In West Bank, settler violence seen on the rise

Scorched hillsides and charred olive groves near Nablus pinpoint the latest acts of arson by hardline...

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Scorched

hillsides and charred olive groves near Nablus pinpoint the latest acts

of arson by hardline Jewish settlers against Palestinians who say they

are ever more the victims of such attacks in the West Bank.

"The olive tree is the only

source of income for farmers," said Mohammad Zeban, a Palestinian

farmer, lamenting the damage inflicted on hundreds of olive trees by a

recent fire near the village of Huwara. "They want to annihilate us."

Settler-related

incidents resulting in Palestinian injuries and damage to property are

up by 57 percent this year, according to the U.N. Office for the

Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which documents violence in the

Palestinian territories.

Palestinian

officials say that is a worrying sign of deepening hostility which they

fear could trigger wider violence as hardline settlers increasingly

appear to be a law unto themselves and frustration grows over the

evaporating prospects for peace.

For

Palestinians around Nablus, confrontations with ideologically-driven

Israelis who have settled the area since the early 1980s have become

routine in recent years. But this year has been worse than normal, say

villagers.

They talk of greater

numbers of settlers, more organised than before, descending from their

hilltop enclaves to hurl rocks at their homes and vandalise their

agricultural land.

The Palestinians usually respond with rocks, with people getting injured on both sides.

The

World Court has ruled Israeli settlements in occupied territory illegal

and Palestinians say the enclaves could deny them a viable state.

Among

the most ideological in the West Bank, the settlers around Nablus

represent a minority on the fringe of Israeli society. They are a

fraction of the 500,000 settlers who today live in the West Bank and

East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

They

see themselves as pioneers exercising a biblical birthright to the West

Bank, which together with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem is the land

where Palestinians want to establish a state alongside Israel.

Often reluctant to talk to the media, they have in the past complained about attacks by Palestinians on their property.

The

killing of a Jewish couple and three of their children in March at a

settlement near Nablus has likely helped fuel the recent wave of attacks

on Palestinians. Two Palestinian teenagers have been charged with the

killings.

MORE PALESTINIANS INJURED THIS YEAR

Settlers

also mount attacks against Palestinians in response to Israeli

government measures which they deem contrary to their interests, such as

the removal of West Bank outposts built without official permission.

To

Palestinians, the increasing frequency and audacity of settler attacks

is an inevitable result of the support their movement enjoys from a

right-wing Israeli government whose foreign minister is himself a

settler.

"This is a government of

settlers and its program is one of settlement. This, naturally,

encourages this arrogance and these attacks," said Maher Ghoneim, the

Palestinian Authority minister who monitors Israeli settlement

activities.

Palestinians have been

injured by settlers this year at double the rate of 2010, he said. So

far this year, 178 Palestinians have been stoned, run down or shot at by

settlers, compared to a total of 176 for the whole of 2010. Three

Palestinians have been killed by settlers this year.

The

Israeli police and army, which control security in most of the West

Bank, including all the land in and around the settlements, did not

provide information requested by Reuters about the scale of violence

involving settlers.

The role of Israeli security forces in dealing with settler violence is the focus of controversy.

LENIENCY

The

Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem says the army often does

little or nothing to protect Palestinians and their property from

settlers. If arrested, settlers are treated leniently by the Israeli

justice system.

In footage captured

by a Palestinian earlier this month with a camera provide by B'Tselem,

soldiers appear to do very little to stop settlers pelting the village

of Asira with rocks.

"When the

village's residents arrived and threw stones back at the settlers, the

soldiers can be seen firing teargas at the Palestinians," said Sarit

Michaeli, spokeswoman for B'Tselem.

More footage captured by a Palestinian in the nearby village of Burin on June 30 shows a settler setting alight a field.

The

blaze quickly spreads, tearing through wild grass dried out by the

summer sun and helping to start what Palestinians said was the area's

biggest fire in more than five years. It reached adjacent Huwara.

Responding

to a question from Reuters about violence that day, the Israeli army

said dozens of Israeli civilians had approached Huwara, hurling rocks at

security forces, confronting Palestinian villagers and lighting a

number of fires.

"(Israeli army)

forces began separating between the skirmishers in an attempt to prevent

further clashes," the army said in a statement. "The forces began to

remove those involved from the area, and contacted the firefighting

service in order to extinguish the fires in the area."

Four Israelis and a Palestinian were detained and handed over to the police, it said.

Zeban,

the Palestinian farmer, disputes the army's account and said the

security forces stopped locals from fighting the flames. He estimated

his losses that day at 100 olive trees.

"What

did this olive tree ever do to them?" said Zeban, as he inspected one

burnt tree. A carpet of charred olive pits beneath its dead branches

indicated what it would have yielded come harvest time.

"It took 20 years to grow. It will take another 20 to recover," he said.