The vicious nighttime beating of an Arab teenager by a mob of Jewish youths in a downtown square here this month has prompted arrests, condemnation and soul-searching about the depths of ethnic hatred in Israeli society.
But human rights activists and analysts say an act of violence against Palestinians that occurred hours earlier in a much different context — a stretch of highway in an Israeli-controlled section of the occupied West Bank — has become a test case for an equally grave problem: rising attacks by radical Israeli settlers on Palestinians and their property.
Israeli authorities have made no arrests in the Aug. 16 daylight firebombing of a Palestinian taxi, but they have said they suspect Jewish extremists. The incident, which left the driver and four members of a Palestinian family so severely burned that they remain hospitalized, was denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to find the perpetrators, and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, who called the beating and firebombing “terrorist attacks.” That description echoed the U.S. State Department, which described settler violence as terrorism in a recent report.
The condemnations reflect growing alarm among Israeli officials and international observers over escalating vandalism of Palestinian mosques and property, assaults against Palestinians and attacks on the Israeli military. Extremist settlers claim some of the acts as “price tag,” a campaign of retaliation against Palestinian violence or Israeli policies they view as limiting their efforts to claim what they see as their biblical birthright.
Public outrage over attacks on the military last year prompted steps by Israeli authorities that included temporarily expelling several radical settlers from the West Bank in January, but critics say those moves were not enough. That message was echoed in a European Union report this year, which noted that settler attacks on Palestinians tripled between 2009 and 2011.
Researchers say most of those attacks have taken place in Area C, the sections of the West Bank that are controlled solely by Israel and where Israeli security forces are responsible for protecting both Palestinians and Israelis.
“It is paramount that the Israeli authorities enforce the rule of law in the territories and protect Palestinian civilians in the territories,” said Natan Sachs, a Brookings Institution fellow who co-wrote a recent Foreign Affairs magazine article on settler terrorism. “It is especially important because right now the peace process is deadlocked. . . . If we’re expecting many years to come of a similar situation, then the conditions on the ground become more important, not less.”
Military and police officials say that they investigate all crimes with equal vigor and that their efforts thwart many planned offenses. Mickey Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, said security in the West Bank has been boosted “to prevent the friction” between settlers and Palestinians, who, he said, often “provoke” attacks.
To be sure, violence goes two ways in the West Bank, where an uneasy calm belies deep tensions between Israeli settlers and Palestinians who both claim ownership of the land. Most foreign governments deem Israeli settlements illegal, which Israel disputes.
Stone-throwing by Palestinians is common, and there have been shocking recent cases of Palestinian violence against settlers. Last year, for example, two Palestinians were convicted of murdering a family of five settlers while they slept. Israeli military statistics, however, show a steady decline in violent attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank.
Yet even military officials have said Israelis too rarely face punishment for crimes against Palestinians and their property. Direct comparisons of conviction rates are impossible, because Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank are prosecuted under different justice systems. But according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, less than 9 percent of 781 such “ideological” crimes investigated by Israeli police from 2005 to March 2012 led to indictments.
Human rights activists say the Israeli military, which investigates violent crimes against Israelis, does so more aggressively than does the Israeli police, which usually takes the lead in reported cases of settler violence. Police in the West Bank lack sufficient resources, said Lior Yavne, Yesh Din’s research director.
“But resources are a question of political will,” Yavne said. “Judging from history, once a particular incident or phenomenon is removed from news headlines, the resources disappear, as well.”
Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, disputed the Yesh Din figures, saying that complaints about settler violence are often filed long after the alleged crime.
But complaints about accountability also come from what might seem an unlikely corner: Dani Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, an umbrella settlement organization. He frequently denounces the attacks as a stain on the settlement enterprise. Dayan said that the attacks are committed by a tiny minority and that he has “literally begged” Israeli authorities to “take more severe actions.”
“No real indictments or bringing people to court . . . gives these hooligans, these criminals, a sense of immunity,” Dayan said.
But others are less categorical. Elyakim Levanon, the chief rabbi of the northern West Bank, said in an interview that he strongly opposes “price tag” attacks, but he blamed them on the Israeli military’s failure to protect settlers from Palestinians.
The Aug. 16 firebombing took place south of Jerusalem, on a curvy stretch of road in Area C flanked by steep rock on one side and a small, tree-filled valley on the other.
About 5:30 p.m., an hour when the road hums with people returning home from work, a taxi driver from the nearby Palestinian village of Nahalin was driving construction worker Ayman Ghayada, his wife, brother and three children to a supermarket.
Bassam Ghayada, the driver, said in an interview at the Israeli hospital where he is being treated for burns that he saw a young man, his face partially masked and fringed by the sidelocks that some religious Jews wear, throw a molotov cocktail from about 30 feet away.
The cab was quickly engulfed by flames.
“We saw the death in our eyes,” said Jamila Ghayada. She said she spotted a group she identified as settlers above the road, one of whom threw a second firebomb that missed the taxi.
The police investigation has centered on the nearby settlement of Bat Ayin, according to Israeli media and settlement residents. A quiet community of artists, Bat Ayin is known for its disavowal of Arab labor and for being the former home of a Jewish network whose members were convicted of plotting to bomb a Palestinian girls’ school in 2002. In 2009, a Palestinian man used an ax to kill a 13-year-old in the settlement.
Israeli police and intelligence officers have questioned teenagers several times since the firebombing, according to residents and Honenu, an Israeli legal organization that represents settlers accused of crimes. In a statement, Honenu said that several teenagers were warned against participating in “illegal activities” and that one was told by an intelligence agent that doing so was “playing with fire.”
Bat Ayin residents said in recent days that they were unfairly targeted, and some alleged that Palestinians threw the firebomb to stir unrest.
“Terror from any side is not good,” said David Eliyav, the settlement’s secretary. “And I can tell you, people here are against all that.”
Down the hill, Osama Shakarneh, head of the Nahalin village council, paged through binders of what he said were records of Israeli attacks against residents of the village, which he said settlers want to take over.
“This incident, which led to the disfigurement of children, could be the spark that would light the third intifada,” he said, referring to Palestinian uprisings.
In the hospital, Jamila Ghayada said that at the time of the attack, her family was en route to a West Bank site often held up as a model of peaceful Israeli-Arab coexistence: the Rami Levy supermarket, where on a recent day Palestinian women in black abayas pushed carts past olive-clad Israeli soldiers standing at a meat counter.
“If they want to catch them,” Bassam Ghayada, the driver, said of the culprits, “they will.”