ASIRA AL-KIBLIYA, West Bank (Reuters) - Armed with guns, slingshots, knives and stun grenades, Jewish settlers pelted the house of Palestinian Nahla Makhlouf with stones, uprooted young trees and painted the Star of David on her walls.
In Makhlouf’s West Bank village of Asira al-Kibilya, Palestinians brace for possible attack by their Jewish settler neighbors from nearby Titzhar almost every weekend. But the latest attack exceeded their expectations.
“They sprayed some sort of tear gas through the window. It smelled strong and made our eyes run and made it hard to breath, especially for my baby,” said the 33-year-old mother of four.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reacted strongly to the September 13 attack, saying he would not tolerate “pogroms” by Jewish extremists who are determined on religious grounds to stop Israel swapping occupied land for peace.
Last week, an outspoken Israeli critic of the settlements was wounded by a pipe bomb outside his Jerusalem home, in what Olmert said was evidence of “an evil wind of extremism, of hatred, of violence” threatening Israeli democracy.
Settlers and the Israeli army said the Asira assault was triggered by the wounding of a nine-year-old settler boy by a Palestinian whom he had disturbed in the act of setting fire to a house in the Yitzhar settlement while the family was away.
But settler vigilante violence is growing, according to a recent U.N. report, which recorded 222 incidents in the first half of 2008, versus 291 in all of 2007.
Some half a million Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem. Their presence, viewed by major powers as illegal under international law, is partly shielded by a 790 km (490 mile) barrier Israel has been building since 2002.
In a newspaper interview on Monday, Olmert broke new ground by urging Israel’s withdrawal “from almost all the territories” captured in the 1967 Middle East war in return for peace.
But Olmert says Israel plans to keep major settlements in the West Bank in any peace deal, and would have to compensate the Palestinians for land lost.
The Palestinians say they cannot have a viable country of their own if it is chopped into pieces by Israeli settlement islands and the snaking walls and fences of the new barrier.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called the settlements “an obstacle to peace” which must go.
Some settlers justified the attack on Asira, saying the army failed to protect them against a violent infiltration.
“If the Israeli army had done what it should, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. They should either have prevented that infiltration or carried out a raid after,” Renana Cohen said.
Dani Dayan of Israel’s mainstream settlers’ organization says the Arabs do not want peace. A Palestinian state would be a “launching pad” from which they would conduct “ethnic cleansing” against the Israelis, he argues. Many Israelis feel the same.
Most settlers oppose vigilante violence. But most agree that withdrawal would be “a sure recipe for war,” as Dayan puts is, because there will no “peace-loving Palestinians taking over.”
A younger, more aggressive breed of religious ideologues vows a violent response to any eviction threat, warning a heavy price would be exacted for any bid to close settlements down.
Residents of Asira say the settlers need no provocation or pretext. Attacks on Asira date back three years, Makhlouf said.
Palestinians complain of unremitting harassment, such as the burning of their olive trees and stoning attacks on farmers in the fields, as a prelude to land-creep and confiscation.
The garden and rooftop of Makhlouf’s neighbor, Ahmed Dawood, were littered by stones rained onto his house in the settler rampage. The water tank was holed by four bullet.
Dawood’s son and a laborer in his field were shot and wounded. The army, he said, made no effort to stop the attack.
“I complained to the soldiers and they shouted back ‘Get inside’ and started shooting,” he said.
“We have nothing to protect ourselves with. We just take precautions such as putting metal grids on the windows. But the solution is to have them uprooted from here.”
Asira’s predicament is well known to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, who gave Makhlouf a small video camera in 2007 to document violence. The lens was knocked off focus by a rock in the latest attack but still provided an audio record.
Yoav Gross of B’Tselem said the settlers can be heard giving the army a one-minute ultimatum to act against the Palestinians or they would do the job themselves.
“They started counting one, two, three...,” he said. “They were giving orders to the soldiers, not the other way around.”
One Israeli human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard, says most soldiers do not realize they have not only the right but also the duty, as the occupying power, to defend Palestinians.
Settler attacks may rise in the upcoming olive harvest, when Arab farmers work the groves close to settlement perimeters.
One Palestinian woman in Asira was stocking up on corrosive cleaning fluids to throw at the attackers next time they visit.
“They have the army to protect them even while they are attacking us,” said the woman, who was afraid to give her name.
“But we have no one to defend us.”
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Samia Nakhoul