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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - December 12, 2005

Q. Why do the Israel police seem to have difficulty enforcing the law among the settlers? Q. Take Hebron as a case in point...?

Q. Why do the Israel police seem to have so many difficulties enforcing the law among the settlers?

A. Based on recent tours of the northern and southern West Bank (Samaria and Judea) with the police and lengthy discussions of the issues with them, the following factors appear to be at work. Note that many are not directly related to police performance per se.

The first factor concerns jurisdiction: the police are responsible for law and order among the Israeli residents of the settlements; the IDF, for overall security and any incidents involving Arabs in area C and some issues in area B; and the Palestinian Authority, for the security of Palestinians in area A and some security issues in area B. This complex division of responsibility is undoubtedly one major source of difficulty in law enforcement, whether by Israelis or Palestinians.

A second factor is the judgment concerning "which laws to enforce". When successive Israeli governments since 1977 employ "creative" legal means to facilitate settler land grabs, the police are often helpless to restrain land-hungry settlers. For example, lands may have been farmed by the Palestinian population for centuries but--faced with official Israeli attempts to declare the land "state land" and award it to settlers--ownership is difficult for Palestinians to prove: Israeli rulings may require an Ottoman-era deed or proof the land has been farmed for the preceding ten years. In such instances, which are frequent, the police are often powerless to stop the burning of Arab crops, destruction of olive trees, or out-and-out settler takeovers of property.

This conflict of interests between the police and the government of Israel is most apparent regarding the outposts. The government agrees the outposts are illegal, but repeatedly postpones taking action against them. Without an explicit directive to remove them, the police cannot move. Some of the outposts are populated by genuinely lawless and hostile settlers; the most the police are able to do is bring them in periodically for questioning and detain them on minor charges.

A third factor concerns the Palestinian population, which is not always prepared to testify against settlers in Israeli courts or doesn't satisfy Israeli residence criteria that are necessary for presenting evidence. For example, a traditional Palestinian Bedouin cave dweller south of Hebron who lives in a nearby town half the year may not qualify as a resident of the cave area for purposes of adjudication against a settler who has evicted him and his family from the cave and destroyed his crops and herds. Undoubtedly, police worldwide encounter similar problems wherever nomadic or semi-nomadic populations come into contact with sedentary settlers; this is a familiar issue with the Negev Bedouin, for example. But in the case of the territories the Arab-Israel conflict and the nature of Jewish settlement radically amplify and exacerbate the issues.

Then there are the Israeli courts. Israeli police charged with law-enforcement among Israelis in the West Bank complain that judges frequently take a lenient attitude toward settler offenders and exercise rank discrimination between Jews and Arabs who come before them. Apropos leniency, some of the police who operate in the territories are themselves settlers; they have an obvious inclination to look the other way concerning minor offenses, or to negotiate compromises where a tougher attitude might be indicated. In some cases, the police appear to have deliberately recruited personnel from the more problematic settlements, in the hope that this will facilitate problem-solving. To the outside observer, this appears to be a convenient way to simply avoid dealing with some of the heavy instances of criminal behavior among settlers.

Similarly, ostensibly moderate and law-abiding settlers in veteran settlements offer shelter and support for even the most extreme occupants of the outposts who regularly attack neighboring Palestinians. One good example is Havat Maon, an outpost in the southeastern Judean desert whose handful of violent and anarchistic occupants have actually been evicted by police from two locations and currently squat in a state-planted forest near the "mother" settlement of Maon. The veteran residents of Maon, many of them farmers, abet the squatters' presence as a potential means of expanding their land. The support provided by the "legal" Maon settlers makes it more difficult for the police to collect evidence against the Havat Maon "illegal" settlers.

Finally, the Israel Police in general suffers from a lack of adequate manpower; the per capita ratio of police to population in Israel is one of the lowest in the world. Many areas of law enforcement in Israel suffer as a consequence. The police in the West Bank, in particular, lack adequate vehicles and manpower to do their job.

Q. Take Hebron as a case in point: what has happened there and where is it heading in terms of law enforcement?

A. In Hebron, in effect, the government of Israel, the IDF, the Israel Police and the courts have by and large abetted or at least tolerated the efforts of a few hundred settlers to turn large portions of the city into a virtual no-man's land where Palestinians are concerned.

One special feature of the settlers' tactics vis-a-vis the authorities in Hebron is their use of their under-aged children, who according to law can be neither arrested nor prosecuted, to harass and physically attack both their Arab neighbors and the police and soldiers who are called in to restore order. Another characteristic of police activities peculiar to Hebron is the concern for the lives and safety of the Jewish residents (the police are not responsible for the lives and safety of the Arab inhabitants, the large majority of Hebronites), which has led to the closing of Arab marketplaces and barricading of Arab homes wherever friction, often instigated by the settlers, has occurred. The result is the depopulation of entire Arab neighborhoods and places of business unfortunate enough to find themselves in proximity to Jewish areas inside the Israeli-controlled H2 zone, which takes up about 20 percent of the city and includes Kiryat Arba and all Jewish settlers but still has a large Arab majority (the remainder of Hebron, H1, is under Palestinian Authority control).

Surprisingly, one indication that the IDF and police in Hebron have lost the initiative where basic human rights are concerned is their relatively positive attitude toward TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron, comprising personnel from Denmark, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey), the international observer force deployed in Hebron shortly after the Goldstein massacre in February 1994, and toward a variety of Christian groups and individuals who come to Hebron to try to help the Arab population. Ordinarily, Israeli security forces would bristle at the prospect of foreigners intruding on their control; in Hebron, the IDF and Israel Police appear to be ready to listen to Arab complaints about settler behavior relayed to them by the outsiders. This merely reinforces the overall impression that a few hundred Jewish settlers and yeshiva students in Hebron are able to successfully defy Israeli legal and governing institutions to a degree that exceeds anything seen elsewhere in the territories.

Hebron is unique in the annals of Jewish settlement in the territories, insofar as a small number of settlers live in extremely close proximity with a large number of Palestinians in an urban setting. Add to this the religious-historic backdrop--the Machpelah cave is the second holiest site in Judaism and there is a very long history of Jewish presence in Hebron prior to the massacre of 1929--and add the fact that the city seems to "breed" extremists, both Arab and Jewish, and we have what appears to be a problem that will end tragically, and which in the meantime will only get worse.