In the early hours of Friday morning, two Palestinian houses were set alight in the West Bank village of Duma in a suspected arson attack by Jewish extremists. Eighteen-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh was killed in the blaze, while his father and mother, Saad and Reham Dawabsheh, and another son, Ahmad, 4, were taken to a hospital in critical condition.
Key figures in the Israeli government have condemned the attack. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “I am shocked over this reprehensible and horrific act. This is an act of terrorism in every respect. The state of Israel takes a strong line against terrorism regardless of who the perpetrators are.” The education minister Naftali Bennett, tweeted on the attack: “It’s not a hate crime or price tag, it’s murder. Terror is terror is terror.” The Israeli Defence Forces have set up road blocks and increased its presence in the hope of capturing the assailants.
The attack on Friday morning is by no means an isolated incident- Israeli settlers routinely target Palestinians and their property. According to data released by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, since the beginning of 2015 an average of 12 attacks have been committed each week.
And statistics seem to indicate that Israel does very little to stop them happening- only 7.4% of investigation files opened on cases of Israeli civilians attacking Palestinians and their property result in an indictment. The chance that a complaint submitted to the Israel Police by a Palestinian will lead to an effective investigation, the location of a suspect, prosecution, and ultimate conviction is just 1.9 percent, according to Israeli rights organisation Yesh Din.
A report by Yesh Din published this June, suggests that IDF soldiers are often witnesses to attacks on Palestinians or their property and do nothing to prevent or stop them, or to detain and arrest the offenders immediately thereafter. They call the practice “standing idly by” and claim the practice “is almost as old as the occupation itself”. Since 2008, Yesh Din has filed 30 complaints with the Military Police Criminal Investigation Division (MPCID) and the MAG Corps’ Prosecution for Operational Matters regarding this practice. As of February 2015, the MAG Corps decided not to open investigations into nearly half of these.
Many of these attacks fall under the banner of “price tag”; attacks carried out by settlers against Palestinians as revenge for Israeli government actions against settlers, such as demolitions or forced evacuations of illegal outposts. The fatal blaze was likely an act of revenge for the Israeli security forces’ demolition of two buildings in the settlement of Beit El earlier this week, which were deemed illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court. Graffiti saying “revenge” and “long live the messiah” and “price tag” was found on the home of the Dawabsheh family.
There are currently 125 Israeli settlements and approximately 100 Israeli settlement “outposts” (some of which are illegal even under Israeli law), which are home to around 367,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank alone, a number which is growing. All are illegal under international law. According to Israeli military radio, the population in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements has grown twice as much as in Israel itself.
With the exception of Hebron, all settlements are in Area C, the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control. In the event of a settler attack, Palestinians in Area C rely on Israeli protection- which is not usually forthcoming. Many settlers are on the other hand are armed and live in heavily secured compounds. During a visit to Itamar, a Nablus settlement whose residents have a reputation for attacking Palestinians living nearby, men patrolled the streets armed with machine guns, a right afforded to settlers for self-defence under Israeli law. “We have to be careful of the Arabs outside here,” said one man who declined to give his name, pushing a pram with a machine gun strapped to his back, as he pointed to the land beyond the security fence surrounding the settlement. In March of 2011, a family from this settlement was murdered by two Palestinian cousins.
Settler attacks are not always life threatening; often settlers destroy olive trees, poison wells, vandalise cars, assault Palestinians, verbal abuse them, attack farmer’s livestock or throw stones. But they are part of a sustained policy of intimidation. Combined with the movement and building restrictions placed on Palestinians, a picture of life in Area C of the West Bank becomes clearer.
While settlers face near impunity, the story is different for Palestinians living in the same territory, because Israel operates under a dual system of law. Settlers living in the West Bank are subject to Israeli civil law, while Palestinians in the West Bank can be tried by judges in military courts, where conviction rates exceed 99 percent.
This dual system also applies to children: If, for example, a 12-year-old child from Nablus and a 12-year-old child from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar were to have a fight, both would be arrested by the Israeli police. The Palestinian child, however, could be detained for four days before seeing a military judge, whereas the Israeli child would only have to wait for 12 hours before seeing a civilian judge. The Palestinian child could be held for up to 90 days before seeing a lawyer and would have only a 13 percent chance of being freed on bail, whereas the Israeli child would be able to see legal counsel within just two days and would have a 80 percent likelihood of being released on bail.
The Israeli authority’s apparent failure to punish the violent acts of settlers has bred a climate of impunity. According to B’Tselem statistics, in the past three years since August 2012, Israeli civilians set fire to nine Palestinian homes in the West Bank. No one was charged in any of these cases. The tragic outcome of this case comes as no surprise.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.