Many Palestinian children living in the occupied West Bank cannot walk to school without a military escort, assuming their classrooms have not been demolished or confiscated by Israelis in the first place. Palestinian kids face constant attacks and harassment from violent Israeli “settlers” pushing to colonize the West Bank with illegal settlements, if not wipe Palestine off the map altogether.
Last month, weeks before the latest outbreak of regional violence made headlines, settlers attacked international activists in the region of Masafer Yatta, a collection of hamlets in the southern West Bank. Cassandra Dixon, a 64-year-old human rights defender from the United States, says she was knocked unconscious and suffered a fractured skull after a settler “hit her from behind, hard, with a large stick.” Another settler threatened a fellow activist with an iron bar.
Extremist settlers also regularly burn crops and kill livestock to rob Palestinians of their income and connection to the land, but human rights groups say secretive Israeli military courts exclusively single out Palestinians for detention and prosecution in the West Bank. Settlers with Israeli citizenship are governed by civil courts if at all they face prosecution for breaking the law.
“The same in civil courts … always side with Israeli settler organizations, any land rights are immediately given priority to Israeli settlers instead of Palestinians who reside in their homes,” said Milena Ansari, an advocate with the Palestinian prisoner support group Addameer, in an interview.
Under a broad “anti-terrorism” law passed in 2016, the occupying military and its courts can criminalize any activity perceived as a threat to Israeli state interests, from nonviolent student activism to collective expressions of Palestinian culture, according to Ansari. Simply being a member of a Palestinian political group can lead to arbitrary incarceration ordered by military commanders. Addameer is an internationally recognized human rights group — Ansari recently returned to Palestine after meeting with United Nations officials in Geneva, Switzerland — but the Israeli government labeled Addameer and five other Palestinian political groups “terrorist organizations” in 2021 in order to blockade funding.
“Political affiliation, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, even students we have seen organizing on campus at university in Palestine could invoke the jurisdiction of military courts,” Ansari said, adding that officials speak Hebrew at court proceedings, a language most Palestinians do not speak. “The system is built against the Palestinians. There is genuinely no way to seek justice and accountability in these courts.”
Advocates say the impetus for the segregated court system in the West Bank and occupied Palestine is obvious. Dixon reports that 1,300 residents of the Masafer Yatta hamlets face “imminent forced removal” to make way for an Israeli military “firing zone.” Palestinians have lived there for generations, but some residents fighting eviction have reportedly resorted to living in caves.
“To be here now in these 15 villages is to witness ethnic cleansing in real time,” Dixon wrote on Facebook after surviving the attack by settlers.
When widespread violence flares up, the Western mainstream media often frame the “Israel-Palestinian conflict” as a tit-for-tat fight with one reprisal leading to another, all but erasing the violence and humiliation Palestinians suffer daily under occupation. With Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank living in constant fear of retaliation, eviction and arrest for speaking out, it can take the life-threatening beating of an American woman to expose the daily violence in the international media.
“When we talk about ‘settlement’ activity in general, we do have to always keep in mind that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law,” Ansari said. “The whole idea of forcibly deporting a protected people from their territory and bringing the occupation powers down on people who reside in these areas, this is a crime against humanity.”
Palestinians say violent settlers are rarely arrested by Israeli police and charged with crimes, especially when international media and human rights groups are not watching. However, during any sort of “conflict” — such as the violent expulsion and arrest of more than 350 Palestinians at a contested holy site in Jerusalem last week that was egged on by far right settler groups and nearly sparked total war — Palestinians are funneled into a system of mass incarceration where the Israeli military and police can deny basic human rights with impunity.
Last week, the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a longstanding prisoner support group, reported that occupation forces have arrested more than 2,200 Palestinians so far this year, including women and children, although that number is likely much higher after a week punctuated by protests, rocket fire and airstrikes. Many arrests occurred in Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan. Besides recently jailed arrestees, at least 4,900 Palestinian men, woman and children deemed political prisoners by human rights groups are incarcerated in Israeli jails and military prisons, according to Addameer.
Reflecting the collective punishment enforced by the occupation, conditions faced by Palestinian prisoners are deteriorating under policies imposed by the far right governing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his newly empowered ultra-nationalist allies. International human rights groups are constantly calling for the release of Palestinian prisoners who are routinely denied critical medical treatment and tortured with solitary confinement. Palestinian prisoners routinely engage in hunger strikes as a form of protest to win basic collective and individual rights, such as adequate meals and enough water to bathe. Last month, a mass hunger strike led to an agreement with prison authorities over the government’s plans to downgrade conditions in Israeli jails.
Featuring extremists such as the notorious National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s coalition has emboldened the ultra-nationalist settler movement while sparking mass protests by liberal and moderate Israelis who oppose a proposal to weaken judicial oversight of an Israeli parliament controlled by the far right.
“Settler violence, compared to Palestinian violence, has the support of the government,” Ansari said. “Settler violence is given impunity by the Israeli government; settler violence is protected; you see them accompanied by Israeli occupation forces who attack Palestinians instead of stopping the settlers.”
The collusion between the Israeli state and the movement to illegally colonize the West Bank was on full display on April 10, when the Israeli military guarded a large group of settlers and ultra-nationalist politicians as they marched on an illegal and recently abandoned settlement under banners declaring Palestinian lands near the occupied city of Nablus to be the property of Israelis. Meanwhile, occupation forces shot and killed a 15-year-old Palestinian teenager during the latest raid of the Aqabet Jaber refugee camp in Jericho. Mohammad Fayez Balhan was shot in the head, chest and stomach on Monday, according to reports. At least three Israeli women are dead after an attack on a West Bank settlement last week.
Ansari said the recent mass protests against Netanyahu’s far right government and its proposed judicial takeover focused on the secular rights of Jewish Israeli women and LGBTQ people, for example, but when Palestinians are repressed and arrested, their gender and sexual identity is commonly used against them.
“It’s not a fight between religions, it’s not even a fight,” said Ansari, who pointed out that some Palestinians are Christian or nonreligious rather than Muslim. “It’s basically a settler-colonial project to ethnically cleanse a Palestinian population in order for Jewish supremacy to reign in that region.”
Of course, there are plenty of Jewish people in Israel and across the world who are working toward peace and the liberation of occupied Palestine. Groups such as Kids4Peace in Jerusalem encourage interfaith dialogue among the next generation of activists, and organizations such as B’Tselem in Israel oppose the far right government and advocate for the human rights of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military-police state receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid every year, leaving Americans to ask: Who needs our taxpayer dollars most? The occupiers or the peacemakers?
Correction: Citing faulty reporting by another news outlet, the original version of this article incorrectly reported that the human rights activists were accompanying a Palestinian girl when they were attacked by settlers. A Palestinian girl was not present.
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