RAMALLAH // Settler violence in occupied territory has resurfaced in recent days, even as pressure is growing on Palestinians to start direct negotiations, regardless of any extension to a partial Israeli settlement construction freeze currently in force. On Monday, settlers from the far-right Yitzhar settlement near Nablus ran amok in Burin, a Palestinian village in the area, burning fields and shooting at villagers. Palestinians responded by throwing rocks at the settlers, injuring four. Two villagers were also hurt in the clashes before the Israeli military intervened.
Should the Israeli government indicate an extension to its partial settlement construction freeze, more settler violence can be expected. Observers say, however, that for now the settler unrest will possibly remain limited but that the Israeli authorities' handling of settler violence and incitement highlight the different legal standards applied to Jewish settlers and Palestinians. The violence on Monday came in response to the demolition by the Israeli army of a few structures built in so-called settlement outposts, settlements established without direct government assistance. The demolitions came after US pressure on the Israeli government to enforce its own laws, which deem such outposts illegal. Among the structures were a stable and a shack. Settler leaders have vowed to rebuild them.
A week earlier Israeli bulldozers levelled 74 structures, home to more than 100 Palestinians, in the Jordan Valley, and 10 other structures near Ramallah, displacing 80 people. "There is no comparison between demolitions in settlements and on the Palestinian side," said Dror Etkes, an Israeli settlement expert based in Tel Aviv. "The demolitions of a few structures in Yitzhar are done in the hope to create the impression that there is a symmetric law enforcement on illegal Israeli construction in the West Bank and illegal Palestinian construction. This is very far from the truth."
Home demolitions and settlement construction remain one of the main obstacles in the way of moving a faltering peace process between Palestinians and Israelis from indirect to direct negotiations. But international pressure appears to be growing on the Palestinian leadership to accept direct negotiations even without any guarantee that a partial settlement construction freeze announced in 2009 and that runs out in September will be extended.
In the wake of last year's settlement slow-down announcement, settler leaders devised the so-called price-tag policy, targeting Palestinians and their property in response to any government action perceived as being against their interests. Settler riots, such as those seen on Monday, serve to support the Israeli government's position that curtailing settlement construction without progress in negotiations would exact too high a price, said Mr Etkes, but are in reality no more than a "photo op". "There are 5,000 structures in settlements in the West Bank that have standing demolition orders. There will not be 5,000 demolitions in the next year or the next 10."
Yesterday, Israeli media reports indicated that the military was preparing to demolish a Jewish seminary in Yitzhar. But a spokesman for the Israeli Civil Authority, the Israeli government body that runs civilian affairs in occupied territory, said the order was unlikely to be carried out in the near future and conceded that the yeshiva in question had been under demolition orders for 11 years. The seminary, the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva, is run by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira. On Tuesday, Israeli police briefly detained Rabbi Shapira, who has been accused of inciting to violence, having written that it is legal under Jewish law to kill non-Jews who threaten Israel.
That provision, according to Rabbi Shapira, also extends to children. "There is justification in harming infants if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us. Under such circumstances, the blow can be directed at them and not only by targeting adults," he wrote. His arrest and quick release contrasts starkly with the processing of Palestinian detainees. Palestinians in occupied territory live under Israeli military law and can be held without trial for three months, a period of "administrative detention" that can be extended several times. Military courts also allow for secret evidence, in which defence lawyers have little or no access to witnesses. Israelis are arrested and tried under civil law, with its presumption of innocence.
Palestinians, therefore, remain sceptical that, beyond a few isolated examples, there is any real friction between settlers and the authorities. Observers have questioned why it took the army so long to quell the settler unrest in Burin, and activists speak of growing collusion, rather than tension, between settlers and the Israeli army. "There have been areas of friction between the army and settlers," said Issa Samander, of the Popular Resistance Committees, a grassroots organisation that offers advice to Palestinians on how to deal with settlement-related issues. "But there is very good cooperation between the highest levels of the Israeli government and the settlement movement."