RAMALLAH // Hundreds of settlers yesterday blocked the entrances to two settlements in the occupied West Bank to prevent Israeli government inspectors from serving construction freeze orders in line with a government order issued in late November. It was the second time in two days that settlers had defied police and tried to prevent inspectors from serving the orders to freeze building. Israeli authorities had earlier yesterday peacefully served similar orders to dozens of other settlements in the West Bank, but on Sunday, government inspectors were held up for hours trying to serve similar papers to the settlement of Kedumim.
On Sunday morning, settlers rampaged through the village of Einabus, near Nablus, torching cars and buildings. No injuries were reported, but it is the latest in a series of violent incidents that, along with statements in settler media, indicate that this might be the beginning of an organised campaign of violence against Palestinians in a bid to derail the temporary freeze ordered by the Israeli government.
The 10-month moratorium on settlement construction - which excludes East Jerusalem, 3,000 housing units already begun as well as building deemed "essential" for normal life in settlements, from synagogues to kindergartens - was announced in late November and is a response to international pressure on Israel to lay the foundation for a resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Palestinians say the freeze falls far short of Israel's obligations under the 2003 roadmap - which also calls on Israel to dismantle so-called settlement outposts, settlements established without the express permission of the Israeli government - and are refusing to return to negotiations until a full freeze is implemented, especially in East Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, settlers and their supporters are taking it seriously enough to call for a nationwide protest that is reported to include roadblocks on busy Israeli roads as well as demonstrations outside the homes of officials. Moreover, some are threatening violence against Palestinians. Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, of the Yitzar settlement near Nablus, recently wrote that if "there is no quiet for Jews, there will be no quiet for the Arabs".
"What happened yesterday in Einabus is part of a chronology of violence that is well documented," said Dror Etkes of Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group. "This is not incidental; it's systematic." Mr Etkes said the threat of violence by settlers against Palestinians was real and had a very clear political and practical rationale. Settlers, Mr Etkes said, are trying to tie up Israeli soldiers to divert resources from enforcing any settlement freeze as well as deterring the government from any further moves vis-à-vis settlements.
It is effective, Mr Etkes said, partly because the Israeli government is not that serious about a settlement freeze - "if it were, you would see no construction now" - and partly because settlers feel safe from prosecution. According to Yesh Din, in the 69 incidents of settler vandalism against Palestinian property that the organisation has monitored since 2005, not a single investigation has led to indictment.
It is partly for this reason that Palestinians look at settler protests with a mixture of bemusement and despair. Apart from the dramatic difference in how Palestinian demonstrations are handled by Israeli security forces, the settler action also shows their influence over both Israeli politicians and the army, said Issa Samander, an activist with the Popular Committees Against Settlement, a grassroots organisation.
"Soldiers have threatened to disobey orders to evacuate settlers, while the Israeli cabinet itself contains half a dozen settlers," Mr Samander said. The threat of violence was nothing new, he said. "For years, settlers have gotten away with outrageous behaviour, cutting down olive trees, burning houses and fields. Let them behave like this inside Israel and let's see what Israelis and the politicians who sent them here think of that."
Mr Samander, however, said he did not believe that the Israeli government was serious about the settlement freeze and so the settlers did not feel particularly threatened. But Mr Etkes suggested that settlers are genuinely concerned that a right-wing Likud-led government under Benjamin Netanyahu should be proceeding with any action against settlements. "The way settlers look at it, and it has nothing to do with the freeze, is that there has been a gradual but certain decline in the Greater Israel concept. This might be acceptable from the Labour Party or Kadima, but not from Likud."
Mr Etkes suggested that a division is emerging within the Israeli settlement movement between those who have internalised the political reality and are engaged in limiting the damage to the settlement project and those, mostly second- and third-generation settlers, who will not compromise. "For some, the current [settler] protest is a deterrent. To others it is an existential issue." email@example.com