Israel readies for Palestinian statehood rallies
Settlements fear marches may get out of hand
ELAZAR, West Bank - Israeli forces are making plans to prevent bloodshed when Palestinians march in support of a statehood drive this month, but they are preparing for the worst, even authorizing West Bank settlers to shoot at Palestinians who approach their communities.
Palestinians say the rallies will be peaceful - a view shared by Israel’s security assessments - and will steer clear of settlements. Yet the combustible atmosphere and the history of Israeli-Palestinian violence are raising the specter that events might spin out of control.
For the Palestinians, the marches are intended to boost their campaign to get the United Nations to recognize an independent state, a strategy they are trying because negotiations aimed at bringing about a state through a peace deal with Israel have been stalled for two years.
Settlers living on land the Palestinians want for their future state have long been targets for militant attacks; likewise, some settlers have attacked Palestinian civilians. The fear among settlers now is that even unarmed crowds could overrun their communities.
Ilan Paz, a retired Israeli general, said a scenario with hundreds of casualties was not unthinkable.
“You can’t know how this sort of protest will end,’’ Paz said. “All sorts of local incidents can lead to injuries, and this can cause a deterioration in the situation.’’
Israel’s army is training soldiers accustomed to battling gunmen in nonlethal riot-control tactics and inviting settlers to watch the drills at a military camp in a rural part of central Israel.
The mass demonstrations are set for around the time of the Sept. 13-22 UN General Assembly session, where the Palestinians hope to be granted official endorsement as a state. But some doubt the rallies will take place at all, and several Palestinian activist groups say they will not take part, believing the effort would achieve little.
The police preparations are expected to cost Israel about $20 million, according to a senior police officer.
Police expect Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem, home to 250,000 Palestinians, to be a flash point, the senior police officer said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the precautions.
Security forces are stockpiling tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons, and other nonlethal weapons. At a military camp about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, troops are practicing civilian crowd control.
But in the West Bank, some Israeli settlers say they do not fully trust the army to handle any unrest.
The army “doesn’t always know how to deal with this sort of event,’’ said Avraham Binyamin, a spokesman for Yitzhar, a settlement considered extreme even by many settlers.
Palestinians marching toward settlements are a threat even if they are not carrying firearms, he said: “You can kill with a rock or a knife, and you can burn with a match.’’
There are 300,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, living among about 2.5 million Palestinians. Settlements are typically guarded by soldiers and residents armed by the military. Many settlers carry firearms, and clashes between settlers and Palestinians are common.
The Palestinian Authority, the Western-backed government that has partial authority in the West Bank, has released a schedule of planned September protests in city centers and villages. The list includes no planned marches toward settlements.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said fears of Palestinian violence were “absolutely unfounded.’’
“The real fear of the settlers and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is that they know that once Palestine is admitted as a member of the UN, their days of occupation and settlements are numbered,’’ he said.
In coordination with the military, each Israeli settlement has identified a “response line’’ around its perimeter, said Shlomo Vaknin, security officer for a settler umbrella group known as the Yesha Council. Should Palestinians cross that line, the military will shoot at marchers’ feet or in the air. If soldiers are not on hand, responsibility to react will fall on the settlements’ civilian guards, Vaknin said.
In response, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel sent a complaint last week to the military’s advocate general claiming the settler training amounts to inciting vigilante violence against unarmed civilians exercising their right to protest. The army did not immediately comment on the complaint.
Mike Guzafsky, 47, a settler who trains guard and attack dogs for settlements, said the army appeared to have been caught by surprise last month when militants crossed the Egypt-Israel border and ambushed vehicles in southern Israel, killing eight people. He said he got 100 requests for dogs ahead of September, far above the usual.
“What happens,’’ he said, speaking at the West Bank settlement of Elazar, if the army “is once again caught off guard when 500 hostile Arabs are trying to penetrate a settlement with knives and guns?’’