BURIN, West Bank (AP) — Rabbi Arik Ascherman’s right middle finger is still bandaged from a recent confrontation in the West Bank, when a suspected extremist Jewish settler lurched at him with a knife, punching and kicking him.
Almost two weeks after the Oct. 23 attack, when the liberal rabbi was helping Palestinians harvest their olive trees, no arrests have been made — part of what critics say is a culture of impunity for extremist settlers.
Palestinians say that Israel’s seeming inability to prosecute settlers accused of violence is a key factor in a nearly two-month wave of violence that shows no signs of slowing down.
Ascherman heads a group called Rabbis for Human Rights, which for more than a decade has been accompanying Palestinian farmers to their olive groves during the harvest season, when attacks by extremist settlers typically spike. While the presence of Israelis sometimes prevents violence, Ascherman said the attack on him shows how extremists — seemingly free from the threat of punishment — are often undeterred.
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“We’ve created … a Frankenstein’s monster that’s turned on its creator,” said Ascherman as he stood this week among a group of Israeli volunteers and Palestinian farmers raking olives from trees.
The extremist settlers “believe that they are the lords of the land,” he added.
The attack against Ascherman comes as a wave of violence is roiling the region, with near-daily, seemingly spontaneous assaults by Palestinians that have killed 11 Israelis since mid-September. Seventy Palestinians have also been killed — 44 of them said by Israel to be attackers and the remainder killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
The violence erupted in mid-September over tensions at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site sacred to both Muslims and Jews, and quickly spread elsewhere into Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israel says a campaign of lies and incitement by the Palestinian leadership is to blame for the violence. But the Palestinians say it’s the result of simmering frustrations stemming from nearly 50 years of Israel’s occupation of lands they want for their future state.
Much of those frustrations are fanned by violent encounters with settlers, which reached a nadir with a deadly arson attack on the home of a Palestinian family in July.
The assailants, believed to be Jewish extremists, lobbed a firebomb into the Dawabsheh home in the West Bank village of Duma, where the family of four was asleep. Ali Dawabsheh, a toddler, was burned to death, while his mother and father later died of their wounds. His 4-year-old brother Ahmad is being treated in an Israeli hospital.
Israeli leaders across the political spectrum fiercely condemned the violence and vowed to apprehend the assailants. Subsequently, four Israeli extremists were jailed for six months without charges, a measure Israel typically uses against Palestinians.
But the four are not necessarily being held in connection with the Duma attack, and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has said that there isn’t “sufficient evidence” to apprehend any suspects over the arson.
When Palestinians are asked about the roots of the current round of violence, they quickly mention the Duma case, noting that Israel swiftly — often within hours — apprehends suspected Palestinian attackers.
“It’s clear that the Israeli government doesn’t want to arrest the perpetrators or punish them or their families as it does with Palestinians,” said Abdelhaleem Dawabsheh, the mayor of Duma and a cousin of the Palestinian family. “People here are concerned that the attack might happen again.”
Israel says it confronts settler violence with as much resolve as it does attacks by Palestinians. Police said that over the last two months, they have served restraining orders to 33 extremist Jews, banning them from the West Bank and putting some of them under house arrest.
But critics say a lackadaisical approach by security forces and a lenient justice system allows Israeli extremists to run amok even as Palestinian offenders are arrested and jailed, often without trial.
Israeli human rights group Yesh Din says Israeli police have an 85 percent failure rate in investigating ideologically-motivated crimes by Israelis against Palestinians.
A recent study of the 1,026 crime reports filed over the last decade, 940 were closed without indictments, mostly because police were unable to find a culprit. Only 75 indictments have been filed, according to the group. Most of the violence has been arson or damage to crops or trees, or incidents such as shootings, beatings, stone-throwing or assault with clubs or knives.
“The numbers that we see are grim and they don’t get any better,” said Neta Patrick, the head of Yesh Din. “Many (Palestinians) … don’t want to go to police and file a complaint because they don’t really believe in its ability to investigate and secure justice for them.”
Patrick said the impunity is only fueling more violence and allowing attacks to evolve, aimed not only against Palestinians but also against dovish Israelis who are helping Palestinians, like Ascherman.
Ascherman said he was attacked while accompanying Palestinians on an olive harvest that was coordinated and secured by police. A 2006 court decision requires Israel to protect Palestinians harvesting their land.
Shortly after the harvest had wrapped up and the security forces had left, Ascherman was trying to approach and film Israelis who were apparently setting fire to a nearby grove when the masked suspect came rushing toward him. Video captured by Rabbis for Human Rights shows Ascherman scuffling for about a minute with the knife-wielding man, who at one point has Ascherman in a headlock. The rabbi broke a finger and was bruised in the attack.
Police said the incident is being investigated, but Ascherman questioned how they appear to have no leads even with the video. He warned that years of unchecked extremist violence is creeping up against Jews as well.
“The hand which strikes the non-Jew will eventually strike the Jew as well,” Ascherman said, quoting a Jewish saying.
“What goes around comes around and I think what happened to me was an inevitable result of what happens to Palestinians on an almost daily basis,” he said.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.