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Nov
28
2023

Amid a Settler Onslaught, Protective Presence Activism Falters

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

Newsletter
Amid a Settler Onslaught, Protective Presence Activism Falters
As settlers rampage, Israeli and international activists are struggling to leverage their relative privilege to protect Palestinians in the West Bank.
Aman Abhishek

On October 12th, five Israeli activists with the anti-occupation group Ta’ayush traveled to the West Bank village of Wadi a-Seeq. Over the past week, Israeli settlers and soldiers had ramped up their violence against the area’s Palestinian communities following Hamas’s October 7th attacks, and the activists aimed to reduce the brunt of such assaults by physically accompanying Palestinians, a strategy known as “protective presence.” Under protective presence, Israeli and international activists try to use their privilege to “be the buffer between the Palestinians and the Israeli authorities and settlers,” as Elie Avidor from the anti-occupation group Jordan Valley Activists told me. However, since Israel began its war on Gaza—which many understand as an all-out war on Palestinians—the power of this form of activism has appeared to wane as Israeli settlers and soldiers operate with near-total impunity. The activists in Wadi a-Seeq witnessed this shift firsthand when soldiers and uniformed settlers attacked the village. Their presence did nothing to deter the assailants; indeed, the settlers proceeded to take all five Israelis captive alongside the three Palestinians they were trying to support.

The kidnappings represented an unprecedented escalation, calling into question the premise animating protective presence activism—namely, that under Israel’s apartheid system, non-Palestinians enjoy relative safety that can be leveraged to create something like a “protective presence” around Palestinians. In Wadi a-Seeq, Israeli American activist Oriel Eisner told me that Israeli activists themselves were “zip tied, shuffled around, and held in a room,” while their presence did nothing to protect Palestinians from torture and attempted sexual assault. “This situation represents a new level of violence that we are not used to,” Eisner said. Sahar Vardi, an Israeli activist from South Hebron Hills said that since October 7th, “the level of risk in doing protective presence is growing, and the effectiveness of protective presence is decreasing.”

Protective presence has been a part of anti-occupation activism in the West Bank since the early 2000s, when organizations like Ta’ayush and the International Solidarity Movement began bringing Israeli and international activists to help Palestinians resist dispossession. The strategy has been especially important in recent years as settler attacks and military raids have grown increasingly frequent. Palestinians often try to resist these assaults through legal challenges, individual defiance, and collective protest. But Israeli soldiers and settlers are quick to repress such efforts, violently cracking down on Palestinians trying to hold on to their land. In this context, the presence of non-Palestinian—and especially Israeli Jewish—activists becomes a useful avenue of resistance. Israelis, and to some extent foreign nationals, find it easier to engage in nonviolent direct action like filming settler and army transgressions because they enjoy significant protections under Israel’s civilian legal system, unlike Palestinians—who, if arrested, are tried in Israeli military courts and sentenced to harsh punishments with a 99% rate of conviction. By being present at the scene, such activists are thus freer to involve Israeli police in an attempt to deter settlers, demand that soldiers show the orders they are following rather than acting arbitrarily or illegally, and sometimes even use their bodies to nonviolently obstruct house demolitions, evictions, arrests, and assaults targeting Palestinians.

While such activism has not been enough to halt the overall pace of the dispossession, it has nevertheless had some important successes. Large mobilizations of Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists have been able to delay or even avert destruction of entire villages, like in the case of Khan al-Ahmar in 2018, where the Israeli government was forced to indefinitely delay the demolition of the village. “Every single day that we are able to help stop the Palestinian communities from getting displaced is a success,” said Guy Hirschfeld, an Israeli activist from the group Looking the Occupation in the Eye.

For years, such activism has also attempted to check the rising dispossession in smaller ways, especially through the use of filming. “If there is no documentation, then unfortunately it’s like the event didn’t happen,” said Yeheli Cialic from Mesarvot, an anti-occupation group that supports Israeli military service refusers. Arik Asherman, who led the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights for two decades, said that “filming settlers deters them a bit.” Such recordings are also useful in protecting Palestinians and allies against false accusations of attacking settlers or soldiers. “There have been cases where the police or the army wanted to frame us, and the footage saved us because it showed that we didn’t do what the army accused us of,” Asherman said. On rare occasions, visual evidence has even helped compel the Israeli police to register a case against violent settlers. Filming has also made the occupation more visible to the international community and the Israeli public, with human rights organizations like B’Tselem including visual evidence of violence in their reports and databases, and journalists relying on the footage in their reporting.

Even before October 7th, doing protective presence work was not easy. As Hirschfeld told me, activists “are sometimes hated more than Palestinians,” with settlers and soldiers, as well as Israeli media, seeing them as antisemites, traitors, and Hamas supporters. Still, activists were able to operate relatively safely most of the time. But amid the growing militarization of West Bank settlers, that safety has become increasingly precarious. According to Haaretz, the Israeli army has distributed about 8,000 weapons to settlement defense squads and regional battalions in the West Bank since October 7th, and plans to recruit settlers with no prior military experience to “defend” the settlements. Activists on the ground are seeing the results of that policy. “A lot of settlers are enlisted into some settlement security force. Some are in uniform, some not, and all have military-grade weapons,” Vardi told me. Eisner agreed that there has been a “proliferation of weaponry in settlements under the guise of security,” noting that “settlers see themselves as part of the Israeli war effort.” In addition to being armed and given free rein, Vardi said, “settlers are talking about revenge—and they mean it.”

Such growing settler impunity has made protective presence activism much harder, with activists sometimes struggling even to enter Palestinian communities because of physical roadblocks that have been placed to obstruct the way in. David Shulman, an Israeli scholar and longtime member of Ta’ayush, described how some Israeli activists were accompanying Palestinians to deliver medicines to a West Bank community on October 15th when they came across a roadblock manned by armed settlers. “The settlers stopped the car and wanted to drag the Palestinians out of it and beat them up,” he told me. While in this case an army officer intervened to prevent violence, such intercession is far from guaranteed. Indeed, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Israeli forces have either accompanied or actively supported settlers in nearly half of their recent attacks on Palestinians. On October 12th, for instance, settlers attacked the village of Tuwani, but far from stopping them, “the army chatted and shook hands with the settlers as they returned to their outpost,” said Eisner, who was one of the protective presence activists present in Tuwani. When Eisner and his companions called the Israeli police to try and stop the settlers, the police likewise “completely ignored [us] and didn’t even call back,” Eisner recalled. Efforts to use filming to deter settlers also failed; in fact, the settlers proved their indifference to activist scrutiny by shooting in the direction of an Italian activist who was also present in the village for protective presence.

In addition to showing the limits of protective presence in wartime Israel/Palestine, attacks like the kidnapping in Wadi a-Seeq and the shootings in Tuwani have also had a chilling effect on activism itself. In the days following these two incidents, text messages began circulating among anti-occupation activist groups suggesting that the scope of protective presence activism should be curtailed because of unprecedented risks. “We’re not going to give up,” Shulman said. “We’ll go on doing whatever we can to those places that we can still reach, and we’ll take the risks.” However, as Vardi explained, “it is now important that seasoned activists, or those with connections in the area, go there, and that they know what they are getting into.”

While activists might be forced to scale back protective presence efforts, settlers are continuing to dispossess small, isolated Palestinian communities in Area C—the roughly 60% of the West Bank’s territory under full Israeli control. Already, over 800 Palestinians have been displaced in settler attacks since October 7th, a figure that represents 43% of all Palestinians displaced since 2022. Many activists are seeing these displacements happen in real time. In the village of Ein al-Rashash, for example, round-the-clock protective presence had helped the community hold on to their land, but eventually settler violence became too much to bear. In mid-October, the residents—18 families consisting of 85 Palestinians—packed most of their belongings and left the village. The 180 residents of Wadi a-Seeq also met with the same fate despite activists’ protective presence, and the list continues to grow. “I am really devastated,” said Shulman. “We persevered through all kinds of violence for years. These communities are friends of ours. To watch them go into exile is an agony. Truly an agony.”

Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Palestinians gather in front of Israel’s Ofer military prison at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah to welcome prisoners who were released by Israeli forces on November 24th as part of a prisoner and hostage exchange deal between Israel and Hamas.

Activestills

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • A truce between Israel and Hamas began on Friday, pausing Israeli airstrikes and ground attacks on Gaza, enabling the entry of humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave, and beginning the exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. So far, Hamas has released 61 Israeli women and children as well as 20 foreign hostages, mostly Thai workers. In exchange, Israel has released 180 Palestinian detainees, the majority of whom were detained without trial. In parallel with the releases, however, Israel has ramped up its raids in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, arresting 168 Palestinians. According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, Israel has arrested 3,290 Palestinians since October 7th.
  • On November 24th, the first day of the truce with Hamas, Israeli soldiers shot and killed at least two Palestinians trying to cross back to their homes in northern Gaza—the area that has been the main focus of the Israeli military assault. Israel has said that Palestinians should not return to northern Gaza because it remains a “combat zone.” The latest death toll in the Gaza Strip stands at 15,000, although the Palestinian Health Ministry has said that it has lost the ability to keep track of the dead after Israel’s siege and ground invasion overwhelmed Gaza’s health and communications systems and made it harder to retrieve dead bodies.
  • On November 26th, Human Rights Watch published a report finding that a misfired rocket—similar to the ones commonly used by Palestinian militant groups—was likely responsible for the October 17th explosion at Al-Ahli hospital, while calling for an independent investigation to determine who exactly launched the rocket. The group’s report used satellite imagery as well as interviews with witnesses and experts to argue that the sound of the explosion and the nature of the crater were inconsistent with Israeli bombs. For weeks, Israel and armed Palestinian groups have exchanged recriminations about the hospital attack, which left hundreds of Palestinians dead.
  • A new report published on Sunday by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) concluded that it is becoming “more apparent” that the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel included “widespread sexual and gender-based crimes.” The human rights group’s report sums up the available evidence of sexual violence—including rape—perpetrated by Hamas fighters, such as eyewitness reports, police interviews with survivors, and the testimonies of rescue teams, military forces, and emergency response personnel, in addition to videos Israeli authorities collected from October 7th. The PHRI report called for further investigation to reveal the full scope of the sexual violence.
  • On Saturday, a white gunman shot and injured three Palestinian college students—Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed—while they were walking near the University of Vermont in Burlington. The students were speaking in a mix of English and Arabic, and two of them were wearing keffiyehs, or Palestinian scarves. The most serious injury occurred to Awartani, who was shot in his spinal cord and has lost feeling in the lower part of his body. On Monday, police arrested Jason Eaton on suspicion of shooting the students; prosecutors charged him with attempted murder. Tamara Tamimi, the mother of Abdalhamid, said that the attack stemmed from “decades of dehumanizing policy and rhetoric from US leaders towards Palestinians and Arabs, including from the Biden administration.” The Justice Department and state law enforcement agencies are investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime. The Burlington mayor called the attack “one of the most shocking and disturbing events in the city’s history,” while President Biden said he was “horrified” and that “there is no place for violence or hate in America.”
  • On Friday, Biden said that placing conditions on US military aid to Israel is a “worthwhile thought,” a marked shift from previous comments where he derided the idea as “bizarre.” Biden also said that if he had “started off” with conditioning aid, he would not have “gotten to where we are today”—a likely reference to the temporary truce between Israel and Hamas. Biden’s comments come as some Senate Democrats push for conditions to be placed on Biden’s request for an additional $14.3 billion in military aid to Israel. Senator Bernie Sanders said in a November 18th statement that the US should condition aid to Israel on “a fundamental change” in Israel’s “military and political positions,” including an end to Israel’s “indiscriminate” bombing campaign. Senator Chris Murphy on Sunday said he supported Sanders’s call. “I’m not sure what would be controversial about simply saying that aid we give any country has to be used in compliance with international law,” he said. However, given Congress’s overwhelming support for Israel, the prospect of a majority of Democrats in the Senate backing a conditional military aid package to Israel is slim.
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