RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Militant Israeli settlers in the West Bank have stepped up attacks on Palestinians in recent years, human rights groups and U.N. agencies said Wednesday, claiming a lack of Israeli law enforcement has created a climate of impunity.
The Israeli government has not shown the political will to protect Palestinian civilians and has failed to commit sufficient resources to the job, said Jessica Montell of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
Montell and others told a news conference that settler violence against Palestinians is not random. They said settler vigilantes hope to drive Palestinians from areas they want to take over, or carry out attacks to deter the Israeli military from taking any action against settlements.
Extremist settlers embarked on a campaign called "price tag" in 2008, retaliating for any army action against settlers or rogue outposts by attacking Palestinians and their property.
Militant settlers have been emboldened by the lack of punishment, Montell said. "You have increased motivation by settlers to be attacking Palestinians," she said. "There is no priority given to protecting Palestinians from militant settlers."
"What we are seeing is a lack of action on the ground" by Israeli law enforcement agencies, said Matthias Behnke, of the U.N's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev denied that Israel is failing its obligation, as occupier of the West Bank, to protect the more than 2 million Palestinians living there.
"We will pursue all complaints very seriously," he said, adding that the prime minister has instructed police to deal "aggressively" with vigilantes.
In the most recent incident, settlers attacked a group of shepherds grazing their herd near the Palestinian village of Yanoun on Saturday, said villager Adwan Bani Jaber. Settlers beat the shepherds with fists and sticks to drive them from the area, he said.
Reinforcements from the village threw stones at settlers, and troops arrived, Bani Jaber said.
Soldiers fired in the air, handcuffed one of the villagers and placed him near a jeep, the witness said. There, the handcuffed man was severely beaten by settlers, and soldiers did not come to his aid, said Bani Jaber, who was struck in the head and required three stitches.
The army denied a handcuffed Palestinian was beaten.
In all, five Palestinians were hurt, hospital officials said. The military said its medics treated two Palestinians and an Israeli at the scene.
Some 500,000 Israelis live in more than 120 settlements and about 100 unauthorized outposts in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians for their state.
The international community views all settlements as illegal. The bulk of the settlers live in communities in commuting distance to Israel's biggest cities. In contrast, much of the violence is perpetrated by extremists in tiny settlements and outposts deep inside the West Bank.
Settler attacks on Palestinians causing injury or damage rose from 168 in 2009 to 411 in 2011, according to U.N. figures. In the first half of 2012, 154 attacks were reported. The figures are based on reports from Palestinian villagers that are verified by U.N. investigators in interviews and field visits.
Attacks linked to the price tag tactic tripled from seven or eight annually between 2008 and 2010 to 24 in 2011, the groups reported. In 2012, there have been 11 price tag attacks so far.
Most notably, 10 West Bank mosques have been vandalized by arson or offensive graffiti in the past 18 months. Police opened investigations in six of the cases and questioned several suspects, but no charges have been filed, said Montell.
Over the past decade, B'Tselem submitted 352 complaints to the Israeli police on behalf of Palestinians, she said. Cases included physical assault by settlers, shooting attacks, property damage, torching of fields, theft of crops and forcing people off their land. In 250 cases, an investigation was opened, but only 29 resulted in indictments, according to B'Tselem figures.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed reporting.