The U.N. human rights office called Tuesday for Israel to stop Jewish settlers from attacking Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, accusing the army of failing to restrain settlers while being quick to use force against Palestinians.
Israeli diplomats expressed surprise at the statement, saying it was released without warning and made no mention of violence directed at settlers.
The West Bank and Israel proper have experienced a spike in violence in recent weeks, with hundreds of olive trees uprooted, mosques attacked and Arab cemeteries vandalized. Extremist settlers are believed to be behind the violence, which they say is the "price tag" for army and government policies that they feel are unfair. Settlers have also clashed with Israeli soldiers in several instances.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Israel was legally obliged to protect Palestinian civilians and property.
"There appears to be certainly a partial siding with the settlers, and perhaps not intervening strongly enough to protect the Palestinian villagers," Colville told reporters in Geneva. He cited the fatal shooting of a Palestinian by an Israeli soldier in the West Bank village of Qusra on Sept. 23, the beating of two minors detained by troops the same day, and the uprooting of 200 olive trees in the village on Oct. 6.
"The accountability for settler violence against Palestinians is less than adquate, let's say, and certainly not comparable to the reverse cases," Colville said. "When Palestinians attack settlers there's always very, very strong reaction."
Diplomats at Israel's mission to the United Nations in Geneva rejected the claim.
"Anything can be reported to the Israeli authorities and there will be legal procedures if necessary," Walid Abu-Haya, an Israeli diplomat who deals with human rights matters, told The Associated Press. He questioned why the U.N. statement failed to mention the death of an Israeli settler and his infant son in a car accident last month caused by Palestinian stone throwers.
In a statement, the Israeli army said it would not permit rioting or individuals taking the law into their own hands. It said soldiers are under orders to prevent, "actively if necessary," attacks on security forces or Palestinian civilians by Israelis.
National police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told the AP that police, too, were committed to preventing crimes, whoever the culprits.
"In each incident that takes place, a thorough investigation is opened by officers who are trained and experienced to work in the different areas and with the different communities. The Israeli police will continue to emphasize solving and dealing with all types of crimes if and when they occur," Rosenfeld said.
Colville said the rise in attacks since the beginning of September was "emblematic of the phenomenon of settler violence throughout the West Bank."
A U.N. report about the impact of Israeli settlement construction is being published later this week.
Daniella Cheslow and Josef Federman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.