settlers in Israel

Some 9,000 police have been drafted in to protect the Pope during his visit to Israel, and Christian institutions are under round-the-clock protection. According to a Vatican official, Israel’s preparations have turned “the holy sites into a military base”. But Israel is loath to publicise the grounds for its concerns, because the most tangible threat comes not from Islamic extremists but Jewish fanatics linked to the settler movement.

A wave of violence over the past fortnight, including attacks on two mosques and a church, has shocked Israel’s large Palestinian minority. Growing ever bolder, it seems, Israeli right-wing extremists are shifting attention to Palestinian areas inside Israel. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have accused Israeli authorities of repeatedly turning a blind eye to the attacks.

Jewish far-right groups responsible for a series of arson attacks on West Bank mosques over the past year broke dangerous ground last week when they turned their attention for the first time to holy places inside Israel. A mosque was torched, followed days later by an attack on Muslim and Christian graves. In each case the settlers left their calling card – the words “Price tag”, indicating an act of revenge – scrawled on their handiwork.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was reportedly “outraged” on Monday by images of the gutted mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya, close to the Galilee’s Jewish towns of Rosh Pina and Safed. However, critics pointed out that he and other government ministers had failed to express equal concern over a spate of similar attacks on mosques that have occurred in the West Bank over the past two years.

Israeli police injured two Arab legislators on Wednesday in violent clashes provoked by Jewish right-wing extremists staging a march through the northern Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. Haneen Zoabi, a parliament member who has become a national hate figure in Israel and received hundreds of death threats since her participation in an aid flotilla to Gaza in the summer, was among those hurt. Zoabi reported being hit in the back and neck by rubber bullets as she fled the area.

As US-sponsored peace talks have stalled over the issue of settlements, Israel’s national police force has revealed that it is turning to the very same illegal communities in its first-ever drive to recruit officers from among the settlers. The special officer training course includes seven months of religious studies in an extremist West Bank settlement. The programme has provoked widespread concern among Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the population.

The arrest by Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, of an Israeli Jew accused of killing at least four Palestinians, has thrown a rare light on the secret police, including attempts by one of its agents to enlist the accused to assassinate a Palestinian spiritual leader. Far-right groups have rapidly come to the aid of Chaim Pearlman, waging what the Shin Bet officials have described as “psychological warfare” by revealing damaging details about the case.

Over the past few days graffiti scrawled on walls around the mixed Jewish and Arab town of Jaffa in central Israel exclaims: “Settlers, keep out” and “Jaffa is not Hebron”. Although Jaffa is only a stone’s throw from the bustling coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv, Arab residents say their neighbourhood has become the unlikely battleground for an attempted takeover by extremist Jews more familiar from West Bank settlements.

Jewish peace groups have accused the Israeli police of fuelling racism by cancelling a “Jewish Pride” march by a far-right group that was to have taken place through one of the largest Arab towns in Israel. The police postponed the march, which was due to take place on Monday, claiming they had evidence extremist residents of Umm al Fahm in northern Israel would open fire on the marchers and police. “There was a real danger that lives could be lost,” said a police spokesman, adding that the decision to ban the march would be reassessed in two weeks.

Extremist settler groups currently involved in violent confrontations with Palestinians in the center of Hebron have chosen their next battleground, this time outside the West Bank. A far-right group know as the Jewish National Front, closely associated with the Hebron settlers, is preparing to march through one of the main Arab towns in northern Israel. The march, approved by the Supreme Court back in October, is scheduled to take place on December 15, the group announced this week.

Israel has been suffering its worst bout of inter-communal violence since the start of the second intifada, with a week of what has been widely presented as “rioting” by Jewish and Arab residents of the northern port city of Acre. The trigger for the outbursts occurred on the night of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. According to reports, an Arab resident, Tawfik Jamal, outraged a group of Jews by disturbing the day’s sanctity and driving to relatives in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. He and his teenage son were pelted with stones.