We arrived in Turmus Ayya just after pogromists seeking vengeance had left the village and as clashes continued at the nearby Shilo Junction. Omar Qattin z”l, a 27-year-old father of two, died in the arms of two activists who were with me. I was nearby putting out one of the fires that had been lit by settlers.
The pogroms and the inexcusable response or lack of response by Israeli security forces in Turmus Ayya, Hawara and so many other incidents that have not received media coverage cannot be blamed solely on “violent settlers.” They are also not the sole fault of the current government. We all share responsibility and must change the deeply ingrained doctrines, in place for decades, certainly for the twenty or so years I have been working to protect the farmers of Turmus Ayya.
We are all deeply pained and angered when Israelis are murdered. That doesn’t justify taking the law into our hands or wreaking vengeance against innocents. Such actions actually desecrate the memory of the murdered just as acts of terror sully legitimate Palestinian national aspirations.
There used to be open channels of communication between security forces and human rights organizations. Between 2004 and 2006, The Shomron Brigade commander would always tell me, “We are the Israel Defense Forces,” emphasizing the word “Israel.”
“I will protect others if forced to, but it’s not my job.”
On the day we won the Morar High Court ruling that security forces must allow Palestinians year-round access to all their lands, protect them without closing off the area “for their own good” when attacked, and do more to prevent vandalism and bring the criminals to justice, the commander said, “You have thrown me off balance.” The High Court recognized back then that those who act violently and/or commit acts of vandalism almost never pay a price for their actions. This doctrine not to enforce the law against settlers either out of support for their efforts to take over Palestinian land or to maintain quiet also means that settlers are allowed to build outposts that are illegal even according to Israel. If occasionally demolished, they are rebuilt virtually the same day.
As a result, Turmus Ayya is surrounded by thriving settlements and outposts. In the last few weeks alone, settlers have burned fields, cut down trees, prevented access to agricultural lands, and threatened farmers, me and other human rights defenders. Over the years I have seen them attack security forces.
Smell of teargas
The reprehensible response by Israeli security forces resulted from a second doctrine. Not only did the security forces not prevent pogromists from rampaging through Turmus Ayya and other villages, but their initial reaction was to protect them by firing tear gas and eventually bullets at Palestinians.
When we arrived, the smell of teargas wafted through the air, mixed with the smoke from smoldering homes and cars and fields. Gas canisters littered the street. According to doctrine, the first responsibility of security forces is not to stop Jews who are acting violently, it is to distance the Palestinians using crowd control methods or worse. Only then – if at all – do the forces deal with the Jewish attackers. This doctrine is employed whether or not there is danger to the aggressors. This means that when, as happens often, Israelis set fire to Palestinian fields and trees, security forces employ crowd control measures against Palestinians that prevents them from putting out the fire. This occurred several times in Turmus Ayya in recent weeks. Immediate steps to get the Israelis out of the fields and orchards would allow Palestinians to save their trees and crops without endangering the pogromists.
Of the hundreds of pogromists that security forces have seen in Turmus Ayya alone over the last few weeks alone, there have been just a handful of arrests, and if the pogrom at Huwara in February is an indication, they will most likely be released.
There is an urban legend prevalent in the army that soldiers have no policing authority over Israelis. Despite clear written instructions to the contrary, there are incidents where soldiers stand by and watch settlers uproot Palestinian trees while waiting for the police to arrive.
I am cautious about making claims regarding the killing of Omar Qattin z”l. However, video taken by the activists with me shows the police closing in on the Palestinians who are not acting violently. While the police seemed to imply that Omar was shot because he had a weapon, the family says he was in fact shot in the back. We are trying to corroborate this.
The IDF Spokesperson acknowledged the army’s failure in Turmus Ayya. But it’s not enough to simply say “we were not prepared,” as reported in the press regarding the army’s Hawara investigation.
As long as there is occupation, there will most likely continue to be no interest in doing for Palestinians what we do to protect the lives and property of Jews. This is human nature. Those employing violence to dispossess Palestinians will continue to feel free to do so. But both supporters and opponents of the occupation have a moral responsibility to change our defense and legal doctrines. We must act in accordance with international law, respect the Image of God in every human being, and honor the Torah’s exhortations to treat non-Jews decently.