Burning the Olive Branch: Settler Violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

By Palestine Center Interns — Sarah Dickshinski, Abby Massell,
Zoë Reinstein, and Mirvat Salameh

Settler Violence Project Data Collection

In an attempt to hold Israel accountable and inform the rest of the world, the Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD) of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) maintains a “Daily Report” database that offers basic information about Israeli-Palestinian interactions that occur during a 24-hour period in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Where the PLO report covers a range of incidents that take place in the oPt, the Palestine Center analyzes the reports specifically for acts of violence committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, forming the Settler Violence Project. We extract the time, location, and a brief description of the violent act from the database and then classify the violence into one of four categories: Assault, Assault on a Place of Worship, Raid, and Destruction of Property. “Assault” consists of arson, stoning, running over civilians with a vehicle, firing a weapon, beating, and other forms of physical violence. “Assault on Place of Worship” is characterized by verbal and physical assault of worshippers in an attempt to violently disrupt and prevent prayer, frequently under the protection of Israeli forces. “Raid” is when settlers storm Palestinian villages with intent to harm or alarm. “Destruction of Property” includes killing livestock, burning olive groves and razing agricultural land, preventing access to land with barbed wire, and stoning homes.

Categorizing acts of violence both increases clarity of the data and allows for certain patterns to emerge. For instance, it is possible to study the frequency with which these categories of violence have occured over any period of time since 2004, which was the start date of the Settler Violence Project data collection. Further, it becomes evident that certain types of violence take place at certain times of the day and at certain locations. Though multiple categories may accurately reflect a single incident, the predominant motive is recorded so as not to skew the data in favor of one category. For example, July 20, 2016 represents all four types of violence (the information is from the NAD database):

1:55 AM — Nablus City: Raid

“At 01:55, a group of settlers raided the city of Nablus in a private vehicle in attempt to reach Joseph’s Tomb but a Palestinian police patrol positioned nearby forced them to leave.”

3:30 AM — Duma Village: Assault

“At 03:30, a group of settlers raided the village of Duma and hurled a Molotov cocktail towards a civilian home owned by Mohammad Raqi Abdelfattah Dawabsheh, resulting in the incineration of the furniture.” (This arsonry falls only 11 days short of the 2015 deadly arson attack on members of the same family).

9:00 AM — Jerusalem: Assault on a Place of Worship

“At 09:00, a group of settlers guarded by Israeli forces stormed into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and toured it provocatively.”

3:25 PM — Jayyous: Destruction of Property

“At 15:25, a group of settlers razed agricultural land behind the Apartheid wall in the town of Jayyous.”                                                                                                                    

Type crop (1)
   Map 1: Instances of Israeli Settler Violence in the oPt, June 1 – July 31, 2016

The Data Visualized

From June 1, 2016 to July 31, 2016, Palestinians living in the oPt endured 100 incidents of Israeli settler violence. During these two months, there were 38 Assaults, 29 Assaults on Places of Worship, 19 Raids, and 14 Destructions of Property. Each dot shown on Map 1 (right) represents one occurrence of settler violence and where it took place — each dot is color-coded based on classification of violence type. One important caveat to this map is that when more than one incident of violence occurs at the same location, the map displays only one dot. This issue is addressed by Map 2 (below), which shows the frequency of violence that occurs in a particular place. For example, the highest concentration of violence appears in Jerusalem, where Al-Aqsa mosque was stormed by Israeli settlers 27 times during June and July. Higher frequencies of violence are noted in red as shown around Nablus, Hebron, Jenin, and Bethlehem. Map 2 demonstrates not only the concentration of violence around highly populated Palestinian cities but also the widespread and recurrent acts of violence — a chief mechanism of the provocation and fear of the Israeli settler-colonial project. The red or blue shading of all major cities and villages in between symbolizes the imminent threat of settler violence in the daily lives of Palestinians.

While Map 2 illustrates the prevalence of violence throughout the West Bank for the two months of June and July, 2016, overall the data from the last year — August 2015 through July 2016 — reveal a similar pervasiveness. The 1008 instances of settler violence in the oPt resulted in 224 injuries needing hospitalization and 7 deaths. Broken down into the four categories, Palestinians experienced 393 Assaults, 267 Assaults on Places of Worship, 220 Raids, and 128 Destructions of Property. Most analysts agree that such recurring and increasing settler violence is detrimental to what little survives of recent attempts at a peace process.

Frequency crop
    Map 2: Frequency of Israeli Settler Violence in the oPt, June 1 – July 31, 2016

Burning the Olive Branch: Settler Violence in Context

When Jewish settler Hallel Yaffe Ariel was tragically murdered in her sleep on June 30, 2016, international media exploded. Every news outlet both within and without Israel was following the story; it was trending on social media for several days, and an internet search of her name today yields hundreds of articles. Horrific events like this must be publicized, but there also must be consistency in this coverage. The disproportionate portrayal of Palestinians as perpetrators by the media translates into a double standard in terms of the scope and tone of their coverage. In addition, Palestinian violence is often taken out of context from Israel’s larger military occupation reality and settler-colonial agenda, making Israeli settlers appear as victims of hatred and extremism.

The Palestinian who murdered Hallel Ariel is depicted as a “thug” and “animal” who is a part of a larger Palestinian terrorist movement. A demolition order has been issued for his family’s home — a clear act of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. Meanwhile, the double standard of the tone of media coverage is apparent in the treatment of the Israeli perpetrators responsible for the July 31, 2015 Duma arson attacks, in which Israeli settlers threw Molotov cocktails into the home of Saad Dawabsheh, killing him, his 18-month old son Ali, and his wife Riham. In fact, the initial coverage of the 2015 Duma arson shrank until there was noticeably little outrage over the early release of Meir Ettinger, a conspirator in the attack. After a mere ten months in administrative detention, he was put under house arrest in his home located on an illegal settlement. While in the media Ettinger is referred to as a lost youth “in need of guidance” and part of a “fringe groups of anarchists,” he is in fact part of a widespread movement perpetuated by US-born settler, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, who infamously advocates the restoration of the ancient “Israelite kingdom” and the expulsion of Palestinians.1

American outrage over the death of U.S. national Hallel Ariel demonstrates the widespread sympathy for Israeli settlers, legitimized, in part, by the media’s depiction of illegal activity in the oPt. According to Sara Hirschhorn of Oxford University, 15 percent of the 600,000 settlers living in the oPt hold U.S. citizenship. These close ties are also reflected by American Jews in the United States who, through legal loopholes, direct large sums of money towards the expansion of illegal settlements through nonprofit organizations and charities. A recent Haaretz investigation reveals that from 2009 to 2013, a total of $220 million in tax-deductible funds were sent directly from the United States to settlement enterprises in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Organizations such as the New York-based Hebron Fund and the Central Fund of Israel are registered as 501(c)(3) charities, allowing them to discreetly raise large sums of tax-deductible funds to support illegal settlements. While the funds are used for construction purposes, they are also sent to legal aid organizations that protect Israeli settler terrorists, such as Meir Ettinger. Honenu, a U.S.-based Zionist organization funded the legal defense services for the Israeli settler behind the fatal arson attack on the Dawabsheh home last summer. There is clearly a sizeable sector of the American population engaging in the protection of settlements and their inhabitants from any legal ramifications. Although 91 percent of reported instances of settler violence go unindicted, a few cases do pass the initial stages of investigation. In these rare instances organizations like Honenu ensure that any consequences are not long lasting.

The United States fails to insist on Israel’s compliance with the two-state solution as prescribed in the Oslo Accords — a peace deal that included the cessation of all settlement expansion. Without addressing the inextricable link between American citizens’ engagement and support of illegal Israeli settlements, the prospect of achieving Palestinian statehood becomes more uncertain. Violence in the West Bank continues to intensify due to what the U.S. State Department recently described as “accelerated systematic settlement activity.” As seen in our Settler Violence Project, there has also been a continued increase in assaults on Palestinians by settlers. Every torched home and olive grove inflict deep pain on Palestinian life and diminish the possibility of long lasting peace. Indeed, continued support for the settlement enterprise is one of the main impediments to the peace process. Without exploring the underlying support mechanisms of settlement expansion, it is impossible for the United States to broker any deal impartially. The American government cannot request Israel to halt its expansionist ambitions through policy rhetoric alone — it must begin by preventing the donation of American funds to organizations that send aid to the illegal Israeli settlement enterprise. The continued funding of the Israeli settler-colonial project both undermines the official policy stance of the U.S. government and impacts Palestinians who face recurring settler violence and sustained intimidation, inducing a cycle of trauma with no foreseeable end.

1. Ginsburg is notorious for his hateful rhetoric towards Palestinians, specifically the pamphlet he authored that justified Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 mass murder of several dozen Muslim worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

We recognize that documenting settler violence represents only a small fraction of the structural, cultural, physical, and psychological violence inflicted upon Palestinians as part of the brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine. This post does not describe the injuries and deaths that have occurred at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces, nor attacks by Palestinians on Israeli property or livelihood. Furthermore, the numbers reported in this post do not represent one hundred percent of all settler violence incidents against Palestinians, but rather only the incidents that have been recorded by the PLO.

Sarah Dickshinski, Abby Massell, Zoë Reinstein, and Mirvat Salameh are Summer 2016 Interns at The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.

The views in this brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.