Israeli settlers shoot unarmed Palestinians; Israeli army stands by

One might imagine that filmed evidence of civilian thugs shooting an unarmed protester in the head while soldiers stand by and do nothing might be big news in Canada — especially if those thugs and soldiers are citizens of a country that our Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird says “has no greater friend than Canada.”

On Saturday afternoon, Israeli settlers from Yitzhar, a small community of Orthodox Jews in the occupied West Bank, descended on the Palestinian village of Asira al-Qibliya. Some carried guns and wore masks. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, one of the settlers was armed with a “Tavor” rifle used by Israeli infantry, suggesting he was a soldier on leave

B’Tselem filmed this and what happened next. Settlers begin throwing stones. Palestinians from the village confront them and do the same. Gunshots are heard. Uniformed soldiers arrive, as do more armed settlers and police. Grass fires burn behind the settlers. Then three of the armed settlers, one of whom is wearing what looks like a police cap, appear to open fire. The soldiers do nothing to stop them. At one point a settler appears to motion to a soldier to get out of his line of fire. The soldier appears to comply. One Palestinian, Fathi Asayira, is wounded in the face. He is not critically injured and will survive.

The Israeli military issued a statement: “The incident is currently being investigated by the division commander. It appears that the video in question does not reflect the incident in its entirety.” A spokesman for the Yitzhar settlement told the BBC that the settlers had approached the Palestinian village to put out fires the Palestinians had started with the intention of burning down the Jewish settlement. The B’Tselem video shows no smoke or fire visible when the settlers first approach.

Palestinians often report settler abuse and Israeli military indifference. What is unique in this case is that it was caught on film, and that the military’s indifference was in the face of what appears to have been attempted murder.

And yet in today’s papers, the story was buried by the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen, and not covered at all by the National Post or the Toronto Star. CBC’s The National also ignored it, but it did dedicate a chunk of its foreign coverage to the Chelsea Flower Show. I suppose it’s a trade-off.

Israeli officials say many settlers live in the West Bank for economic reasons and will willingly leave if there is a peace deal requiring Israel to hand over parts of the territory to a future Palestinian state. This may be true. But it’s also true that radical settlers — a description often applied to residents of Yitzhar — are growing in number and influence. I haven’t spent a lot of time as a reporter among Israeli settlers. But rarely have I encountered elsewhere the same sense of entitlement and casual racism displayed by some of those I have met.

This is a problem for Israel that is not going to go away. Writing in Haaretz, former Israeli soldier Nathan Hersh describes guarding areas between West Bank Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages. One night a settler came and befriended one of Hersh’s fellow soldiers, who turned out to be a distant cousin of the settler. When the time came, the settler asked the soldier, would he be ready to “refuse orders.”

The settler was referring to orders to dismantle and relocate illegal settlements. “I am confident that my religious friend would act according to the orders of our officers and not those of his religious cousin,” writes Hersh. “But when it comes to other soldiers, I’m not so sure. The army is already engaged in a struggle against emboldened religiousness.” This worries Hersh. The Israel Defence Forces, he says, “cannot become another arena for the ultra-Orthodox onslaught against civic equality.”

It’s not just the army where secular and religious politics are at odds in Israel. The country is polarizing. Its future may be shaped by the liberal and empathetic values of, say, Shimon Peres, or, to generalize, Tel Aviv; or by the messianic supremacism of extremist settlers. Sooner rather than later, those desiring the former will have to confront the latter. They might start by preventing settlers from shooting unarmed civilians, rather than ducking out of the way so the settlers can take better aim.