Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Settler Attacks Impede International Humanitarian Assistance in the West Bank

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Settler Attacks Impede International Humanitarian Assistance in the West Bank

Article excerpt

INTERNATIONAL NGOs and other humanitarian organizations found their ability to function severely impeded by the unrest in the West Bank sparked by the settler attacks in Hebron in early December 2008. Following an Israeli High Court ruling in mid-November, the Israeli army and police on Dec. 4 evicted Israeli settlers from a Palestinian-owned building in Hebron's al-Ras/Patriarch's Hill neighborhood. In response, settlers began violently attacking Palestinians in the Hebron area, and the unrest quickly escalated and spread throughout the West Bank.

Hebron's Jewish settlers are known for being particularly radical and violent, and for disregarding Israeli High Court rulings and military orders. The city has been the site of numerous outbreaks of settler violence, including the notorious February 1994 massacre by American-born Dr. Baruch Goldstein at the Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) which left over 30 Palestinians dead and more than 125 wounded.

Following the first settler attacks in Hebron in late November 2008 following the High Court ruling, Israeli security forces were obligated to require some 200 settlers to evacuate in an effort to prevent further violence. Those businesses and shops still remaining in Hebron's Old City closed temporarily for fear of settler raids, and work was frozen in the days following the initial outbreak of violence.

NGO staff members living in Hebron and the surrounding villages no longer could safely drive their vehicles or leave their homes. "We stayed home, didn't travel, didn't use our cars," said Mohammad Salah, the director of a small NGO in Hebron. (His real name, along with those of others quoted in this article, has not been used for security reasons.) "My uncle's new car was burned in a village just south of [Hebron] and there were reports that gunfire was exchanged?."

Following the first attacks, settler violence quickly spread throughout the West Bank, impeding the ability of NGOs to work as usual. Particularly at risk were those NGOs working in villages near or around settlements. "We had to stop most of our activities in rural areas, especially in villages with agricultural land just under the settlements," said one NGO worker implementing agricultural assistance projects in the Qalqilya governorate. "But this was the least of our worries. We didn't even know if we could drive home safely after work."

Settlers were stoning cars and setting up roadblocks throughout the West Bank to impede travel and access by NGO workers to and from work. "As we drove back to Jerusalem from Salfit on Dec. 4, 2008," recalled an international NGO worker, "our main road was blocked by settlers who had built a roadblock and were attacking Palestinian cars coming by. We were forced to turn around and use a two-hour detour that luckily only took us by two, more quiet, settlements. It seemed that both Israeli and Palestinian license plates were easy targets. We didn't feel safe."

As the unrest spread, the Israeli military was everywhere in the West Bank trying to calm things down, clear settler roadblocks and take home settlers who were trying to instigate violence. "At one point we drove by a huge bonfire in the road in Ramallah [governorate] with large rocks strewn everywhere," said another international NGO worker. "Five settlers were waiting hidden in the bushes on the side of the road to throw stones at Palestinian cars as they drove by. …

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