Mosque Arson Victims Have Low Hopes

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 23, 2009, issue of January 01, 2010.

The recent arson attack on a Palestinian mosque brought international attention, and solidarity from unusual quarters, to this quiet West Bank farming community. But now that rabbinic visitors have dried up, and Israeli politicians are done condemning the incident, villagers fear that the crime will go unsolved, much like the crimes they say preceded the December 11 attack.

News reports of the most recent attack have focused on perpetrators that are suspected to be right-wing settlers, but these reports have generally overlooked local residents’ accounts that the incident was preceded by five other criminal acts during the past 18 months, all allegedly by Jewish settlers. Some residents of Yasuf, home to about 2,000 Palestinians, say that in August 2008, settlers attacked them and stole 22 sheep, and that two months previously, settlers burned olive groves. Other alleged crimes involved illegal use of Palestinian land by settlers for grazing animals or for farming.

By press time, Israeli police were able to trace only two complaints filed by Yasuf residents— one of which was closed due to lack of evidence, and the other for which the investigation is ongoing.

“Every time that the settlers feel pressure — international pressure on the government, regarding the freeze — we pay the price, but they don’t pay any price, and not one of them is arrested,” Hafiz Mahmoud Ahmed, deputy mayor of Yasuf, told the Forward.

The mosque arson attack appears to be, by far, the most serious use of “price tag” tactics, which have been adopted by some far-right settlers. When Israeli authorities go against the interests of settlers — in this case, by imposing the recent settlement freeze — “price tag” activists make their wrath felt by blocking highways and harming Palestinian people and property.

The arson prompted an outpouring of support from Jewish religious leaders. Rabbis traveled to Yasuf — among them, Israel’s Ashenazic chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, who offered a donation to help renovate the mosque, and New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

But support hasn’t translated into justice. As of press time, there have been no arrests in connection to the arson or the other alleged attacks — despite the fact that Yasuf residents and other Palestinian locals have been increasingly willing to turn to Israeli police, once seen as an act of collaboration with Israel. A major factor has been encouragement and practical assistance from the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din (Hebrew for “There is a law”), established in 2005.

One complainant claims to have identified the man who stole his sheep, a resident of the neighboring Kfar Tapuach, an 800-resident settlement that is home to several far-right Jewish settlers who avow the ultra-nationalist doctrines of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.

“We have a complaint against a specific settler, and we have pictures of the settler, but [the police] didn’t do anything,” Rajeh Ibrahim Khaled Yasin, one of the owners of the stolen sheep, said.

Frustration about police investigations leading nowhere is common elsewhere in the West Bank. Yesh Din has monitored some 400 cases since its founding. Almost one in four has become a bone of contention between the organization and police, with Yesh Din appealing a police decision to close it. Half of these appeals have been rejected, many are pending and one led to an indictment.

Overall 65 complaints are still open, and the rest have been concluded. In nine out of 10 instances, “concluded” means that the investigation has been closed; one in 10 has resulted in an indictment. When queried, Israeli police said they could not, by press time, provide comparative statistics on cases closed or indictments made, relating to property crime within Israel’s 1967 borders.

Yesh Din insists that this latest incident should be different than most — a “test case” as to the police’s will to bring violent settlers to justice and to reign in settler lawlessness.

“This time, if they don’t take [the evidence] to forensics and catch the criminal, it will show that they don’t care and don’t want to,” said Dina Goor, a founding member of Yesh Din.

But some Arabs say that Yesh Din and Yasuf residents paint an overly simplistic picture. The veteran Palestinian-affairs journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, best known as West Bank correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, told the Forward: “I don’t buy this claim or perception that Israel doesn’t want to help people and isn’t doing anything.”

He said that the perception stems from an inaccurate belief that Israeli police and army are in collusion with settlers. “I’ve personally witnessed the arrest of many settlers, including with police violence against settlers.”

Police say that they take all complaints seriously and that they are attempting to solve the arson attack. “An investigation was opened immediately after the incident, in coordination with other security organizations,” spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told the Forward. “In this case, the investigation is being carried out by [the] Judea and Samaria police district in coordination with the forensics unit at the police headquarters.

“Evidence was taken from the scene, has already been examined and the investigation is continuing in order to find and arrest the individuals that were involved in this incident as soon as possible.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com



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