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A Palestinian outside the village of Urif in the West Bank throws a rock at Israeli settlers and soldiers, who in the last year are increasingly joining forces to drive out Palestinian residents. (2014 photo by Nedal Eshtayah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

And There Was Nidal, Who Was Killed: Israeli Settlers Are Increasingly, Lethally, Brazenly Lords of the Land

Abby Zimet

In a welcome if little-reported move, rights expert Michael Lynk recently told the UN Human Rights Council that Israel's illegal settlements constitute a war crime - one now being investigated by the ICC - because the transfer of an occupying power's civilian population into the territory it occupies violates international humanitarian law. Calling the settlements "the engine of Israel's 54-year-old occupation, the longest in the modern world," Lynk said the colonial outposts serve two key purposes: to guarantee occupied territory remains under Israeli control "in perpetuity," and to ensure there will never be "a genuine Palestinian state." Adding that cruel tactics like tearing down Bedouin tents in the desert are "both unlawful and heartless," Lynk called on the international community to enforce its own laws, and "make it clear to Israel that its illegal occupation and its defiance of international law...can and will no longer be cost-free." Less than shockingly, in response Israel broke its blithe silence just long enough to dismiss "the latest one-sided and biased report" before returning to the grim task at hand: The relentless expansion of about 300 swiftly proliferating settlements housing almost 700,000 largely right-wing extremists whose role is "delivering the final push in a state system of oppression to force Palestinians off their land." Given what one activist calls ”removal and replacement (as) the core organizing principle of the Israeli state," it's little wonder there's been longtime, widespread violence against besieged Palestinian communities by those settlers, who zealously serve as "foot soldiers of the colonizer state" and do so with almost universal impunity.

That violence has only grown worse since the pandemic, with up to 400 attacks by settlers in 2020, some against Israeli police or military somehow not deemed extremist enough. The last few months have been especially fraught amidst Israel's storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque, its bloody bombardment of Gaza, and the election of right-wing P.M. Naftali Bennett, who once ran an umbrella group representing settlers and now heads a government that supports them "morally, financially, saving them, guarding them." In May, with settler violence soaring, Bennett had his first clash with settlers in the illegal outpost of Evyatar; they reached a compromise, but few expect it to hold. At this point, argues one activist, "The distinction between the settlers and government (is) non-existent. It is one Israeli body that acts in the same direction, which is to dispossess Palestinians." Last week, even former IDF soldiers wrote an open letter charging settler violence is "out of control" and urging leaders to halt it: “We are the ones who witnessed how the ‘lords of the land’ behave unrestricted, and what this violence looks like on the ground." Sent to the territories, one wrote, "You are told the goal is to 'protect the settlers.' Nobody ever talked to us about protecting Palestinians, or that settlers can be held accountable." He goes on, "Almost every week, we see the same pictures and videos of settlers - dressed in white and covering their faces - hurling stones at Palestinians (as) an IDF soldier (stands) looking bored...These are your people; they speak your language and sometimes they bring you pizza or coffee...Then those same people (come) out armed and masked. You cannot stop them, especially when no one has explained to you that it is within your authority to do so."

Often, of course, they're on the same side. The Intercept just partnered with 972 and Local Call on an account of the especially egregious collusion of soldiers and settlers in evidently coordinated attacks on several villages that in one day left four Palestinians dead and at least 11 wounded. All the attacks that May 14, the advent of Nakba Day, saw settlers burning fields, throwing stones, ripping up olive trees, smashing school solar panels and firing live ammunition - until recently it was "only" rubber bullets and tear gas - as IDF soldiers either stood by or actively helped. Their story focused on the murder of 25-year-old Nidal Safadi - he and his wife had three children with another on the way - in the village of Urif, near the extremist settlement of Yitzhar. For the first time, residents described settlers and soldiers working together as a combined unit: Soldiers gave settlers orders and then covered for them, firing at panicked villagers who got too close or threw rocks to try to  protect their houses and families. It was like a militia, said an Arab attorney, and "unprecedented." One chilling video, obtained by the human rights group B’Tselem, shows a shirtless settler, face covered, strutting and chatting with soldiers before opening fire with an automatic rifle. A villager said nine residents were shot and wounded - in the abdomen, near the heart - "and there was Nidal, who got killed." He was shot four times in the chest and abdomen; nobody knows if it was by a settler or soldier. Israeli media said the killing came amid "clashes," but the attacks seemed utterly random, pure revenge for existing. "Urif was quiet," said the village council head. "Had the settlers not arrived...nothing would have happened." A Yitzhar spokesperson posted photos of Palestinian bodies on the ground. "The security situation in Samaria is excellent," he wrote. "There (is) serious trauma on the Arab side."

Silent about the May assaults until the new stories appeared, the IDF now says they've launched an inquiry into Nidal's death "during Operation 'Guardian of the Walls.'” On that May day, they say, "IDF combatants dealt with dozens of violent riots, including heavy stone throwing and arson, (and) soldiers felt a real threat to their lives." IDF will also investigate "an armed man (who) was not a member of the forces and apparently fired his weapon," and "will continue to act to ensure the peace and security (of) Judea and Samaria according to procedures." On Sunday, the day before the Muslim feasts of Eid al-Adha and the Day of Arafah, those "procedures" included having soldiers raid Al-Aqsa Mosque, assault Palestinian worshipers, and force them out to clear the way for up to 1,600 far-right Israeli settlers who stormed the mosque to commemorate  Tisha B'Av, marking the destruction of Jerusalem's ancient temples. The settlers were still inside the mosque when Naftali Bennett thanked soldiers for "preserving freedom of worship for Jews on the Mount." So it goes: Against Israeli missiles, machine guns, tear gas, drones, young Palestinians will likely keep slinging rocks "to tell them this land is ours, not theirs." Still, a mournful Gideon Levy suggests, "The settlers won long ago," and nobody will evacuate the 700,000 or the 52 families in Evyatar, though "the hills that surround it are suffused with the blood of Palestinians killed and wounded by the IDF." He imagines a flipped script: Arab "organized crime neighborhoods" spring up at every loss of a Palestinian life; each day, they build new structures; older residents are devastated. "They open the windows of their apartments and are astonished to see the invaders who have settled in the middle of the square, on their private land, before eyes that refuse to believe...The village is a fact."

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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