Under international law, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal. What is perhaps less well known is the impact these settlements, and their 500 thousand residents, have on the local Palestinian communities, and in particular, on women and children. This issue was recently examined by two West Bank-based human rights organizations in a submission to the UN fact-finding mission on the settlements.
The submission concludes that in order to construct the settlements and their associated infrastructure Palestinian village lands must be confiscated, access to natural resources limited, and the freedom to develop curtailed. This naturally causes resentment and friction between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. In order to maintain dominance over the local Palestinians the Israeli army and settlers resort to various acts of intimidation and punishment. This policy was recently described by a former Israeli soldier in a new report published by Breaking the Silence, an organization made up of former soldiers who seek to highlight the damaging realities of prolonged military occupation:
We would enter villages on a daily basis, at least twice or three times a day, to make our presence felt, and . . . it was like we were occupying them. Showing we’re there, that the area is ours, not theirs. A patrol goes in, or two patrols, two hummers secured by a jeep, and raise hell inside the villages. A whole company may be sent in on foot in two lines like a military parade in the streets, provoking children. [The commander] wants more and more friction, just to grind the population, make their lives more and more miserable, and to discourage them from throwing stones, not to even think about throwing stones at the main road. Not to mention Molotov cocktails and other things. Practically speaking, it worked. The population was so scared that they shut themselves in. They hardly came out . . . . The whole village shut itself in.
The submission highlights how night raids on villages and mass arrests are used as part of this policy of control and intimidation. According to UN figures, since June 1967 over 730 thousand Palestinian men, women, and children have been held in Israeli military detention. This works out at about one in four men. This includes hundreds of women and approximately eight thousand children since the year 2000, or between 500 to 700 children per year. In the overwhelming majority of cases these children are arrested at the friction points caused by the settlements, and they are most commonly accused of throwing stones. The dilemma faced by the Israeli army is that in many cases it is difficult to identify the perpetrator. However, in order to deter a repetition of such activity it is essential that no act of resistance goes unpunished. Accordingly, within days of a stone-throwing incident the army will generally enter the nearest Palestinian village to make its presence felt, to intimidate, and, in some cases, to arrest young males.
The effects of these night-time raids on families can be terrifying, as was described by a fourteen-year-old boy in the submission: “I was sleeping when I woke up to banging on the door. I saw windows had been smashed. I was very scared. My whole family woke up and my father answered the door. When he opened the door I saw a group of Israeli soldiers standing behind it.” Also in the submission one mother of four from a small village in the West Bank explains why she thinks her village is frequently targeted: “We believe that repeated night raids like the one on my house are intended to intimidate and frighten us and to force us to give up the weekly protests against the nearby settlement.” The settlement this woman speaks of was built on village land in the 1970s and is located a mere 500 meters away, causing enormous tension between the two communities.
Another aspect of Israel’s illegal settlement activity that it is not well understood but is highlighted in the submission is the use of dual legal systems based on whether a person is Palestinian or Israeli. Technically, Israeli settlers in the West Bank are subject to military law just like their Palestinian neighbors. However, in reality settlers are tried for offenses in civilian courts with far greater rights and protections than their Palestinian counterparts — a clear violation of the prohibition against states discriminating against those over whom they exercise penal jurisdiction based on race, religion, nationality, or origin.
The submission concludes with a dire warning: Unless the international community finds the resolve to uphold the rule of law in regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the situation is likely to end in disaster for both parties. And time, warns the authors, is fast running out.