Palestinian village under siege following settler killings

AWARTA, occupied West Bank (IPS) - Food supplies are running low, ambulances have been detained for hours at checkpoints and hundreds of young men have been held, interrogated and beaten up, some requiring hospitalization, in the Palestinian village of Awarta in the northern West Bank. The village has been under continuous curfew for four days.

“Please, please come quickly. Dozens of masked Israeli settlers have entered our village and they are attacking people and our homes. We don’t have enough food to eat. Now the soldiers are returning and are breaking into our home again. I can’t talk anymore,” Mahmoud (whose surname will remain anonymous for his own protection) told IPS in a hasty telephone conversation.

“Several days ago I was beaten up badly and had to be hospitalized. The soldiers also beat my sister and my uncle. They broke furniture and windows and cut power cables as they ransacked cupboards and upturned the contents of drawers.

“About 300 of the village’s young men were blindfolded, handcuffed, arrested and taken for interrogation at the local school where they were beaten,” added Mahmoud.

Homes have been ransacked and their contents destroyed and vandalized as the Israel military searches for the killers of an Israeli settler family who lived in the illegal Israeli settlement of Itamar which has been built on Palestinian land and borders Awarta village.

Five members of the Fogel family, parents and three children including a four-year-old boy and a three-month-old baby were stabbed to death by assailants who managed to penetrate the illegal settlement’s elaborate security system.

Entrances to Awarta have been closed off and a heavy military presence has saturated the area as the Israeli military re-mans roadblocks that were evacuated several months ago following increased security coordination between Palestinian and Israeli security forces. Flying checkpoints have also been set up and Palestinian motorists and pedestrians delayed as their IDs are examined by Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli military has declared the village and the surrounding area a closed military zone and said anybody, including media and foreign activists, caught in the area will be arrested. The Israeli police have declared a news blackout on the case and IPS has been unable to enter the village.

In addition to the 300 young men taken in for interrogation, Thai laborers working in Itamar have also been rounded up for questioning. However, according to the Israelis the attack is most likely to have been perpetrated by Palestinian militants for nationalistic purposes.

The savagery and brutality of the killings have shocked Palestinians, including fighters from the various resistance groups, and angered Israelis. There appears to be consensus on the moral heinousness of the act.

But while the attack on Israeli innocents — albeit members of a fanatical settler movement residing illegally on Palestinian land — has saturated local and international media outlets there is a lot more to the story of Awarta and the suffering and brutality its inhabitants have endured at the hands of the settlers and Israeli soldiers.

Last year IPS visited the village after two young, unarmed men were gunned down by Israeli soldiers at close range in a hail of bullets in late March as they collected metal aggregates which they hoped to sell at the local market to help pay for their education.

Autopsies on the bodies of cousins Salah Qawariq, 18, and Muhammad Qawariq, 19, concluded they had been shot at close range. Some of the bullets entered their shoulders and exited through their lower backs in line with being shot from above while seated or kneeling on the ground.

IPS accompanied the grieving families and villagers to the site of the execution. Despite Israeli military claims to have investigated the shootings dozens of empty bullet cartridges, a saline solution kit and other related paraphernalia lay on the ground undisturbed.

Israeli soldiers initially claimed self-defense after they alleged they were attacked but subsequently changed their story several times. An official investigation by the Israeli military stated that the deaths were unnecessary and could have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently.

While the Israeli military officially took responsibility for the killings, rumors surfaced about the possibility of a settler militia from Itamar being responsible. After the deaths a settler website mentioned that the first person to “find the bodies” was an extremist settler from Itamar. However, when news of this began to circulate in the media the website hastily withdrew the claims.

Awarta’s and surrounding villagers have been subjected to settler abuse and attacks on a regular basis and with increasing frequency during the last few months as settlers carry out their “price-tag” policy.

Every time an illegal settler outpost is razed by the Israeli military the settlers carry out revenge attacks on Palestinians and their property. These attacks have included arson attacks on mosques, cutting down and burning agricultural fields, killing livestock, attacking homes, people and property.

Ironically and perversely, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu has used the attack to announce the construction of 500 new settlement homes in the West Bank despite international condemnation.
Some have argued that the Israeli government is using the attack to divert increasing international criticism away from its recalcitrant stance towards peace talks and towards portraying itself once again as the victim.

The settlers, who have always argued in favor of unlimited West Bank construction for ideological reasons and what they see as “security,” have wasted no time in erecting a new settlement outpost on Awarta land.

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2011). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.