them. Rather than remove this crazed zealot the Israeli army chose to daily provide 'protection' to twelve Palestinian children travelling to and from school.

It was also in village of At-Tuwani that during my stay in Palestine a young American volunteering with the Christian Peacemakers Team was so severely bashed by a settler that he was hospitalized for weeks.

But on the other hand there is evidence of the 'blind' settler who lives their privileged life in the centre of the most unjust region of the world. One day I was picked up on my way to Al Quds by just such an Israeli woman. She told me that she had come out to Ari'el settlement with her husband from America maybe five years before. She had lived there and driven daily on the settlers roads and had given birth to two children and raised them as she may have had she remained in the US. Only one day she said she glanced through a wire mesh on the side of the road and saw a Palestinian village. It was close to Al Quds and was devastated by the beginning of Wall by settler roads and was surrounded by barbed wire. She said this was when her eyes were opened. She left the settlement and took her family to Tel Aviv and started working with various Israeli peace groups. She told me how guilty she felt for having lived with as she said 'blinkers on' for so many years.

It is not easy to make sense of the brutality of a part of the settler movement, particularly among the hill-top youths, or of the apparent blindness of the rest of the settlers to the reality of what they are doing to Palestine; but one thing is clear, that the settler project in the West Bank is one of the most serious issues today. The international community has voiced its concern over settlement expansion and Israel has ignored this. It remains to be seen how far the US will push its stance against settlement expansion in the upcoming peace talks; but even then settlement expansion is only a half of the problem. The existing settlements and their effect on the livelihood of Palestinians in the West Bank is the very real other side of the problem. The settler roads, the settler attacks on Palestinians, the settler theft of water sources and pollution of wells, the settler confiscation of land and occupation of Palestinian homes are all crimes that are going unnoticed by the West. It is hypocritical to say the least when the West preaches Mid-East peace talk progress and yet does not mention the existing settler problem except as something whose expansion has to halt. There can be no progress in any sort of peace talks without first dealing with reality on the ground. And the West has chosen up till now not to do this.

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