TEL AVIV–Violence erupted in the Palestinian town of Safa today as fanatical masked settlers from the Jewish settlement of Bat Ayin set upon a group of activists from the peace group Ta’ayush, destroying their cameras and badly vandalizing one of their cars. According to Ta’ayush member Joseph Dana, the Israeli army scrambled to the scene with a “closed military zone order,” allowing the masked settlers to remain while ordering the activists to leave under threat of arrest. When the activists failed to leave rapidly enough, the soldiers also turned violent, forcing several of them into a jeep and hauling them away to prison. The army’s action directly contravened an Israeli Supreme Court decision ruling the army could not used closed military zones to prevent Palestinian farmers from working their land. The West Bank is apparently a legal gray zone where even high court rulings are voided by the whims of soldiers and settlers working hand-in-glove.
Video after the jump and check Ibn Ezra’s photos and updates.
For weeks, the settlers have terrorized Palestinian farmers from Safa, viciously assaulting two elderly men and killing another in retaliation for the murder of a 13-year-old settler boy. Since the assaults began, the farmers have been reluctant to work without the accompaniment of international human rights workers. Today’s incident marked the most brutal attack yet on the activists but it was not the first. When I visited Safa, a dozen settler youth appeared on the hillside, chanting “death to Arabs!” while rolling tires down the hill. Several Ta’ayush members were released from prison under the condition they not appear on the West Bank for a month, however, when Dana last briefed me, Ta’ayush founding member Amiel Vardi remained in jail for his refusal to sign a restraining order. Ha’aretz has more, including an account from Ta’ayush’s Mairav Zonstein.
The violence at Safa occurred as Israel’s government struggled to cope with unusual pressure from Washington on settlement expansion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has issued a remarkably pointed statement condemning Israel’s policy of “natural growth” in the settlements. “Natural growth” is the Orwellian phrase for the loophole fashioned by Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East, neocon Elliot Abrams, allowing the settlements to expand while Sharon and Olmert symbolically demolished a few insignificant outposts. Privately Hillary is said to be heavily focused on the settlements issue and nonplussed by Israel’s refusal to cooperate.
On Friday, May 29, Israel assassinated Hamas operative Abdel Majid Dudin in a West Bank village near Hebron. Dudin was suspected of organizing a bus bombing in 1995. Presumably Israel’s intelligence services knew his whereabouts for years so the timing of his assassination is difficult to view outside the context of growing pressure from Washington. Hamas has responded to the killing by declaring all of Israel a target zone. One terror attack inside Israel would take the settlements off the discussion table, at least momentarily, offering Israel a chance to seize the moral high ground.
Meanwhile, the repression of Palestinian citizens of Israel continues at an unprecedented level. I attended a demonstration of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis at Tel Aviv University against proposed legislation in the Knesset that would criminalize public observance of the Nakbah. While Arabs and Jews stood together at the university gate demanding the right to study their history without official censorship – a portrait of coexistence — another group of students gathered to heckle them, calling for the deportation of all Palestinian citizens from Israel to Arab countries. While the United States moves closer to fulfilling the American creed, life in Israel increasingly resembles the Jim Crow South.
After the demonstration, I walked through the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv with my journalistic colleague Jesse Rosenfeld. Suddenly a bus stopped and two Arab men were tossed from its rear exit. A police car sprinted to the scene; two cops pushed the men against the car, rifled through their pockets and removed their belongings. The cops went through the men’s cellphone calling history, their text messages, and notes. After reviewing their identification cards, they finally let the men go. Jesse approached one of the cops to ask what the men had done. “Don’t talk to me,” the cop barked. Then Jesse asked one of the detained men in broken Arabic what he had been harassed for.
“Me and my friend were speaking Arabic on the bus, so someone called the police,” the man told Jesse with a wry grin. “That’s how it is being Palestinian in Tel Aviv – the police are always on my dick.”
Tomorrow I travel to Jerusalem to interview Ezra Nawi, a veteran Ta’ayush member who faces two years in prison for essentially placing his body between an Israeli bulldozer and the home of a Bedouin family. Nawi’s car was badly damaged by Bat Ayin fanatics today. He is the key link between Ta’ayush and the Palestinian community and one of the country’s most effective activists – no surprise Israel is aiming to lock him away. (See Ezra’s outrageous arrest here). Then, on Monday I will release a video report from the annual Moskowitz Prize for Zionism awards ceremony revealing just how deeply the settlers have burrowed themselves within Netanyahu’s government.