Why Israeli Settlers Shot an Unarmed Palestinian

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SettlersFire2.JPG

When West Bank settlers shoot at unarmed Palestinians while Israeli soldiers look on without intervening, that's a story--especially when one of the Palestinians suffers a head wound. So it's natural that this weekend's conflict near the Palestinian village of Asira al-Qibliya has been covered widely--in 972, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Haaretz, the Daily Dish, and elsewhere. Still, it's important to appreciate how unsurprising this story really is, and how unexceptional its fundamentals are.

The essential mission of Israeli soldiers stationed in the West Bank is to protect settlers against Palestinians. The job of protecting Palestinians against settlers falls to a separate Israeli police force that, as it happens, is massively understaffed. This imbalance--ample troops who are de facto allies of the settlers, dinky police force that could in theory help Palestinians but never seems to be around--is a recipe for the harassment of Palestinians and worse.

This helps explain why settlers have repeatedly, with their impunity all but guaranteed, burned or cut down the olive trees of Palestinian farmers. And it helps explain why some settlers apparently feel comfortable shooting at Palestinians while Israeli soldiers are a few feet away. All of this notwithstanding the fact that the settlers live in the West Bank in violation of international law, whereas the Palestinians are there lawfully.

The events preceding this weekend's shooting are in dispute. We don't know for sure whether this incident began with the unprovoked harassment of Palestinians by settlers or with settler retaliation for perceived offenses by Palestinians, or what. (There was a fire in a nearby field, and there is disagreement about who started it.)

But we know that the settlers approached the Palestinians, not the other way around. And, in any event, the shooting by settlers of unarmed Palestinians--under the gaze of Israeli troops, no less--is obviously unacceptable. But it's also the more or less predictable--and, generically speaking, hardly unprecedented--result of an institutionalized imbalance of power that many if not most Israelis have come to take for granted. Thank God for Israelis who refuse to do so, notably those in the human rights group B'Tselem, whose documentation of this event is the reason we know about it.

Here are excerpts of the B'Tselem account, followed by one of the B'Tselem video clips (from which the image above is taken):

On Saturday, 19.5.2012, around four thirty in the afternoon, a large group of settlers descended on the eastern outskirts of the village 'Asira al-Qibliya, from the settlement Yitzhar. B'Tselem volunteer photographers filmed the events from two angles. The video shows the settlers, some of whom were masked and armed, throwing stones at Palestinian homes, and fires beginning to burn... One of the masked settlers was armed with a "Tavor" rifle which is only used by infantry soldiers, raising the suspicion that he is a soldier on leave.

Palestinian youths from the village soon arrived and threw stones at the settlers... Around 5pm, a group of three settlers are seen standing with a soldier in front of the Palestinian youths, while all around there is mutual stone throwing. Two of the settlers seen were armed with M4 rifles, and one was armed with a pistol. One of the settlers is wearing what looks like a police cap. The video footage shows the settlers aiming their weapons at the Palestinians and firing.

The firing injured village resident, Fathi 'Asayira, 24, in the head.

Here's one of the videos. Note how, at the 40-second mark, one of the armed settlers seems to wave the soldier out of his line of fire so he can commence shooting, and the soldier seems to comply. Whether or not this reading of the clip is correct, it is an apt symbol for what is too often the relationship between settlers and soldiers.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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