Israeli settlers poison Olive Trees and torch Mosques in the Wild West Bank

Americans of a certain age grew up reading children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder or watching the popular TV series "Little House on the Prairie" (which ran from 1974-1984), based on her family’s life and adventures as settlers in America’s Wild West. In 1869 Laura, along with Pa, Ma, Mary and baby Carrie, moved to Indian Territory in Kansas, where Pa built a cabin, dug a well, planted crops, survived malaria and worried about their pesky neighbors. ("The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is repeated four times in the first book.)

Americans have a romantic view of wagon trains full of settlers conquering the New World (and running off Native Americans), so it’s little wonder that they swallowed Israel’s tall tales–”like Leon Uris’ Exodus, later made into a classic film–”and other propaganda. Europeans escaped the Holocaust to settle in Israel, "a land without a people for a people without a land." That’s a striking narrative–”unless you consider the fact that European Jews persecuted by European Christians were illegal immigrants to a land already populated by Palestinian farmers, fishermen, business people, and scholars. Israel’s relentless territorial expansion counts on Americans–”and Israelis–”forgetting about those pesky Palestinians. In actuality the settler-colonial enterprise in Palestine is not a pretty story, not to mention a violation of international and human rights law.

Today’s Jewish settlers more closely resemble cattle rustlers or bandits than pioneers. Or even more accurately, they bring to mind the violent thugs from "The Wire," an HBO drama that takes place on the brutal streets of Baltimore. [A criminal rolls through a neighborhood wearing a flak jacket and carrying a shotgun casually thrown over his shoulder. Is this Baltimore or Hebron?] Or perhaps "The Sopranos," another HBO series, replete with savage beatings and offhand killings.

Jewish settler/hooligans torched a West Bank mosque in the Palestinian village of Beit Fajar, south of Bethlehem, charring copies of the Qur’an and prayer carpets, on Oct. 4, a month after the launch of new, and short-lived, peace talks in Washington, DC. This was the fourth arson attempt on Muslim holy places in two years. Indeed, from January 2009 through August 2010, Israeli settlers in the West Bank perpetrated 84 acts of arson involving olive groves, homes and farm buildings. Vigilante settlers have left behind Hebrew graffiti with the words "revenge" or "price tag," referring to their campaign against outpost evacuations or the temporary freeze on settlement expansion. Settlers are turning the bucolic hills and fields of Palestine into the Wild West Bank.

In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a New York-born Jewish settler, walked into Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, or the Ibrahimi Mosque, and gunned down Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding another 150. His deadly rampage triggered a period of settler violence in the occupied territories that continues to this day. His grave, in the adjacent and illegal Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, has become a pilgrimage site for Israeli extremists.

According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Israeli civilians killed 49 Palestinians from Sept. 29, 2000 to Aug. 31, 2010. "Settlers block roadways, so as to impede Palestinian life and commerce, shoot solar panels on roofs of buildings, torch automobiles, shatter windowpanes and windshields, destroy crops, uproot trees, beat shepherds, abuse merchants and owners of stalls in the market. Some of these actions are intended to force Palestinians to leave their homes and farmland, and thereby enable the settlers to gain control of them."

American donors finance this settler project.

Palestinian families gather every year in the fall to harvest olives and picnic with their neighbors. Olive trees are a major commercial crop for Palestine, and many families depend on them for their livelihood. The trees grow at a rate of 1 to 2 feet a year, reaching a height of 20 to 40 feet after about 40 years. They generally live for about 400 years, but many are known to be 700 or 1,000 years old. To Palestinians the olive tree is a symbol of Palestinian steadfastness to their land.

During recent olive harvests, Israeli settlers have targeted both Palestinians and their beloved olive groves. This past October West Bank Palestinians from Turmus Aya and Al-Mughayer, north of Ramallah, arrived to pick olives–”only to discover their olive trees bored into and poisoned, with branches drooping and the olives shriveled and black, instead of plump and green or purple. Settlers from the illegal Israeli outpost on top of a nearby hill had used chemicals to kill other trees last year.

Residents of Burin, near the Yitzhar settlement in the northern West Bank, say settlers throw stones to keep them from working on their land. This October border police and Israel Defense Forces troops, as well as Palestinian police, tried to guard villagers during the harvest. According to Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B’Tselem, which monitored the olive harvest, the settlers have a "new strategy," which is to steal the olives right before they’re harvested. They take advantage of the fact that everyone knows the times when the guards are to be posted, she told the Israeli daily Haaretz. "In a number of places where Palestinians are not allowed for the rest of the year, when they come on the days allocated to them, they find the olives have disappeared," she said.

Hundreds of trees have been stripped of olives this year, according to Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli organization that tries to help farmers. Members of a new unit from the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Agriculture worked to document villagers’ complaints, counting poisoned trees and taking samples for testing.

Recruiting Settlers as Police

Believe it or not, Israel is now recruiting police officers from the very same settler communities that have been tormenting Christians and Muslims in the West Bank. According to a startling report by Jonathan Cook published in the Palestine Chronicle, their new special officer training course includes seven months of religious studies in Elisha, an extremist West Bank settlement. "Although all the settlements are illegal under international law, Elisha is one of dozens of wildcat settlements also illegal under Israeli law," Cook observes. More than 300 settlers are reported to have expressed an interest in the course so far.

"A right-wing settler activist, Hor Nizri, who has clashed with the police in the past over the evacuation of settlements, has been put in charge of recruiting young settlers," Cook writes. "He told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that the program was ‘a historic reconciliation,’ adding: ‘We want to fill the ranks of the police as we fill the ranks of the army.’

"His comments have sparked concern among Palestinian groups inside Israel that the program is the first phase of an attempted settler ‘takeover’ of the police, replicating their growing dominance of sections of the army."

Israel released its first official figures on the number of settlers in Israeli military combat units in September. About a third of all officers in such units are settlers, up from only 2.5 percent in 1990s.

"Is it really credible that these religious extremists who have been educated to hate Palestinians in the West Bank are going to behave differently when they police our communities inside Israel?" asks Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, an advocacy center for the Palestinian minority inside Israel. A settler police force roaming the Wild West Bank defies the imagination.

Radical rabbis in extremist settlements help inspire settler brutality. Two rabbis in Yitzhar, near Nablus, recently published a book, The King’s Torah, which sanctions the killing of non-Jews, including children. The authors write: "There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us."

On Oct. 16, in his weekly Saturday night sermon, Israeli Sephardic leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said non-Jews or Goyim "were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world; only to serve the People of Israel." Embarrassed American Jews quickly condemned those racist remarks, but Rabbi Yosef is the spiritual leader of Israel’s pro-settler and ultra-religious Shas Party, an increasingly powerful group in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. Settlers listen to their radical rabbis.

At the end of Laura Ingall’s Little House on the Prairie, her family is told that the land on which they built their log cabin, along with their well and fields, must be vacated by the settlers because it is not legally open to settlement. Pa agrees to leave the land and move the family to "the Banks of Plum Creek" in Minnesota before the Army forcibly evicts them.

That’s something nearly 500,000 Israelis who live in the illegal settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem should be doing right now. Ma and Pa–”or Ima and Aba–”need to be figuring out where they’d like to settle next. To paraphrase journalist Helen Thomas, settlers need to move back inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, or return to the streets of Moscow, Baltimore, New York and New Jersey–”preferably without their torches and rifles.