Amid rising tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank, who both lay claim to the land, a coalition of local and foreign activists have begun setting up neighborhood watch patrols to monitor key flashpoints. The project highlights a newfound Palestinian boldness on the ground that mirrors Mr. Abbas's determination at the UN – despite American pressure.
"Palestinians have been left with no choice. The Israeli army isn’t doing enough to protect them from the increase in [settler] attacks,” says Jonathan Pollack, an Israeli activist and spokesperson for the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee. “It forces Palestinians to organize.”
The neighborhood patrol project is part of a new initiative launched by the committee, which is comprised of Palestinian, Israeli, and foreign activists working for the rights of Palestinians. The new patrols not only aim to protect Palestinians but also document attacks and property damage by settlers.
The first patrol took place Monday at a spring near the village of Nabi Saleh, where Israelis from the adjacent Halamish settlement have tried to take over the water source and push Nabi Saleh's residents from the land. Here, residents clash weekly with the Israeli army.
“Yesterday there was one settler who attacked the car and tried to hit the driver,” says Mahmoud Abu Yusef, a father of five from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Steering his car through winding hills outside his city, Mr. Yusef explains why he had joined the caravan of activists.
“This is my land,” says Mr. Abu Yusef. “I’m doing this because of the settlers … the soldiers don’t protect the Palestinians.”
The convoy, painted with the project’s name in Arabic, Hebrew and English and bearing Palestinian flags, continues to a rest stop to wait for news from villagers. One of the volunteers explains they will stay here because it allows them to reach most of the surrounding villages in the event the army closes the highway.
After 45 minutes, they receive a call that settlers are attacking the village of Aseera about 15 minutes away.
When they arrive in Aseera, the Israeli army has formed a line just above the village, a common procedure to prevent confrontation between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents.
Committee volunteers jump from the cars in yellow vests, armed with cameras and video recorders.
Settlers from a nearby outpost who entered Aseera flee to a nearby hilltop, but Palestinian youth from the village begin to throw stones at the Israeli soldiers who respond with a barrage of tear gas. The volunteers document the incident.
“Palestine is my land,” says Abu Yusef. “Because of this I’m not scared.”
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.
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.”