Hebron woman goes on hunger strike over settler attacks

Israeli soldiers have done little to prevent settler violence. 

Osama Qawasmi APA images

HEBRON (IPS) - An elderly Palestinian woman spent last week on hunger strike to protest violent attacks by Israeli settlers. Hana Abu Heikel went on the hunger strike on behalf of her family after settlers burned the family car during the previous weekend.

Since Israeli settlers moved into the houses surrounding the Abu Heikel family home in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1984, the Abu Heikels have seen eight cars burned. Six vehicles were also smashed by settlers.

Settlers also pelted the Abu Heikels’ home with stones last weekend. Two young Palestinian men were attacked and beaten by settlers in Hebron during the same period. The young men were mugged on Shuhada Street which was once the bustling center of Palestinian commerce in Hebron. Because the street runs through an Israeli settlement, it has been closed to pedestrians. Its shuttered storefronts are covered with spray-painted Stars of David.

When Israeli soldiers intervened, they arrested the Palestinian men and did not take any action against the settlers.

Olive trees destroyed

The second weekend of January also saw settlers cut down more than a hundred olive trees in two small villages near the West Bank city of Salfit.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved measures to curb settler violence last month, January’s incidents reflect the Israeli authorities’ continued refusal to protect Palestinian civilians and their property.

Recent settler attacks also point to growing violence in the West Bank.

According a year-end report compiled by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), settler violence against Palestinians and their property went up 40 percent in 2011 compared to 2010. When compared to 2009, it rose 165 percent.

While settler violence is on the rise, it is not new. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Israeli settlers killed 50 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza between September 2000 and June 2011. During the 13 years spanning December 1987 and September 2000, 115 Palestinians were killed by Israeli settlers.

Acts of malice

Many of these deaths were not acts of self-defense but malice. On numerous occasions, B’Tselem reports, “Israeli civilians chased Palestinians who had thrown stones, and killed them by shooting directly at their bodies.”

According to the UN, 2011 saw Israeli settlers kill three Palestinians and injure 167; settlers damaged or destroyed approximately 10,000 Palestinian-owned trees, mostly olive trees, in the same year.

The Abu Heikels’ olive grove was ruined after settlers set fire to it in 2008.

Abu Heikel’s brother, Hani, estimates that the family has filed approximately 500 complaints about settlers with Israeli authorities in the past 28 years. He said that the police have not investigated these complaints and that authorities are dismissive of the family’s troubles.

“They tell us to ‘leave the area, leave the house’,” he said.

OCHA reports that more than 90 percent of monitored Palestinian complaints about settler violence are “closed without indictment.”

Some settler assaults on Palestinians and their property are “price tag” attacks — retribution for the evacuation or threatened demolition of Israeli “outposts” (extensions to settlements built without the formal go-ahead of Israeli authorities). But, in many instances, settler violence is an attempt to run Palestinians out of their homes so that some Israelis can take the property and tighten Israel’s grip on the West Bank.

Surrounded by settlers

While the Abu Heikels are surrounded by settlers and are under immense pressure to leave, they refuse to abandon their house. When discussing his family’s long history in Hebron, Hani Abu Heikel notes that his grandparents were one of the Palestinian families that sheltered more than 400 Jews during the 1929 massacre in Hebron that saw 67 Jews killed.

Still, settlers seem intent on driving the Abu Heikels out.

On one occasion, a settler cut the fence surrounding the Abu Heikels’ home and entered the garden. The Israeli woman was accompanied by her children, pointing to one reason settler violence proves so intractable — some settlers teach their children to behave in a violent manner towards the local Palestinian population. This writer has interviewed children, including a 13-year-old girl, who openly admitted to throwing stones at Palestinians.

The United Nations’ recent report on settler violence pointed out that international law mandates that Israel must protect civilians and their property and “ensure that all incidents of settler violence are investigated in a thorough, impartial and independent manner.”

Israel’s high court has also ruled that the army is legally obliged to protect Palestinians and their property in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Hani Abu Heikel said that when he asks Israeli police and soldiers for help, they answer, “our work is just to protect the settlers.”

While the third weekend of January was quiet, human rights groups in the West Bank were bracing themselves for “price tag” attacks due to Israel’s recent demolition of a settlement “outpost.” A spokeswoman for the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) said that her organization and others were preparing for imminent violence in the Hebron area. The groups were scheduling shifts to maintain an international presence in the city and to monitor both the settlers and the Israeli military.

The spokeswoman, who asked to remain anonymous because she does not want to attract the attention of Israeli authorities, added that while the settlers were unusually calm last week, Israeli soldiers from the Golani Brigade broke into the CPT’s building and a neighboring apartment.

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