By Dr Leon Tressell
There is a broad consensus among international institutions that Israel remains the occupying power in Gaza and the West Bank. The Hague regulations of 1907 and the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 impose certain rights and obligations upon any nation that is illegally occupying a territory.
In December 1975 the United Nations General assembly passed a resolution which stated that “any military occupation however temporary’’ constituted “an act of aggression’’. It condemned “Israel’s occupation of Arab territories in violation of the charter of the United Nations, the principles of international law repeated United Nations resolutions’’.
Since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestine peace process at Camp David in January 2001, Israel has proceeded apace with the illegal annexation of Palestinian land in the West Bank. We now have the situation where between 600,000 and 750,000 Jewish settlers are living in 250 illegal settlements dotted all across the West Bank. These are protected by thousands of soldiers from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
As the scale and size of these illegal settlements have expanded in the West Bank so has the extent of the daily violence meted out by settlers against the Palestinian population.
Under international law, Israel has certain obligations with regard to its treatment of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. A new report from Breaking The Silence, On Duty, 2012-2020: Soldiers’ testimonies on settler violence and the ecosystem of injustice that allows it to flourish in the occupied territories, gives a detailed account of how the IDF as the sovereign authority in the occupied territories fails to protect the safety and security of the Palestinian population.
This report, based on interviews with dozens of IDF veterans, notes how Israeli settlers “often use the cloak of protection provided by the IDF to promote their goals, at the forefront of which is deepening their control of the area and pushing the Palestinians off of their land’’.
It should be noted from the outset that Breaking The Silence, which was established in 2004 by IDF veterans, has collected the testimonies of over 1,000 former soldiers who have served in the occupied West Bank and Gaza since the start of the Second Intifada.
The objective of these IDF veterans is explained in the introduction to their latest report:
“We endeavour to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life. Our work aims to bring an end to the occupation.’’
The report from Breaking The Silence notes how settler violence towards Palestinians in the West Bank has ‘Intensified significantly over recent years’. This has been made possible by the complete absence of any attempt to enforce the law by Israeli legal institutions, the police and the IDF.
Several examples below will illustrate the different types of violence meted out on a daily basis by Israeli settlers against the Palestinian residents of the West Bank.
Stopping the olive harvest and acts of arson
A first sergeant who served in the Artillery Corps during 2015 in Pnei Kedem recounts the attempts of settlers to prevent Palestinian farmers from collecting in the olive harvest:
“During the olive harvest period there are intensified preparations in general, and what happens is that entire Arab families come to harvest their groves. And I remember that on one of the Saturdays, the guys from the settlement (settlers from Pnei Kedem, Tekoa area) went, say 10-12 people, women and men, and just tried to drive them out of there and tell them: This is not yours, why are you doing this on a Saturday, why are you doing this here? And things like that …. They just don’t like it when the Arab population gets so close to land that they think may be theirs.’’
Another first sergeant who served in the Armoured Corps, 7th Brigade, 82nd Battalion during 2013 in Yitzhar recalls how settlers would instigate riots by setting fire to Palestinian land:
“A riot usually begins with a few things: first of all, there was the issue where sometimes Jews themselves would start fires in the surrounding hills, which automatically draws Palestinians out.’’
He adds that calling the fire service was a waste of time as they would often take over three hours to respond to a call so the soldiers themselves would try to put the fires out with fire beaters.
Not surprisingly, the fires drew Palestinian villagers out into confrontation with the settlers as they attempted to prevent further acts of arson. IDF soldiers would be called out to drive back the Palestinians who were protesting the arson of their land.
The sergeant noted the huge discrepancy between the methods used to deal with angry Palestinians protesting the arson of the fields and the Jewish settlers who’d actually committed the acts of arson:
“The goal is to drive [them] out. You’re driving the Palestinians out with riot dispersal gear, which sometimes also reaches [the stage of] rubber [bullets], and rubber [bullets] are a really unpleasant tool. I really didn’t relate, so to speak. And [with] the Jews it’s just, like, more through dialogue like, really trying to be gentle with them.’’
Settler riot to prevent the opening of a Palestinian store
A first sergeant in the Nahal Engineering Unit, who served in Hebron during 2015, tells us about a group of adult settlers 30 to 40 strong who held a demonstration outside a Palestinian store that was due to reopen. The settlers were very friendly towards the IDF soldiers, offering them food. The sergeant recalls:
“I didn’t understand that they were having a demonstration in front of the store. The moment the Palestinian came and opened his store, they began to riot, began to attack. We tried to stop them and they pushed a Givati soldier to the ground. One of the soldiers tried to use his body to stop one of the settlers, whom we had been talking to about three minutes earlier, and we had a really good conversation, and it was nice, and we smiled and talked amicably, and suddenly he [the settler] had an aggressive expression: get out of here, don’t get in my way.’’
Under strict orders not to use any kind of physical force to prevent settler violence the sergeant expressed his anger at this state of affairs:
“You’re mostly angry with them. I come and protect you and risk my life, I do hard work, dirty work, all in order to protect you, and there’s this enormous crazy apparatus here with many resources just to protect a handful of people, and they do whatever they want. So you’re irritated both by the level of hypocrisy and the fact that they don’t give a damn about you.’’
A regular feature of the settler violence directed against Palestinians is the stone throwing committed by both adults and children. The objective of this is to systematically harass Palestinian people in their daily lives.
A first sergeant in the early Egoz Reconnaissance Unit who served in Yitzhar during 2015 recalls how settler kids would regularly stone houses and cars in a nearby Palestinian village:
“The kids (from the settlement of Yitzhar) would play with this slingshot that they make, get from somewhere. And they’d always go farther down, approaching the valley, to a distance where they can reach the first houses. They would turn the slingshot and throw the stones at the first houses, until people in the village actually woke up, and then [they would] go back.’’
The soldiers often chased these children usually to no avail. If they did catch these kids throwing rocks then they would simply hold them until the Shin Bet Security Service arrived and the children would then be released.
Another first sergeant who served in the Armoured Corps in Nablus during 2015 describes how settlers from Yitzhar, which is based on top of a hill, would harass Palestinian car drivers:
“Near [the settlement of] Yitzhar, there was a period when they would throw stones from the mountain on cars passing by.’’
He states that the settlers were allowed to continue acts of stoning with impunity:
“We could have arrested them and we didn’t arrest them. We didn’t arrest anyone there.’’
Several of the soldiers who gave testimony expressed their frustration at the situation whereby settlers were allowed carte blanche to engage in such ‘price tag’ incidents. (Price tags incidents are acts of vandalism and violence undertaken by settlers against the Palestinian population on ideological grounds). A first sergeant from a Civil Administration unit who served in Salfit during 2013 tells us:
“I think there was an event or two in which the operations officer told me that the settlers were caught and simply released. I remember at least one time when the operations officer said: listen, my opinions are right wing, but I think this is really wrong, what happened. That the army caught settlers who undoubtedly threw rocks, or whatever it was, and simply released them, in contrast to the Arabs who are caught and arrested or taken into custody. At that time he said it about a few other cases, that generally there’s this norm of sorts that the moment you catch settlers, you scold them and release them.’’
He goes on to explain why settlers were always released and never arrested:
“I don’t recall any specific case in which the DCO complained to the brigade about settlers not also being arrested. In my opinion that’s already connected to the political situation, that the IDF identifies with the Jews [settlers] and the soldiers on the ground, despite there being procedures that they must behave exactly the same way toward both sides, so what can we do, the soldiers are Jews who, from their point of view, protect the Jewish settlers and there’s no equal decree for Jews and Arabs. It’s that ugly and that simple….’’
Settlers use IDF cloak of protection to push Palestinians off their land
In the introduction to their report, Breaking The Silence make it clear that the central objective of the settlers is to deepen their control of the West Bank by attempting to push Palestinians off of their land. Again and again, settlers use the IDF as a willing tool with which to deny Palestinians access to their own land.
A captain from the Nahal 50th Battalion who served in Nablus during 2012 explains the role of the IDF in facilitating the settlers’ goals. In his testimony he states:
“Often the argument [in the outpost of Givat Ronen] isn’t with the village (Burin) but about the of who owns which orchard. So they (the Givat Ronen settlers) say: These are our orchards and [the Palestinians] are not allowed to [come]…
Usually, why do they head down during the day? Because some Palestinian farmer has arrived at his orchards and then they come to scare away the farmer. That’s usually the daily dynamic. And then you tell them: Fine, fine, I’ll go take care of the farmer, you wait here. And then they usually let you go take care of the Palestinian farmer yourself.’’
Breaking The Silence (BTS): “What does ‘take care of the farmer’ mean?’’
“So you go to the farmer and you tell him: What are you doing here? And he tells you: This is my land. And then you tell him: But do you have a permit to come here? And he tells you: I don’t have a permit to come here, but this is my father’s land.’’
The captain admitted that he doesn’t know or really care if a Palestinian farmer needs a permit to tend his land.
BTS: “What permit does he need to go there?”
“I don’t know, how would I know?’’
Further in his testimony, he makes the point that denying Palestinian farmers access to their land at the behest of settlers is no big deal:
“And the fact that you’ve done an injustice to the Palestinian person, again, truly in the sum of all of the injustices, this gets tossed in a very very low place. Like, the fact that he… Today he won’t tend to his land, from my point of view. Nothing big has happened.’’
A first sergeant in the Armoured Corps who served in Havat Gilad area during 2012 admitted that soldiers regularly moved on Palestinian shepherds at the behest of settlers. The settlers dictate to the soldiers when shepherds have been moved a sufficient distance from their land. He made it clear that the settlers are calling the shots in such instances:
BTS: “It sounds to me a little like the person deciding the situation in this instance was them.’’
“Yes. It’s them, yes. Without a doubt. Without a doubt, but it’s not… In the end the company in the area is also trying to help them somehow. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s such a surreal situation. A surreal situation.’’
Settlers use large IDF presence to hold religious events deep within Palestinian towns and villages
The use of violence by settlers against Palestinians is also accompanied by psychological intimidation designed to frighten and harass. A first sergeant in the Kfir, Nachshon Battalion who served in Nablus during 2016 recounts how the IDF mobilised an entire battalion of soldiers to protect 1,000 settlers who went to pray at a tomb at 3.30 am that was close to a Palestinian village:
“The first waves were okay people, walking quietly until they get to the tomb and go to pray, but in the middle and up to the end, the other waves, people really started showing up with guitars, singing and yelling, and you see they’re doing it on purpose; they want to wake up the [Palestinian] village; they want to fuck with their heads; and we, me and my friends, when we were at the post where we were [stationed], we told them: listen, if something happens – it’s not you who’ll [have to] do something. It’ll fall to us. And then I like, then I asked myself, why did I get out of the house to like come here, so like this asshole can come pray? And it was also one of the moments when I saw, I’m telling you honestly, like, I saw hate. These people really wanted to disrupt the natural everyday order of the village.’’
Another first sergeant who served in the Nahal, 50th Battalion in Halhul during 2017 recalls that he was part of an operation to provide security to 400 ultra-orthodox Jews who went to pray at the tomb of Nathan the Prophet. Apparently, three companies of soldiers plus Border Police closed off the area. This provoked a riot and led to Palestinian protestors throwing petrol bombs and paint at the soldiers. He explains the reason for the Palestinian anger:
BTS: “Is it in the middle of the city?”
“Middle, city centre. It’s a mosque in the day-to-day, Palestinians pray there on a daily basis. It’s a place of worship for Palestinians and just like that, in the middle of the night, for two or three hours, they closed it and let 400 ultra-orthodox Jews in and then you have to fend off all the protestors who are there at night to get them out.’’
The Border Police started firing tear gas at the Palestinian protestors. Fortunately, for the protestors the police fired directly into the wind which caused the tear gas to go back on them, choking many police officers and soldiers.
The various incidents described in the report issued by Breaking The Silence show how IDF soldiers are enlisted to further the ideological and political aims of the settler movement. This movement wants to establish itself on as much Palestinian land as possible.
In the conclusion to its the report Breaking The Silence states that settler violence is enabled by the IDF:
“The phenomenon of settler violence is an inevitable consequence of Israel’s occupation and policy of settling the West Bank. Were it not for the IDF’s continuous control over and presence in the occupied territories, this violence would not be a possibility.’’
It notes that there is only one solution to settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank: “Ending the occupation is the only way to bring this violence to a stop.’’
Israeli settlements amount to “War Crime”: UN Rapporteur
On 9th July Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights for the occupied Palestinian territories, made a statement on Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. He called on the international community to designate the creation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
He told the Council that the practice whereby an occupying power transfers parts of its civilian population into an occupied territory is a war crime.
Lynk said that Israel’s purpose in building the settlements is twofold:
“For Israel, the settlements serve two related purposes. One is to guarantee that the occupied territory will remain under Israeli control in perpetuity. The second purpose is to ensure that there will never be a genuine Palestinian state.”
Lynk added that:
“These are exactly the reasons why the international community agreed to prohibit the practice of settler implantation when it created the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949 and the Rome Statute in 1998.”
He went on to note that the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is one of the most uncontentious issues in modern international law and diplomacy. Their illegality has been confirmed by the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice amongst many other international and human rights organisations.
Michael Lynk lamented the fact that the international community is reluctant to enforce international law regarding this issue:
“It is a tragic paradox that, while the Israeli settlements are clearly prohibited by international law, the international community has been remarkably reluctant to enforce its own laws.”
He noted that:
“In December 2016, the UN Security Council reiterated its long-standing demand in Resolution 2334 that Israel must immediately and completely cease all settlement activities. Yet, since early 2017, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process has reported to the Security Council on 18 consecutive occasions that Israel has taken no steps to comply with its obligations under Resolution 2334.”
Lynk called on the international community to adopt several measures which included fully supporting the work of the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Court as it investigates whether the settlements breach the 1998 Rome Statute.
Lynk criticised the international community for its failings on this issue which have helped facilitate the expansion of the illegal Israeli settlements. He stated unequivocally that:
“The time for criticism of the Israeli settlements has passed. Former Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said only last week that it is the lack of any international legal accountability which has enabled Israel to ignore successive UN resolutions. A new approach grounded in international law is the only path to a just end to this perpetual occupation.’’
The complete failure of the international community, especially the members of the UN Security Council, puts the onus on ordinary people around the world to pressure their respective governments to honour their obligations under international law. Governments should be pressured to support the work of the prosecutor’s office of the ICC as it move closer towards a judgement on the legality of the settlements.
Dr Norman Finkelstein, who is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, has declared:
“The UN General Assembly can and must declare, finally and conclusively, that the Israeli occupation, not just this or that constituent of it but in its essence and totality is illegal and that a full Israeli withdrawal will no longer be held hostage to an interminable negotiating process, the manifest purpose of which, after decades of trying and trying again, can no longer be in doubt (except to those wilfully blind) – that purpose being to make the occupation irreversible, and to consign to oblivion the people of Palestine.’’ [Finkelstein, Gaza An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom (2018), p.408.
As Finkelstein has observed, the international community must act now before Palestine is effaced from the map. Only mass pressure from below by ordinary citizens, in solidarity with the Palestinian people, will bring this outcome about. The clock is ticking. What are you going to do?
Leon Tressell is a geo-political historian who has written extensively about the new Cold War between the US and Russia/China as well as the persecution of whistle blowers such as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.
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