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Tensions over Palestinian UN bid spur new patrols in West Bank

Palestinian, Israeli, and foreign activists have launched a neighborhood patrol project to protect Palestinians from Israeli settler violence, rising amid tensions related to the Palestinian UN bid for statehood.

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Palestine is my land,” says Abu Yusef. “Because of this I’m not scared.”

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Israeli settlers also defend their right to the land

Abu Yusef’s assertion of ownership is echoed in the nearby Israeli settlement of Itmar, which made headlines earlier this year when five members of the Fogel family were killed in their sleep by Palestinian intruders.

“This is our home, Israel. It’s in the Bible. It belongs to the Jewish nation,” says Mayor Moshe Goldsmith in a thick New York accent. Around 200 residents of Itmar – a settlement deep in the West Bank, near Nablus – have gathered in front of the Fogel house in a sea of Israeli flags. They are preparing for a march to a junction a few miles away. “As the UN talks about giving away our land, we are showing that we are marching freely in the heart of the Jewish nation. And that’s our response.”

Mayor Goldsmith says it is Palestinians who are responsible for escalating violence. “They have been doing a lot of rock throwing and fire bombing and things like that,” he says.

Goldsmith is quick to dismiss the significance of possible UN recognition of a Palestinian state, particularly given the clout of settler groups within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's administration.

“Personally, it wouldn’t mean anything to me because I’m here to stay as long as the Israeli government remains strong in our beliefs," he says. "It’s our land and we will overcome.”

Nonviolent action – for now

And in many ways Palestinian officials have admitted there is some truth to Goldsmith’s assertion.

“There will be no immediate, direct, or practical consequences” of the UN statehood bid, says Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority (PA). “This is a political move.”

UN recognition is unlikely to mean an overnight withdrawal of the Israeli army, which has occupied the West Bank since conquering it along with East Jerusalem in 1967. But it is likely to escalate tensions between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.

While rights groups say the Israeli army does too little to protect Palestinians, the PA has its own security apparatus. But the vast majority of Israeli settlers live in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank, where Palestinian forces lack authority to operate. This leaves the PA near-helpless to defend Palestinians against settler attacks.

“We support peaceful nonviolent attempts to safeguard Palestinians,” says Mr. Khatib. “But we are encouraging people to avoid any violent reaction.”

With the approach of the UN bid, which Palestinians and their supporters see as a way to undermine Israeli settlements – already considered illegal under international law – settlers are trying to drag Palestinians into violence, says Mr. Khatib.

“But our people are aware of that so [nonviolence] will continue," he says, before adding a warning. "Maybe not forever.”

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