Volunteers: Settler violence on the rise

Attacks against Palestinians are becoming commonplace in Hebron.

By
April 27, 2006 00:34
Volunteers: Settler violence on the rise

hebronsettler 298 88. (photo credit: Jewish Community of Hebron)

Her gray hair and slim size did not stop Israeli children waiting at a Hebron bus stop from tossing a palm size rock in the direction of Anne Montgomery, 79. A nun from the US, she was volunteering to help monitor Palestinian interactions with settlers, the IDF and the police. Rock-throwing by settler children is so typical, she said, that "we just looked at them and we knew it was going to happen." On Wednesday morning, however, instead of ignoring the brief stoning, she picked up the palm-sized rock and brought it to a Jerusalem press conference on rising settler violence called by international and activist groups working in Hebron. [To view a video of events click here] "Luna," a volunteer from the US who heads the non-profit Tel Rumeida Project, said that in the past year there have been hundreds of documented settler attacks of varying severity. Initially, the attacks seemed random and involved mostly settler teens, said Luna, who prefers that her real name not be used. "Alarmingly, Tel Rumeida adult settlers are now starting to carry out carefully pre-planned violent attacks. We, as human rights workers, have started to fear for our lives and the lives of the Palestinians we are attempting to protect," she said. Attacks are more likely to occur on Shabbat or a holiday, said Luna, whose organization has observed incidents each Saturday during April. Attacks include physical assaults, stoning and verbal threats. In one incident on April 1, Swiss lawyer Silvana Hogg received seven stitches in her head after she was stoned by a settler. Last Thursday, five international workers were injured by stones, including Montgomery, while they protected children and teachers as they walked to the Cordoba Girls School in the morning. Students and teachers are so likely to be attacked along that route that international workers with video cameras post themselves by the stairwell and street outside the school just in case an attack occurs. Luna's group and others, including Rabbis for Human Rights, Gush Shalom, Yesh Din and the International Solidarity Movement, are so concerned they sent a letter Wednesday to the Defense Ministry, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra and police Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi, asking that the security forces operating in Hebron be forced to take action. While there have been helpful security officers, often times the soldiers or police in the area do nothing to control the settlers, said Luna. She showed a number of video clips during the press conference to prove her point. In one, taken last August on what appears to be a Saturday, small Jewish children could be seen picking up rocks and tossing them at Palestinians and international workers. One rock barely missed a Palestinian boy who stuck his head out of a doorway. A police van drove up to the settler children, who continued to pick up stones and throw them, and one was also thrown at the van. Off to the side, two policemen were seen recording the event and there were also soldiers on the street, but neither appeared to try to stop the stone-throwers. In a second video, a young woman, standing next to a male settler wrapped in a prayer shawl, was seen shoving an elderly international volunteer to the ground. On Wednesday, the World Council of Churches in Geneva sent a letter to Ambassador to Switzerland Aviv Shiron protesting settler violence against Christian volunteers. In his letter, Peter Weiderud, director of the WCC Commission on International Affairs, asked the security forces to stop "abusive, unlawful and violent behavior by settlers toward Palestinians." He said that the root of the problem is Israel's "practice of establishing, protecting and expanding settlements." He called on Israel to withdraw from all settlements, including Hebron. Neither the army nor the police responded to queries regarding Hebron. Soldiers on its streets had mixed reactions. Some said they knew nothing of such incidents, and blamed the international volunteers for inflaming an already tense situation between the approximately 500 Jews and 130,000 Palestinians who live in the city. Others said they knew of incidents in which settlers attacked Palestinians. The soldiers said that at times they could find themselves protecting settlers against Palestinians, and then saving settlers from Palestinians during the same day. Ruth Kedar, who created Yesh Din a year ago to help Palestinians sue the settlers for violent attacks, said her organization had 140 cases pending against settlers in all of Judea and Samaria. Still, a few of Hebron's Jewish residents said they were startled to hear that the Palestinians and the international workers feared them, since they view themselves as the ones under attack. Several Jews and soldiers have been killed in Hebron in the last five years. A spokeswoman for the Hebron community, Orit Strock, said that incidents of Palestinians acting against settlers occur every day. "They have thrown stones at me and they have thrown stones at my children," she said. "It happens all the time." There are also attacks against property and bombs thrown at cars, she added. Another Hebron spokesman, David Wilder, said that given the tensions in the city, he believed that there had also been attacks by settlers against Palestinians. "I'm not saying that nothing happens," he said. But he added that neither he nor his children regularly attack Palestinians. Parents are not saying to their children go attack this Palestinian or that Palestinian, he said. On Saturday in particular, he said, "I have only three things on my mind: praying, eating and sleeping." He had a suggestion for the international workers who feared for their lives: "The best way to prevent violence is for them to leave," he said, because their presence in the city only inflamed already existing tensions. Strock said that international volunteers come to Hebron with an agenda. "They want to get the Jews out of Hebron. That is their objective. Some hide it and others do not." Wilder wondered why the same groups hadn't been equally concerned when the international observer group, Temporary International Presence in Hebron, was forced to leave in February after it was attacked by Palestinians angered by the publication by a Danish newspapers of cartoons against the Prophet Muhammad. TIPH spokeswoman Eli Smette, whose organization monitors Israeli and Palestinian activity based on an agreement with both governments, said that her organization has observed violence by both parties. The number of settler incidents against Palestinians seemed to be higher, she said. But she qualified her statement by noting that while the Palestinians contact her organization when an incident occurs, the settlers call the police or the army instead. This makes it more difficult to assess the exact number of Palestinian attacks against settlers, said Smette, whose organization has only recently returned to the city. But Luna said it had been her experience in the last six months that the violence has been on the part of the settlers. She recalled how only last Saturday she and another volunteer raced to the Abu Ishi family grocery store, when they saw a group of 30 settlers try to attack three Palestinians teens. She said her arm was bruised by a settler, who also pushed her against the door. "The only reason I am not in the hospital or possibly worse is because this one soldier intervened," said Luna. She recalled how one settler shook her as she stood between him and a Palestinian. "Then a soldier came and stood in front of me," she said. Radi Abu Ishi, 16, was calm several days later as he described that brief five to seven minutes of scuffling that occurred around 2 p.m.. "I was slapped twice and kicked twice," said Radi. From the back of the store he dragged out a large, almost body-length metal rail with a sharpened edge that he said settlers used against them during the attack. He held it up to show how it was thrown only a short distance and to demonstrate where it landed near a carton of flour, without injuring anyone. He dismissed the attack as a normal part of living within a short distance of Jewish families at the top of the hill. But Luna and other international volunteers said this situation was anything but normal. More to the point, they said they believed it was increasingly becoming more dangerous. They bristled at accusations that their presence in Hebron inflames the situation. Holding a video camera as he stood against the closed shutters of a shop on the deserted Shuhada Street, as he waited for children to come out of school,Tom Hayes, a volunteer from Britain, said he and others were there because the Palestinians believe their presence improves security. "If they didn't want us here, we wouldn't be here," he said. When they stand in the street, they try to be as unobtrusive as possible, said Luna. "We don't want to provoke anyone," she said. "A good day is a boring day."


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