The Israeli occupation government has been using settler violence as “a major informal tool” to take over Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, has found.
In a report released on Sunday, B’Tselem said that Israel uses two complementary ways to confiscate Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank: official annexation via its judicial system and unofficial acts of intimidation and violence carried out by its settler population.
In its report, B’Tselem said Israel has built more than 280 settlements in the West Bank, which are home to more than 440,000 settlers. Of these settlements, 138 were officially established and recognized by the state (not including the 12 neighborhoods Israel built in the areas it annexed to Jerusalem), and some 150 are outposts not officially recognized by the state. About a third of the outposts have been built over the past decade, most of them referred to as “farms”.
West Bank settlements dominate hundreds of thousands of dunams [1 dunam = 1,000 square meters] to which Palestinians have limited access or none at all.
Israel has taken over some of these areas using official means: issuing military orders, declaring the area “state land,” a “firing zone” or a “nature reserve”, and expropriating land.
Other areas have been effectively taken over by settlers through daily acts of violence, including attacks on Palestinians and their property.
The two tracks appear unrelated, the rights group said: The state takes over land openly, using official methods sanctioned by legal advisors and judges, while the settlers, who are also interested in taking over land to further their agenda, initiate violence against Palestinians for their own reasons.
“Yet in truth, there is only one track: Settler violence against Palestinians serves as a major informal tool at the hands of the state to take over more and more West Bank land,” it said.
“The state fully supports and assists these acts of violence, and its agents sometimes participate in them directly. As such, settler violence is a form of government policy, aided and abetted by official state authorities with their active participation.”
The report presents five case studies that illustrate how continuous, systemic violence meted out by settlers is part of Israel’s official policy, driving massive takeover of Palestinian farmland and pastureland.
In the testimonies collected as part of the research, Palestinians describe how this violence undermines the bedrock of Palestinian communities’ lives and diminishes their income.
Residents describe how without protection, under the pressure of violence and fear and with no other choice, Palestinian communities abandon or scale back traditional vocations such as sheep and goat farming or various seasonal crops, which allowed them to make a dignified living and live comfortably for generations.
Palestinian residents stay away from pastureland and water sources that once served their communities, and limit cultivation of farmland. At that point, the state can take over their land for its own purposes.
State violence – official and otherwise – is part and parcel of Israel’s apartheid regime, which aims to create a Jewish-only space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, B’Tselem said.
The regime treats land as a resource designed to serve the Jewish public, and accordingly uses it almost exclusively to develop and expand existing Jewish residential communities and to build new ones. At the same time, the regime fragments Palestinian space, dispossesses Palestinians of their land and relegates them to living in small, over-populated enclaves.
The apartheid regime is based on organized, systemic violence against Palestinians, which is carried out by numerous agents: the government, the military, the Civil Administration, the Supreme Court, the Israel Police, the Israel Security Agency, the Israel Prison Service, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and others.
Settlers are another item on this list, and the state incorporates their violence into its own official acts of violence. Settler violence sometimes precedes instances of official violence by Israeli authorities, and at other times is incorporated into them. Like state violence, settler violence is organized, institutionalized, well-equipped and implemented in order to achieve a defined strategic goal.
The combination of state violence and nominally unofficial violence allows Israel to have it both ways: maintain plausible deniability and blame the violence on settlers rather than on the military, the courts or the Civil Administration while advancing Palestinian dispossession.
The facts, however, blow plausible deniability out of the water: When the violence occurs with permission and assistance from the Israeli authorities and under its auspices, it is state violence. The settlers are not defying the state; they are doing its bidding.