A Saturday afternoon some years ago, seven young male Jewish settlers walked past me and two local colleagues in the centre of Hebron, the largest city in the southern West Bank. We were standing between two Israeli army checkpoints erected to protect the small and ultraradical Jewish settler population in the city. As they walked past, we were subjected to a torrent of verbal abuse in poor but perfectly understandable Arabic involving female relatives and the Prophet Mohammed.
One colleague put a hand on my arm in warning. "Don't react," he said, looking at the ground. I glared at the Israeli soldiers who also didn't react. Preventing abuse of Palestinians is not in their job description. The settlers continued on their way, my colleague afterwards offering thanks it had been a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and hence the settlers were unarmed. Hebron is a hot spot of friction between Palestinians and Jewish settlers and is often described as a microcosm of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. An incident like the one above is commonplace. It sometimes leads to retaliation by Palestinians, who will throw rocks and insults back. It is only if Palestinians react that the Israeli army will step in. The army's brief - its only brief in Hebron - is to protect settlers.
Jewish settlers and the indigenous Palestinian population live under different laws in the West Bank. Settlers are treated as Israeli citizens and are answerable to Israeli civil law and the Israeli civil police. Palestinians are not Israeli citizens. They live under military rule and are thus dealt with by the Israeli army. The difference is significant. Under civil law, there is a presumption of innocence. Under military law, Palestinians can be detained without charge or trial for six months. Any civil court case is a transparent affair with several means of appeal and the right of disclosure of evidence. A military court is a closed hearing presided over by one army officer where state evidence is often kept secret.
Two laws, two people, one land. Welcome to the Wild West Bank. Two days ago, an Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din (Hebrew for "there is a law") published its findings in the way Israel's police deal with allegations of settler crimes against Palestinians. The group found that more than 90 per cent of investigations into violence against Palestinians in the past four years never led to indictment. In 79 cases of criminal trespass, only five led to indictment, while in 22 investigations into property damage, none led to indictment.
Yesh Din concluded the "poor enforcement" of the law on settlers in the West Bank is a violation of Israel's "moral and international obligations to the people living under our control". It says most crimes committed by settlers go unreported because Palestinians have no faith that any action will be taken. Theoretically, since the Oslo Accords, there is a framework for reporting accusations against settlers. Palestinians have to file a complaint with the Palestinian Authority who will flag the incident to the Israeli authorities. They will then hand over the file to the Israeli police.
In Burin, a small village outside Nablus in the northern West Bank that is surrounded by hilltop settlements, the civil defence department keeps meticulous records of such incidents, some of which involve their own firemen. The common complaints are of property damage. Local villagers will wake up to find their fields burnt or their trees cut down. Some complaints are of harassment, often violent. Recently, villagers said, homemade rockets have been fired at them from the settlements. In June alone there were 22 settler-related incidents recorded by Burin's civil defence department.
"We file our reports and send them to Ramallah," the deputy chief of the civil defence department in Burin said on a recent visit. Then, he added, nothing is heard. He assumes that the PA hands the cases over, but he sees no result and no action taken. Not surprisingly, this lack of enforcement engenders a certain amount of arrogance among settlers, such as the seven young men mentioned earlier, who, secure in the knowledge they will face no consequences, feel free to act with impunity.
Equally unsurprising, it breeds contempt among Palestinians who have to suffer humiliation without having recourse to any law. But while the enforcement of law on settlers is an important and inflammatory topic, it also misses the crucial point. Settlers should not be in the West Bank in the first place. Among Israel's obligations under international law is a prohibition against moving its own civilian population into occupied territory. Even though most settlers are armed, they nevertheless constitute such a civilian population.
Israel disputes this reading of international law because, it says, the Geneva Conventions and international law generally were drafted to regulate relations among sovereign states. Since neither Jordan nor Egypt had annexed the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, these territories were not sovereign and should only be considered disputed. It is a technical argument, and a fairly flimsy one, but nevertheless one that Israel and its supporters cling to with vigour. That position, even if it has not been recognised internationally, allows Israel to flout international norms at will. There simply is not enough political will in Washington, the only country with enough influence to put an end to Israel's settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories.
And Israel's settlement project in turn creates impossible contradictions for a country that prides itself on its democratic values and clings to its right to exist as place where Jews can escape racism. Most obviously are the separate laws for separate peoples, a discriminatory legal mechanism that was properly abhorred and opposed in apartheid South Africa and white supremacist southern American states 100 years ago.
It has been said over and over again, but it bears repeating: Israel's settlement policy in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem is not only the main obstacle to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, it is also an insurmountable practical impediment to a two-state solution. If a two-state solution is the end game, settlement building must not only be stopped it must be reversed. Since this Israeli government continues to issue tenders for new settlements, the only conclusion that can be reached is that the current round of peace negotiations is doomed before they have even gained traction. With them will go any likelihood of a two-state solution.
Palestinians, Israelis and the world will need to start considering an alternative end game as a consequence. @Email:email@example.com