By Tom Perry
HUWARA, West Bank (Reuters) - Scorched hillsides and charred olive groves near Nablus pinpoint the latest acts of arson by hardline Jewish settlers against Palestinians who say they are ever more the victims of such attacks in the West Bank.
"The olive tree is the only source of income for farmers," said Mohammad Zeban, a Palestinian farmer, lamenting the damage inflicted on hundreds of olive trees by a recent fire near the village of Huwara. "They want to annihilate us."
Settler-related incidents resulting in Palestinian injuries and damage to property are up by 57 percent this year, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which documents violence in the Palestinian territories.
Palestinian officials say that is a worrying sign of deepening hostility which they fear could trigger wider violence as hardline settlers increasingly appear to be a law unto themselves and frustration grows over the evaporating prospects for peace.
For Palestinians around Nablus, confrontations with ideologically-driven Israelis who have settled the area since the early 1980s have become routine in recent years. But this year has been worse than normal, say villagers.
They talk of greater numbers of settlers, more organized than before, descending from their hilltop enclaves to hurl rocks at their homes and vandalize their agricultural land.
The Palestinians usually respond with rocks, with people getting injured on both sides.
The World Court has ruled Israeli settlements in occupied territory illegal and Palestinians say the enclaves could deny them a viable state.
Among the most ideological in the West Bank, the settlers around Nablus represent a minority on the fringe of Israeli society. They are a fraction of the 500,000 settlers who today live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
They see themselves as pioneers exercising a biblical birthright to the West Bank, which together with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem is the land where Palestinians want to establish a state alongside Israel.
Often reluctant to talk to the media, they have in the past complained about attacks by Palestinians on their property.
The killing of a Jewish couple and three of their children in March at a settlement near Nablus has likely helped fuel the recent wave of attacks on Palestinians. Two Palestinian teenagers have been charged with the killings.
MORE PALESTINIANS INJURED THIS YEAR
Settlers also mount attacks against Palestinians in response to Israeli government measures which they deem contrary to their interests, such as the removal of West Bank outposts built without official permission.
To Palestinians, the increasing frequency and audacity of settler attacks is an inevitable result of the support their movement enjoys from a right-wing Israeli government whose foreign minister is himself a settler.
"This is a government of settlers and its program is one of settlement. This, naturally, encourages this arrogance and these attacks," said Maher Ghoneim, the Palestinian Authority minister who monitors Israeli settlement activities.
Palestinians have been injured by settlers this year at double the rate of 2010, he said. So far this year, 178 Palestinians have been stoned, run down or shot at by settlers, compared to a total of 176 for the whole of 2010. Three Palestinians have been killed by settlers this year.
The Israeli police and army, which control security in most of the West Bank, including all the land in and around the settlements, did not provide information requested by Reuters about the scale of violence involving settlers.
The role of Israeli security forces in dealing with settler violence is the focus of controversy.
The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem says the army often does little or nothing to protect Palestinians and their property from settlers. If arrested, settlers are treated leniently by the Israeli justice system.
In footage captured by a Palestinian earlier this month with a camera provide by B'Tselem, soldiers appear to do very little to stop settlers pelting the village of Asira with rocks.
"When the village's residents arrived and threw stones back at the settlers, the soldiers can be seen firing teargas at the Palestinians," said Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B'Tselem.
More footage captured by a Palestinian in the nearby village of Burin on June 30 shows a settler setting alight a field.
The blaze quickly spreads, tearing through wild grass dried out by the summer sun and helping to start what Palestinians said was the area's biggest fire in more than five years. It reached adjacent Huwara.
Responding to a question from Reuters about violence that day, the Israeli army said dozens of Israeli civilians had approached Huwara, hurling rocks at security forces, confronting Palestinian villagers and lighting a number of fires.
"(Israeli army) forces began separating between the skirmishers in an attempt to prevent further clashes," the army said in a statement. "The forces began to remove those involved from the area, and contacted the firefighting service in order to extinguish the fires in the area."
Four Israelis and a Palestinian were detained and handed over to the police, it said.
Zeban, the Palestinian farmer, disputes the army's account and said the security forces stopped locals from fighting the flames. He estimated his losses that day at 100 olive trees.
"What did this olive tree ever do to them?" said Zeban, as he inspected one burned tree. A carpet of charred olive pits beneath its dead branches indicated what it would have yielded come harvest time.
"It took 20 years to grow. It will take another 20 to recover," he said.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)