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Israel: New Commander Should Protect Palestinians From Settler Violence

Impunity for Attacks; Excessive Force Against Palestinians

(Jerusalem) – The newly-appointed Israeli military commander in the West Bank should end the military’s hands-off approach to settler attacks against Palestinians and Palestinian property, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on the new commander to end the use of excessive force by security forces against Palestinians responding to settler attacks.

Israeli Brig. Gen. Hagai Mordechai took over the West Bank command on October 25, 2011, replacing Brig. Gen. Nitsan Alon, who had held the position for two years.

“Israel’s security forces haven’t been stopping settlers who attack Palestinians and invade their lands, and in fact have attacked Palestinians who were protesting settler violence,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Brigadier General Mordechai should be ensuring that his troops are preventing settler violence, not punishing the Palestinian victims.”

In one Palestinian village, Qusra, settlers so far this year have destroyed more than 1,000 olive and other trees, killed 18 livestock, and damaged a mosque, according to residents. Residents of Qusra, a village of around 6,000 people near Nablus, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli forces failed to stop the attacks and wounded dozens of villagers while ostensibly breaking up clashes with settlers on village land.

Abd al-Azim Wadi, vice-chairman of the Qusra village council, told Human Rights Watch that settlers and Israeli security forces have injured residents in 17 incidents since January.

Human Rights Watch documented settler attacks in Qusra on August 29, September 16, September 23, and October 6. During these four incidents, settlers destroyed hundreds of olive and fig trees and seriously injured at least four Qusra residents. Israeli forces in each case failed to prevent the settler attacks and allegedly responded with excessive force against villagers protesting against settler violence on their own lands. On September 16, for example, settlers shot Fathallah Abu Rida, 50, and a settler’s dog attacked Abu Rida’s son, Ayman, 24, when they encountered the settlers swimming in the well on the Abu Ridas' farmland. As other settlers clashed with villagers, who threw stones at them, Israeli forces pursued the villagers and entered Qusra, where they fired teargas; two villagers lost consciousness, possibly due to teargas inhalation, and were hospitalized.

On September 23, Israeli forces responded to clashes between settlers and villagers on agricultural lands belonging to Qusra residents by firing teargas and rubber bullets at the villagers but not the settlers. Villagers said Israeli forces detained and beat two Palestinian youths, ages 15 and 18, and permitted a settler to hit the 18-year-old on the head with a rock while he was in custody. Later that day, after villagers clashed with settlers who entered another area immediately southeast of the village, Israeli forces arrived and shot rubber bullets and teargas canisters at the villagers only, and an Israeli soldier fatally shot Issam Odeh, a 35-year-old from Qusra. The Israeli military stated on October 23 that it had “decommissioned” a lieutenant for killing Odeh, but that the officer would remain in the military.

The Israeli rights group B’Tselem recorded seven settler attacks on Qusra during six weeks from late August to early October.

Qusra is bordered on the northeast by Migdalim, a settlement established in 1984. To the south is the Shilo settlement, established in 1979. Settlers later created three “outposts” on hilltops closer to Qusra: Shvut Rachel (1991), Esh Kodesh (2000), and Keida (2003). According to an October 2011 UN report, Qusra residents have “lost access to hundreds of acres of land” due to land-confiscations by settlements and “outposts.” The latter are illegal even under Israeli laws, but Israeli authorities typically connect them to utilities and infrastructure, and provide military protection.

Residents of Qusra say that most of the settler attacks originate from the nearest outpost, Esh Kodesh, which is visible across an open, rocky valley south of the village. “Settlers from Migdalim used to come to buy food in our supermarket,” the village council vice-chairman, Abd al-Azim Wadi, told Human Rights Watch. “We know the problem is the outpost, but the Israeli soldiers refuse to protect us. They side with the attackers.”

In September Israeli forces erected a military post on the side of the valley close to Esh Kodesh and the other “outposts.” The post has a commanding view of the area. B’Tselem reported on October 6 that Israeli security forces have maintained a regular presence there but nevertheless consistently failed to prevent settler attacks on Qusra.

Some of these attacks appear to be so-called “price-tag” reprisals, a term some settlers use for attacks against Palestinians and Palestinian property intended to protest Israeli law-enforcement actions directed at settlement construction that violates Israeli laws. In the early morning of September 5, for instance, unknown attackers smashed windows and threw burning tires into a mosque in Qusra and spray-painted the mosque with Hebrew graffiti, including the word “Migron,” a settlement outpost where, hours earlier, Israeli forces had demolished three structures built without permits. As of October 6, Israeli authorities had arrested and released several suspects in the mosque attack, and the police investigation had made no progress, according to B’Tselem.

Israeli civil police, who have jurisdiction over the settlers, have consistently failed to adequately investigate crimes allegedly committed by settlers against Palestinians, or to hold perpetrators accountable (alleged crimes by Palestinians against Israelis fall under Israeli military jurisdiction). Abu Rida showed Human Rights Watch photographs that his sons had taken of the settlers who damaged their well and assaulted them; several people are easily identifiable. When he tried to show the photographs to Israeli police, he said, the police ignored them and said they would show Abu Rida their own photographs of suspects. As of November 13 the police had not called him back, he said.

Another Israeli rights group, Yesh Din, monitored 13 complaints that Qusra residents have filed with Israeli civil police about settler attacks since December 15, 2010. The attacks described in the complaints destroyed 180 olive trees, killed six sheep or goats, and included six assaults, two of them with live ammunition, against Qusra residents.

As of early October, police had closed five of the cases due to what they claimed was an inability to identify the perpetrator, closed one other case in which the complaint was an attempted kidnapping, ostensibly for “lack of a criminal offence,” and had not replied with information about two cases. The police said they were investigating the five remaining cases, one of them nine months old and another seven months old.

Qusra youths frequently throw rocks at settlers and soldiers during clashes, including at the time of Odeh’s death. Qusra residents say he was shot while bending down to pick up a rock. In another case, a Qusra resident grabbed a settler’s knife and threatened him with it – but did not injure him – in an attempt to force him to leave villagers’ farmland where the settler had damaged property.

In the majority of cases, however, witness statements, corroborating evidence, and documentation by Israeli and Palestinian rights groups and the UN indicate that Palestinians or their property were the targets of unprovoked settler attacks. Israeli forces frequently intervened only after Palestinians sought to prevent settler incursions on their lands or attacks on their persons and property, including cases in which Palestinians threw rocks at settlers as well as cases in which Palestinians did not use violence. But the forces did nothing to prevent the settlers from trespassing and in some cases used excessive force, such as firing rubber bullets and teargas, against villagers who posed no apparent threat. Soldiers did not use such measures against settlers. In several cases soldiers fired live ammunition at unarmed Palestinians. During policing actions, security forces (whether military or civil) should not use lethal force except where strictly necessary to protect life.

The UN, Israeli, and Palestinian rights groups reported an increase in settler attacks against West Bank Palestinians in September, around the time of the Palestinian leadership’s announcement that it would seek recognition of Palestine as a UN member state. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented 377 settler attacks against Palestinians and their property in 2011 as of October 31. The attacks injured 167 Palestinians and damaged nearly 10,000 Palestinian-owned olive trees and other trees, according to OCHA. Settlers killed three Palestinians in hit-and-run incidents.

The number of settler attacks in 2011through October 31 was 42 percent higher than in the same period in 2010 (which saw 266 settler attacks from January to October of that year) and almost three times than the number of attacks in 2009 (which saw 132 attacks), according to OCHA figures. Israeli soldiers injured another 101 Palestinians “during clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians,” OCHA reported.

Palestinian civilians have injured 29 settlers to date in 2011, and killed seven. In one case, according to Israeli police, on September 24, a Palestinian threw a rock that caused Asher Palmer, a settler from Kiryat Arba near Hebron, to crash his car, killing him and his one-year-old son. In August an Israeli military court convicted a Palestinian man for killing five members of the Fogel family in the Itamar settlement in March; a second man pleaded guilty to murder charges in October.

Yesh Din reported that from 2005 to 2010, police identified and indicted perpetrators in only 9 percent of the 642 cases in which they had opened investigations into settler attacks on Palestinians or their property.

“The persistent settler violence directed against Palestinians is an indictment of Israeli law enforcement in the West Bank,” Stork said. “The scale of settler attacks that we are seeing in the West Bank would be impossible without the neglect of the Israeli military and police and a serious lack of accountability.”


Qusra Residents Describe Attacks by Settlers, Security Forces

August 29 and September 16, 2011

Fathalla Abu Rida, 50, a farmer from Qusra, told Human Rights Watch that at around 7 a.m. on August 29, two of his sons, aged 22 and 17, went to the family’s land in an area south of the town and saw about 50 settlers destroying olive trees on neighboring plots of land. Abu Rida’s sons phoned him, and he drove to the area. On the way he encountered a patrol of three vehicles of the Israeli Border Police, a gendarmerie force. He asked them to follow him but they declined.

When I arrived the settlers were destroying trees that belong to Fawaz Tawfiq, Ghassan Tawfiq, Ali Abd al-Hamid Hassan, and Bahjat Fawzi. There were soldiers 500 meters away who could see it all happening, but they did nothing. The settlers destroyed 250 trees. We stayed on the land and called the vice president of the Qusra village council, who called the Israeli army DCO [district coordination officer]. The DCO arrived and asked why I didn’t catch the settlers. They had uprooted all the two-year old trees, and broke the branches of the bigger trees.

Abu Rida owns 12 dunams of farmland in an area south of Qusra known as Iqta’ Kamil, where he has grown grapes, figs, olives, and other produce since purchasing the land 15 years ago. At around 9:30 a.m. on September 16, in a second incident, Abu Rida said he and three of his sons were picking figs on their property when they discovered that nine Israeli settlers had forced open the top of their agricultural well. Some were swimming in it, naked. Two of the settlers were armed with M16 assault rifles and had brought a dog. They refused Abu Rida’s demands to leave. Abu Rida and his sons took photographs of the settlers with their mobile-phone cameras, which Abu Rida later showed to Israeli police.

The Qusra village council vice-chairman, Abd al-Azim Wadi, and other Qusra residents arrived about 10 minutes later, Wadi and Abu Rida said. One settler fired in the air, and the Qusra residents tried to push the settlers toward a road that Israeli forces frequently patrol, with the intention of handing them over to Israeli forces. The settlers’ dog attacked Abu Rida’s oldest son, Ayman, 24, who fell and injured his ankle, and a settler stood on him to keep him on the ground. When the other Qusra residents tried to restrain some of the other settlers by grabbing their arms one of the settlers who had been swimming in the well shot Fathallah Abu Rida in the left leg. The villagers were not armed, Abu Rida and Wadi said.

A Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance later took Fathallah and Ayman Abu Rida to Rafidiya Hospital in Nablus. Human Rights Watch observed x-rays from the hospital showing Ayman’s injured foot and a metallic fragment lodged in Fathallah’s leg, consistent with their statements.

In the meantime, Qusra residents said, scores of other settlers approached to within 100 meters of the area, and the settlers and 30 to 40 village youths began throwing stones at one another. By 10 a.m., six Israeli military jeeps had arrived, and fired teargas and concussion grenades toward the village youths. The youths withdrew 200 meters toward the village while throwing stones at the soldiers. About seven Israeli soldiers entered the village; one fired teargas canisters repeatedly. Village residents told Human Rights Watch that Israeli forces fired large amounts of teargas in Qusra for the next two hours, then withdrew. Al-Haq, a Palestinian rights group, said that between 10:30 and 11 a.m. a teargas canister hit Qesar Ahmed, 41, in the shoulder, and another hit Tarek Abu Rida, 45, in the chest; both men lost consciousness, possibly due to teargas inhalation, and were evacuated by ambulance for medical treatment.

Fathalla Abu Rida said his younger children have since been afraid to return to their farmland:

We used to go to our land all the time, not only for farming but simply to be there, to enjoy it. Each of my children has planted their own trees and flowers. Now my youngest daughter, Rahani, who’s eight, tells me, “Dad, don’t go to the land. I don’t want you to die.”

The faces of several settlers are clearly identifiable in several of Abu Rida’s photographs that Human Rights Watch viewed. Abu Rida showed Human Rights Watch a copy of confirmation of his appointment, on September 20, to complain about the attack at the Israeli civil police station in the settlement of Ariel:

I brought the photos my sons had taken of the attackers and I tried to point out the people who shot at me. The police told me to put the photos aside, and said that the next time I came they would show me their own photos. But I don’t have a new appointment. They just said they would call me. And they wrote my complaint in Hebrew and made me sign it without explaining it.

As of November 13, Abu Rida said, the police had not contacted him. Abu Rida said settler attacks cause continuing economic losses for him and other affected farmers. “The farm is my livelihood,” he said. “Big olive trees can create 600 shekels [US $160] a year in profit. Small trees cost around 150 shekels [US $40] a year to tend and water.”


September 23, 2011

In a series of clashes that began at around 1:30 p.m. on September 23, settlers and soldiers injured 11 Qusra residents, of whom five were hospitalized, and killed Issam Odah. Residents confirmed to Human Rights Watch Israeli media reports that the settlers initially planted an Israeli flag on Qusra villagers’ land.

Wadi, the village vice-chairman, told Human Rights Watch what happened after the midday prayer that day:

A farmer said settlers had entered the Waar area [south of Qusra] and came onto Abu Nasser’s land. About 30 of us went there, and saw more than 20 settlers. The soldiers were there by that point and kept us around 40 meters away from the settlers. I asked the Israeli army captain and an Israeli border policeman to get the settlers off our land. I promised the villagers would leave if the settlers left. Then another army captain came. I told him we were just waiting for the DCO [the Israeli military district coordination officer] to arrive, since he would make sure the settlers left. He spoke rudely. He said to his soldiers, “Give them two minutes, then shoot teargas.” They didn’t even wait one minute before firing. They shoved me to the ground and a soldier stepped on my foot.

A Qusra resident, Hani Abu Raidi, told Human Rights Watch that about 15 soldiers had arrived in two or three military jeeps. Abu Raidi also tried to negotiate with Israeli soldiers to remove the settlers from villagers’ land, but an Israeli military officer pushed him to the ground with the butt of his M16 assault rifle, then kicked him. Human Rights Watch observed Abu Raidi’s heavily-bandaged hand, which he said he had injured when he was pushed to the ground.

At about 3 p.m., soldiers shot Rami Asheikh Yusef with rubber bullets and one live round, which struck his arm, two witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch viewed photographs showing Yusef’s wounds. “I was 15 meters away when it happened,” Wadi told Human Rights Watch. “No stones were being thrown at that point. We ran after Rami when he got shot and ran away; we didn’t know he’d been shot in the chest at that point. Rami walked a bit and then we got a car for him to take him to the hospital.”

Abu Raidi said that villagers then fell back toward the village, with youths throwing stones and soldiers firing tear-gas and rubber bullets. At that point, he said, villagers learned that other settlers were destroying olive trees in the Iqta’ Kamil area, several hundred meters away. About 30 village youths arrived and threw stones at about 10 settlers, who retreated. Soldiers arrived and fired rubber bullets, and arrested Fathi Fayez, 14, and Ammar Mesamir, 18.

Mesamir told Human Rights Watch that he and other youths went to the Iqta’ Kamil area and threw stones after hearing that settlers and Border Police were there. One policeman hit Mesamir in the head with the butt of his M16. He said:

I fell down, and they dragged me by my legs around 25 meters to their jeep. They tied my hands behind me, and a settler said, “I want to hit him.” And the soldier let him hit me in the head with a rock. Then the soldiers blindfolded me and threw me in the jeep, on the floor. They put a shield on top of me, the kind that riot police use, and were stepping on top of that as they drove me to the army outpost over toward the settlements. They left me outside for half an hour before letting me go.

Mesamir went to the Rafidiyah hospital in Nablus. Several Qusra residents, including Mesamir, said that soldiers also beat Fayez while he was in their custody. Human Rights Watch was unable to interview Fayez.

By 4:15 p.m. villagers were clashing with soldiers nearby on the down-slope of a rocky hill southeast of Qusra’s water-storage tank. Witnesses said an Israeli soldier killed Issam Odeh, 35, in the area at around 4:30 p.m. Human Rights Watch observed what appeared to be dried blood on the ground at the location where witnesses said Odeh had been shot with live ammunition by a soldier from around 10 meters away. Information collected from two witnesses by Al-Haq indicates that Odeh was shot while bending down to pick up a rock. The bullet that killed Odeh entered at his waist and exited his body near his neck, according to a medical report, corroborating statements witnesses made to Human Rights Watch that he was bending down when he was shot. Salame Yusef Hassan, 33, said he helped carry Odeh up the hill to the ambulance: “I think he died almost immediately, by the time we carried him.” Odeh had seven children, Hassan said. “He painted my house last year. I can’t believe he’s dead.”

Soldiers shot several other men with rubber bullets, one of whom was hospitalized after being shot in the groin.

In a public statement the Israeli military spokesman described the circumstances as “a mutual rock hurling incident” between settlers and Palestinians. Israeli news media reported that the soldiers who fired rubber bullets and live ammunition at the time of Odeh’s death had been left behind by a larger force that had arrived earlier in the afternoon. The Israeli news website Ynet reported that the Israeli military spokesperson said that the military had “decommissioned” the soldier who killed Odeh, a lieutenant in the Haruv Battalion, as the result of “several operational and disciplinary events.” The spokesperson did not name the lieutenant, but said he would remain in the army in a non-combat capacity. Ynet reported that the officer said his team felt threatened because they were outnumbered by demonstrators, some of whom were throwing stones. According to Ynet the lieutenant said 200 Palestinians were there, but Palestinian witnesses said that a few dozen villagers were involved in the clashes.

Teargas may be a lawful means of dispersing crowds in some situations, but directly targeting peaceful protesters with rubber bullets and teargas cylinders may amount to the unlawful use of force, Human Rights Watch said.

In policing situations security forces may use lethal force only when it is strictly necessary to protect life. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” The Basic Principles state that, “Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”


Other Recent Settler Attacks

Qusra residents said settlers attacked village property on September 25, destroying or damaging another 500 trees owned by 18 residents, and again on October 6. A villager, Abu Haitham, told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of October 6, villagers discovered about 200 olive trees destroyed in an area near the Shilo outposts. “There were no witnesses, but a few people saw a car passing by and saw IDF jeeps around the village,” Abu Haitham said. He said he believed that the Israeli police were investigating, but had not been informed about any progress as of October 11.

On October 21, the Israeli peace group Combatants for Peace reported that settlers who apparently came from Esh Kodesh attacked three Israelis, including a 61-year-old man who suffered broken ribs and fingers, as they were helping Palestinians to pick olives outside the town of Jalud, near Qusra. In a statement published by the group, the man said Israeli forces refused to respond to his calls to help evacuate the injured and instead fired teargas canisters at them. He said he called to one Israeli border police officer who was 20 meters away, but the officer instead walked to the back of his vehicle, opened the trunk and picked up a teargas gun, which he fired at the injured man, the statement said.

The UN documented several incidents in Qusra earlier in 2011. On January 13, the UN reported, 40 to 50 Israeli settlers fired guns into the air and threw stones at a Palestinian farmer who was working his land southeast of Qusra, injuring his head. Israeli soldiers and police arrived and forced the settlers to walk south, toward the Shilo settlement. They also forcibly dispersed Qusra residents who had gathered, firing teargas canisters and beating some residents with batons.

On March 7, according to the UN, about a dozen settlers from Esh Kodesh, carrying guns, baseball bats, and metal bars, assaulted Qusra residents. One of the 10 Palestinians injured in the incident said a settler shot him in his left wrist. Israeli soldiers reached the scene 30 to 45 minutes later, but instead of stopping the settlers’ attack used force against villagers in support of the settlers. An Israeli soldier shot another Palestinian man in the leg, then approached him and shot him from close range in his other leg, the UN reported. A settler then kicked him in the face. The Israeli police did not arrest any settlers, but told the Palestinians to file a complaint at the Binyamin settlement.

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