The unsettling story that “hits you in the face”
Sometimes we journalists speak of stories that are so compelling, so important to tell that they “hit you in the face”. In the West Bank these days, we’ve begun to take that literally. In the past couple of weeks, Palestinian journalists working for international media, including Reuters, have become the targets of Jewish settlers in a way that has highlighted what many see as a violent trend among that community which has caused alarm not only among ordinary Palestinians but among Israeli leaders and their international allies, most recently the European Union . The EU noted an upsurge in violence during the annual harvest of olives, a key crop in the hills of the West Bank. The statement came out just hours after settlers had again attacked journalists, as well as Israeli police.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues, photographer Nayef Hashlamoun, was among journalists hurt when young Jewish religious settlers set about them in Hebron as they tried to cover efforts by local Palestinians and Israeli and foreign activists to pick olives. Israeli troops stepped in disperse the attackers and to offer medical aid to the journalists. But the soldiers’ actions were not enough to spare them criticism from fellow Israelis in the media. The incident led major television news bulletins in Israel that evening, with the channels questioning why the soldiers, part of the conscript army Israel deploys across the West Bank to protect some 300,000 settlers, had not arrested the assailants.
The incident and its coverage in Israeli media highlighted the extent to which the settlements, undertaken following Israel’s seizure of the West Bank in the war of 1967, remain not just, in the words of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an “obstacle to peace” with the Palestinians, but also an focus of discord within Israeli society. On Tuesday, the day Americans choose the president who may try to succeed where Rice and George W. Bush have failed in bringing peace to the Middle East, Israelis will mark 13 years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His Jewish killer remains unrepentant and a hero to some Israelis for his attempt to stop Rabin and his government from handing the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Yasser Arafat’s PLO after the Oslo peace accords. The assassin, Yigal Amir, sparked a furore last week by giving secretly taped television interviews in prison. It provided a reminder of the continued divisions over Rabin’s ‘land-for-peace’ strategy and revived painful memories of internal violence.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who will finally step down after a February election after formally resigning over a corruption scandal, warned of the emergence of radical underground Jewish groups after a bomb damaged the home of an Israeli academic in Jerusalem who has spoken out strongly against the settlers, who choose to live in the occupied West Bank in defiance of international law. Olmert has also lambasted “pogroms” against Palestinian villagers. Palestinians and their international allies complain, however, that Olmert has failed to remove settlers, despite Israel’s international commitments to do so. Indeed, his government has overseen an expansion of settlements.
This past week, the American Jewish Committee, which was set up over a century ago in response to pogroms against Jews in Russia, issued a statement sharing Olmert’s alarm at the rise in settler violence.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported a total of 222 incidents in the first half of 2008 versus 291 incidents in all of 2007. It said that 23 incidents of the cases recorded this year led to Palestinian casualties. Later OCHA reports document further difficulties during the olive harvest.
“There has been a rise in Jewish violence in Judea and Samaria,” Gadi Shamni, Israeli army commander of the central region, referring to the West Bank, recently said. “In the past, only a few dozen individuals took part in such activity, but today that number has grown into the hundreds.”
In the Israeli press, the op-ed pages of Haaretz have seen an exchange of opinions, including mutual accusations of propagating nothing less than “hatred” for fellow Jews, that has in turn generated wider coverage in the national media.
In an unsigned leader article last week entitled “Defeat Settler Terror”, the left-leaning broadsheet put its cards on the table, concluding: “Any attempt at compromise, and any negotiations with representatives of the settler “moderates,” would constitute a capitulation to terror and the abandonment of the state to a dangerous group of lunatics who are liable to bring about its destruction. “
A few days earlier, prominent pro-settler spokesman Israel Harel had defended the movement, distancing it from violent extremists and accusing anti-settlement activists and Palestinians of creating fear on settlements by not observing arranged times for picking olives: “When the truth is distorted so radically, and when all the ills of the state and the people are imputed to the settlers, the only possible conclusion is that aside from the political motive, the deeper reason for this destructive criticism is hatred – pure, baseless hatred.”
To that, the newspapers’s commentator, Gideon Levy hit back with a piece conceding his antipathy toward the settlers. His piece was entitled simply “Yes, Hate”.
With emotions running high, and with journalists ourselves feeling the story of the settlers is “hitting us in the face” at times, my colleague Allyn Fisher-Ilan took time to investigate the view from inside one of the fortified hilltop settlements that dot the West Bank landscape. There she met a 25-year-old woman called Renana Cohen who insisted that, whatever Olmert’s successor and Bush’s successor might think of following through on Rabin’s willingness to consider removing at least some of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, she had no intention of complying. She and her friends would “do everything to prevent” an evacuation, she said. ” I cannot even imagine it happening,” she added from the settlement which overlooks the major Palestinian city of Nablus. “If we don’t live here, then the Arabs would.”
(Sami Aboudi contributed to this blog)