When settlers strike, Palestinians point and shoot video

An Israeli human rights group hopes the 150 video cameras it gave to West Bank Palestinians deter the rising tide of attacks by radical settlers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Shooting Back: Nahla Mohammed, right, uses a video camera provided by Btselem to deter radical Israeli settlers from attacking her West Bank home, which has been repeatedly defaced with Jewish graffiti.
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Nahla Mohammed says that it happens almost every weekend. Right-wing Israeli settlers from nearby Yitzhar come to vandalize houses such as hers, which are on the edge of the Palestinian village of Asira il-Qabliya.

When she hears them coming, she makes sure her children are inside, locks up, and waits with a small video camera that she was given by Btselem, a human rights group. She tries to capture them cutting water mains, breaking windows, or scrawling graffiti on the sides of the Arab houses.

Video cameras like hers have emerged as a new nonviolent weapon for West Bank Palestinians – who face a rising number of attacks at the hands of settlers anxious over their fate in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But the Palestinian video footage often ends up on Israeli TV, thus becoming a tool for both deterrence and justice.

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"We're trying to use the cameras to reduce the level of violence as a whole. When settlers see the camera, we hope that they will behave less violently," says Sarit Michaeli, the spokeswoman for Btselem.

"We also want to use the footage to provide to the Israeli media to raise awareness of the problems and to pressure the law enforcement bodies to do their job."

Btselem has given out 150 cameras as part of its Shooting Back program that started slowly last year and is beginning to show results. Already, footage shot by Palestinians has been used in at least 20 cases involving settler violence.

In one well-publicized case in June, four masked settlers were filmed clubbing three members of a Palestinian family grazing their flock south of the Susiya settlement, near Hebron.

"All of them had their faces covered," says Ms. Michaeli. "So, therefore, those who were arrested as suspects were released."

Israeli police have 407 criminal cases against Israelis involved in public disturbances in the West Bank since the beginning of the year.

Danny Poleg, a spokesman for the Israeli police division that covers all of the West Bank, said that between January and August of this year, there was an 11 percent increase in reports of violent incidents over the same period last year.

Settlers on edge

The clash of settlers and Palestinians, especially in this part of the northern West Bank, seems to have become chronic and even cyclical. It rears its head particularly strongly at this time of year, when Palestinians start the olive harvest and have regular run-ins with settlers.

Palestinians says settlers often sabotage their season by cutting down or burning trees, or otherwise preventing them from reaching their orchards.

Settlers deny such activity but say that Palestinians are trying to "illegally" expand their sphere of agricultural influence and take over land the settlers see as their own. Settlers also complain of damage to their crops by Palestinians.

Even though the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has not made major tracks in recent months, many here expect that it could in the near future and this may mean they will be forcibly removed from their homes.

And in Yitzhar, this sort of anxiety about their future is leading to an increasing sense of not being represented by their own government, army, or the Yesha – the leadership arm of the settler movement that many viewed as having "collaborated" with the government during Israel's disengagement from Gaza three years ago.

Now, the more radical wing of the settler movement is trying to show that any move to evacuate settlements – even small outposts – will be met with a tidal wave of resistance.

"Some historians of the conflict say that the settlers are feeling weakened by the increasing pressure of the international community on Israeli public," says Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University. "They think Amona [a settlement outpost where police clashed violently with right-wing activists in Feb. 2006] increased their deterrence, so they want more of that."

Moreover, the younger generation of settlers look at some of the founders of the religious settlers' movement, called Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) as having "sold out" because of their attempt to work in conjunction with the government.

"It has now reached a point in which the violence is also now directed against even the leaders of Gush Emunim, who are considered by the new young generation to be too moderate," Professor Ezrahi says.

Video camera as a deterrent

"We don't start up with them. They start up with us," says Mohammed, a mother of four. "They want to take our house, our land. But we had this land registered in the time of our grandfathers. If they would stay in their place and we stay in ours, there could be peace."

On many occasions she's rushed to turn on her video camera when settlers come – which she says happens every week – for her house in particular. It's one that is closest to Yitzhar. The problem is that in the process of wanting to stay away from the windows, which the settlers try to break, sometimes she captures only sound and not the video.

"The settlers have even come and tried to reach in through the window to take the camera," she says. "But this is the most we can do, because if we try to call the army to complain, they don't do anything. They're here to protect the settlers, not us."

Btselem says that the "attacks include throwing stones at passing cars, physically attacking farmers, burning crops, and stealing livestock."

Israeli officials seem to be taking notice.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has ordered the establishment of an inter-agency task force to coordinate efforts to rein in settler violence, according to reports in the Israeli media. The task force would include representatives from the agencies that deal with settler violence in the West Bank, including the police, the army, the Ministry of Justice, and the Shin Bet internal security agency, the Jerusalem Post reported.

'We're in a war'

On the other side of the hill from Mohammed's family in Asira il-Qabliya lives Hillel Ben Shlomo and his family. He doesn't see the attacks on the Palestinian village as unprovoked at all. To him, it's deterrence.

A month ago his family was made homeless when a Palestinian from Asira il-Qabliya burned the Yitzhar settlement and set fire to his house, stabbing a 9-year-old several times before being shot dead by another settler. Mr. Ben Shlomo and his family were away for the weekend.

"You can't imagine after such a scene, we should stay silent. You can't expect people not to defend themselves," says Ben Shlomo, sitting in his temporary mobile home. "In a war, we should act as if we're in a war."

His wife, sitting quietly nearby, defends the acts of revenge. "All our people do when they go into villages is make noise and break windows and say, 'If you hurt us, it won't go without comment.' It's only for deterrence," she says.

Amid increasing recognition of the problem of settler violence toward Palestinians, the people of Yitzhar and other nearby settlements see the Israeli establishment – from the politicians to the police – as part of the problem, and are hunkering down for further confrontations. They have recently formed a group called "The Settlers Committee of Samaria. It is advertising with pamphlets and posters that encourage people to sign on to a new "Samaria Pact" dedicated to expanding the settlers' presence there.

One of the spokesmen from Yitzhar, Yigal Amitai, explains what this means to him.

"Yitzhar is not dependent on the state. We think that in order to advance the situation, we need to take charge of our future," Mr. Amitai says. "A small elite stole the state of Israel from the people of Israel."

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