15 October 2009
In the farmlands between the Jewish settlement of Qedumim and the Palestinian village of Imatin, the wreckage of the endless struggle for control of the West Bank is visible.
On a hilltop, blankets, pots and broken chairs are strewn where the Israeli army tried to demolish an illegal Jewish settlement outpost. In the fields opposite, 70 olive trees are scorched and blackened after the settlers took revenge — not on the army, but on the local Palestinians.
It is a new and effective settler tactic known as the “price tag”: if the Government sends police or soldiers to dismantle an outpost that is being built, the settlers make the Palestinian population pay the price.
“It’s quite simple and smart but evil,” said Michael Sfard, a lawyer with the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din. “They attack Palestinian property, people, and blockade roads every time the Israeli security forces do something they don’t like” — such as demolish outposts.
Many settlers in the West Bank are religious hardliners who believe that they are fulfilling a biblical prophecy by taking over the land that they call Judaea and Samaria.
They are playing a game of cat and mouse with the Government, which is trying to stop unauthorised outposts from being built while it pushes the international community to allow it to continue building its established West Bank settlements, some of them already large towns.
Israel considers the larger towns to be completely legal and has agreed only to dismantle unauthorised outposts that have been built since March 2001.
The more radical settlers, who are unable and unwilling to fight the Israeli army, retaliate by attacking Palestinians in neighbouring villages.
When the army dismantled the tiny hilltop outpost of Shvut Ami, an outcrop of the established Qedumim settlement, this week it was the Palestinians of Imatin who suffered.
“While the people in the place are confronting the security forces, people in another place will start harassing Palestinians to inflame the ground,” Mr Sfard said.
This has the double effect of forcing commanders to split men from their first objective, and making them think twice about launching future operations.
Ahmed Ghanem, a Palestinian farmer from Imatin and the owner of the burnt trees, said that the settlers invaded his land opposite the outpost before dawn, at the same time as the army was trying to evict a large group of settlers from the nearby hilltop.
His son went to see what was happening but ran when he saw that some of the men were armed. “Even if I plant the land again, they’ll come back and burn it,” he said.
Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official who deals with the settlements issue in the northern West Bank, said that since the beginning of the year, Jewish settler attacks around the city of Nablus had killed two Palestinians and wounded seventy-five. They also killed 25 sheep and destroyed 3,400 trees.
“These groups of settlers are organised and support each other,” he said. “A few days ago they were handing out leaflets inviting people to come and stop Palestinians harvesting their olives. If there’s an outpost evacuation, they call people from Hebron to Jenin to stop the Palestinians working on their lands.”
Not all settler leaders agree with the “price tag” as a tactic. Daniella Weiss, a leader from Qedumim, said that it had diverted settlers from what she considered to be their priority: setting up more caravans and tents to lay claim to ever more hilltops.
Many of the settlers agreed. “My issue is to settle the land of Israel. If they evacuate an outpost I’ll go and build another,” said Yishai Gilad, a 19-year-old from Qedumim who is a member of the Youth for the Land of Israel movement. He lives in Shvut Ami, across from the burnt olive orchards.
Mr Gilad spoke while he and his comrades were tidying up and moving back into the cave that they had dug on the hill. “It’s not a war, it’s our right,” he said, brushing aside the issue of what might happen to the Palestinians if his movement succeeds in settling the land.
“It’s not my problem, it’s not something I have to solve. This is a land that was promised by God, that’s all I know,” he added.
Mr Sfard said that there were anywhere between a few dozen and a few hundred settlers using the violent tactic, which was proving to be effective.
“It’s slowing down the security forces and demanding much larger and heavier forces,” he said. “It’s such a big headache that many of the relevant authorities give up without trying.” The outposts are rebuilt quickly by determined settlers once the army leaves.