Palestinian statehood bid stokes tensions in West Bank

September 28, 2011

In this village tucked among the rocky hills of the northern West Bank, flags are flying to celebrate the bid for membership of a Palestinian state in the United Nations.

A poster in the village center carries a picture of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is riding a wave of popularity after defying U.S. pressure and submitting the membership application last week.

But larger posters carry the likeness of Issam Odeh, 36, a father of seven killed in a stone-throwing clash with Israeli soldiers that followed a confrontation with Jewish settlers on Friday. The incident occurred hours before Abbas took the podium at the U.N. General Assembly to present the Palestinian case for recognition of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

At nearby road junctions leading to Jewish settlements, Israeli flags have been raised on lampposts, and posters put up in advance of the Jewish New Year this week declare: “Next year, Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank.

A banner in Hebrew and Arabic put up by settlers at a major intersection proclaims: “This is the Land of Israel.”

The U.N. statehood bid has given Palestinians a morale boost and put Israeli settlers on edge in the West Bank, but it has not unleashed the mass marches and confrontations envisioned in worst-case contingency plans made by Israel’s security forces.

Instead, it has ratcheted up the chronic, sporadic violence that plagues this territory, a patchwork of areas under Israeli and Palestinian control whose future remains as murky as ever after the Palestinian statehood application, which is under consideration by the U.N. Security Council.

In Qusra, residents have organized local watch teams after militant settlers, angered by the Israeli army’s demolition of three houses in an unauthorized settlement outpost this month, defaced the local mosque, scrawling “Muhammad is a pig” on a wall and throwing burning tires into the building.

Groups of village men, carrying flashlights, cellphones and sometimes sticks, walk the perimeter of the village at night, on alert for any incursions by settlers from the neighboring wildcat outpost of Eish Kodesh, a collection of mobile homes and shacks set up without authorization more than a decade ago on a hill.

After the confrontation Friday, villagers found hundreds of young olive trees cut down or uprooted on land around the village, the latest in a long series of assaults that villagers say have included the slaughter of some of their goats.

Abdullah Odeh, a psychology lecturer who is one of the organizers of the village watch teams, says they were formed spontaneously after the mosque attack, after villagers concluded that there was no one else to protect them. He said numerous complaints to the Israeli army and police had produced “no results and no prosecutions.”

“There’s no trust that the Israelis will provide protection,” he said. “So we’re defending our homes with our bodies.”

When a group of settlers reached farmland outside the village Friday, the alarm went up and scores of villagers gathered to confront them. Soldiers who pushed back the villagers were pelted with stones. After using tear gas, the soldiers fired live rounds, killing Issam Odeh.

The Palestinian statehood bid has also been accompanied by an increase in stone-throwing at Israeli soldiers and motorists in the West Bank, according to the Israeli military, which has beefed up its presence in the area in recent weeks.

The day of the fatal shooting in Qusra, an Israeli settler and his 18-month-old son were killed near Hebron when their vehicle overturned after it was stoned, police said. A police spokesman said the man, Asher Palmer, 25, an Israeli American living in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, was hit in the head by a rock and lost control of the car.

Palestinian stone-throwers have also clashed with Israeli troops at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, and in Hebron, where soldiers protect an enclave of a few hundred Jewish settlers in the heart of the city.

Still, Israeli military officials say they have cooperated with the Palestinian security forces in containing the violence, preventing it from spreading beyond a few points of contact that are the usual flash points in times of tension. Officers from both sides have even manned a joint operations room to monitor developments.

Thousands of Palestinians gathered for rallies in West Bank cities last week in support of the U.N. bid, and Palestinian police officers worked with their Israeli counterparts to ensure that the demonstrations did not spill over to Jewish settlements and Israeli army positions. Abbas has repeatedly urged his people to demonstrate peacefully in what he has called the “Palestinian Spring.”

Shlomo Vaknin, the chief security officer of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella group, said that although the army had trained rapid-response teams at settlements for possible mass marches on their communities, these had not materialized.

“In fact, the doomsday scenarios did not come true,” he said, adding that in general, “the situation is calm.”

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