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AFP: "Palestinian civilians bear brunt of settler violence"

Israel has applied the law to 16 percent of West Bank land since it began using the tactic in 1980, says Hagit Ofran, the head of the settlement watch project at the Peace Now watchdog.
By Djallal Malti - 11 June 2009

ASSIRA AL-QIBLIYA, West Bank (AFP) - Nestled amid rolling hills and with an eagle eye's view to the Mediterranean coast, Nahla Ahmed's house has all the elements of Eden... if it weren't for the Molotov cocktail-throwing neighbours.

"We put bars on the windows after the first attack that came at 2:00 am three years ago," says the 36-year-old mother of four. "Now they come each week."

Ahmed has the misfortune of living in a hilltop house on the edge of this Palestinian village, with the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar on a facing hill.

The residents of Yitzhar are not exactly the type of neighbours Ahmed can approach to borrow a cup of sugar.

Among the most radical of settlers in the occupied West Bank, they believe the Jewish people have a God-given right to this land enshrined in the Bible and are not averse to using violence to drive home the point.

They were among the settlers who recently went on a rampage in the area hurling stones, cutting down olive trees and setting fields ablaze, to vent their fury that the Israeli government may answer US calls to dismantle settlement outposts that were built without state authorisation.

Should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make good on his pledge to tear down the outposts, the settlers have vowed to carry out a "price tag" campaign of violence against the "enemy" -- journalists, Israeli security forces and Palestinians.

Journalists come here at best for a few hours, the Israeli army has guns and armour, but Palestinians like Ahmed are for the most part on their own.

Ahmed's house, sitting as it does on a hill and isolated from the rest of this village southwest of the main northern West Bank city of Nablus and about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the coast, makes for a prime target.

Since that first attack three years ago, her settler neighbours have often come back -- to spray the Star of David on the walls, cut down a tree, throw tear gas canisters. In November 2008, they threw Molotov cocktails inside.

"They want to make us afraid, to make us leave, so that we get out of here," says Nahla's husband Djamal, 38.

"They take the land step by step, with all impunity, and for us there is no security, no-one protects us," he says.

In theory the Israeli army and police are supposed to provide for law and order here, but "do not do enough to prevent harm to the life and property of Palestinians and to stop the violent attacks by settlers," says the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

So in reality, the local Palestinians rely on themselves and their neighbours.

That's just what Salah Siddi did a year ago when he, his wife and his 11-year-old son were jumped by eight settlers from the Havat Gilad outpost as he worked a plot of family land outside of his village of Jit.

As his donkey pulled a plough, Siddi saw eight men rushing towards him from a hill, four at him and four at his wife and son.

The men kicked, shoved and punched all three and at one point tried to pull the boy away from his mother.

"The settlers rushed at us, hit us and threw rocks at us," says Siddi's son Mustapha, now aged 12. "They set their dog on me and wanted to pull me away from my mother's arms."

As soon as he saw the men coming at them, Siddi quickly called a local activist from the Rabbis for Human Rights organisation, who alerted villagers nearby. A group arrived at the scene after 10 minutes, causing the attackers to flee.

Since then, Mustapha has refused to go out with his father to farm the land.

"I was so scared," he says. "I don't want to go there anymore."

In addition to perpetual harassment, the local Palestinian population over the years has watched its land fall bit by bit into settlers' hands.

Sometimes it happens through quasi-legal means, such as when Israel uses an 1858 Ottoman law that says that if the land is not cultivated for seven years, it becomes state property. Once Israel gets it, it gives it to settlers.

Israel has applied the law to 16 percent of West Bank land since it began using the tactic in 1980, says Hagit Ofran, the head of the settlement watch project at the Peace Now watchdog.

At other times, it happens by Israel seizing the land for "security purposes" and then handing it over to settlements, she says.

And sometimes the settlers simply take the land.

"Thirty percent of the land settlements are on is land that is privately owned by the Palestinians," Ofran says. "And we're not even talking about the rest which was declared state land."

Mohammed Hussein Abu Bakr, 66, has experienced the tactics first-hand.

He can't go to one of his plots near his village of Jit, because every time he tries to do so, he and his sons get assaulted.

"The settlers say that the land belongs to them, that it is the land of Eretz Israel (Greater Israel)," he says.

Judging by comments from the area's settlers, respite from the violence and intimidation for the local Palestinians won't come any time soon.

"This territory is Jewish territory," says Rabbi Yaakov Savir, who runs a religious school in the Havat Gilad outpost.

"Arabs should find another place to live."