Settlers 'attempted to kill' Israeli soldiers
Donald Macintyre meets the reservist whose blog exposing the violence in the West Bank has shocked his country
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt. As Political Editor and then Chief Political Commentator, he previously covered the John Major and early Tony Blair era. He has written for the Daily Express, Sunday Times, Times and Sunday Telegraph, and Sunday Correspondent. He is the author of Mandelson and the Making of New Labour (2000).
Friday 18 November 2011
Though fairly hair-raising, the blog Haim Har-Zahav wrote about how his Israel Defence Forces unit was attacked several times in the West Bank back in September would have gone almost unnoticed – except for one thing.
The attacks were not by Palestinians, they were by Israeli settlers. Mr Bar-Zahav, 33, who has two young girls and loyally does annual reserve duty, is not easy to surprise. A veteran of combat in Lebanon and in the West Bank at the peak of the intifada, he calls himself a "mainstream Israeli". But today, over a cup of coffee round the corner from the TV station where he works as a successful editor and producer, he says: "All of a sudden you find yourself being attacked literally by the people you left your home to defend... that's what shocked me. I wasn't even slightly aware that there was such violence towards soldiers in the West Bank."
He was on duty when the Israeli military demolished three buildings in the outpost of Migron, a Jewish settlement that is illegal under Israeli and international law. The demolitions sparked a series of "price-tag" (a euphemism for revenge) attacks by extremist settlers on Palestinians and their property. Mr Har-Zahav described in his blog how settlers erected a barricade of burning tyres to block a West Bank road, apparently in a "price-tag" operation.
The military always rushes to dismantle such barriers, used in the past by Palestinian militants, because if a settler's car is stuck, "he becomes an easy target for terrorists", Mr Har-Zahav said.
But this time, as soon as the military patrol arrived young teenage settlers in ski masks began pelting it with large stones – Mr Har-Zahav indicates a diameter of about 8in – from the terraces 10 metres above the road. "It's physics," he says. "If someone gets banged with one from that height, that person is either dead or seriously injured."
We know the name of the settlement, but Mr Har-Zahav does not want it publicised in case he is pursued through the courts by its members. But he does not hesitate to specify the attack on the Beit El military base near Ramallah, where, as he wrote in his blog, the settlers – on several occasions he uses the word "terrorists" – not only wrote "price-tag" graffiti, but cut wires under the bonnets, put sugar in the petrol tanks and cut brake cables of the vehicles "the army uses to protect them".
He wrote: "I don't know how it works... in the parallel universe. But in the universe I come from, the State of Israel, when someone cuts your brakes, it is an attempt to kill or assassinate." Normally Mr Har-Zahav's blog gets 20,000 hits. This one got 44,000. By some on the far right he was accused of treachery; by some on the far left he was criticised for serving in the West Bank at all.
The pro-settler newspaper Makor Rishon published the blog, fuelling an already lively debate among its readers about the "price-tag" tactic. "I didn't write the blog just to put down the settlers or smear mud in their faces," Mr Har-Zahav says. "It's far more important to me that the settlers discuss it than the readers of The Independent or, for that matter, Maariv or Yedhiot Ahronot. Much of the response, he says, was "apologies and shame" and he says that relations between the IDF and settlers have traditionally been good.
But he also says that while "officially" there is no difference in the constraints on the way soldiers confront Palestinians and settlers, "actually there is a huge difference. You still think two, three, four, five, six times more [before shooting at settlers] than if you encounter Palestinians". He cites the recent example in which a soldier is facing trial for accidentally shooting dead a settler rabbi who failed to stop at a makeshift checkpoint and one of his own in which a Palestinian was shot dead in similar circumstances, when there was no official investigation.
Mr Har-Zahav, who testified to the veterans' organisation Breaking the Silence after writing his blog, feels he performed a public service by highlighting a topic seldom discussed. "I told the truth," he says.
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