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2 journalists on the rise in violent vigilante attacks against Palestinians

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Drive through the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as I have done a lot this summer covering the region for NPR, and you'll see poster after poster with the Hebrew word for vengeance - nekama. The United Nations says there's been a rise in the rate of attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians - beatings, burning cars and homes, and just last week, the killing of a 19-year-old Palestinian, Qusai Matan. This has been happening since the rise of Israel's most right-wing government in history, with senior leaders who are themselves settlers with a record of extremism against Palestinians. Their ultimate goal is occupying more and more land from Palestinians.

Some of the recent settler attacks have come after deadly Palestinian shootings of Israelis, but many attacks have been unprovoked. And as a result, several small Palestinian communities have completely packed up and fled. The attackers are often large vigilante groups of Israeli settlers. They're called hilltop youth, living on West Bank hilltops under Israel's protection. Unusually, the U.S. State Department and Israel's army chief of staff, police chief and domestic security agency chief have all called these settler attacks terrorism. But there have been very few arrests.

We reached out to a Palestinian journalist and an Israeli journalist to hear about their own reporting on this. Basel Adra is a Palestinian activist and journalist in Masafer Yatta Yatta in the occupied West Bank. And Hagar Shezaf is an Israeli correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper. She joined us from Jaffa in Israel. We'll hear first from Basel describing one confrontation he was filming last month when Israeli forces detained him.

BASEL ADRA: So as journalist and activist, I was called by neighbors that the settlers harassing them by grazing their sheep in the Palestinian field. And when I arrived, more settlers joined that settler, and they started harassing the shepherds. And there was violence because the settlers create this violence in the place. The police and the army come, and directly they invaded houses in the community, looking for boys that they throw stones, as the settlers claimed, to the soldiers. And then the officer came at me and said, open your phone and show me what you filmed. I told him this is illegal, and there is a law, and I am a journalist. I show him my ID as a journalist. He say, yes, this take time. And they want the videos now. I told him the police is here. They can ask for it. You can ask the court. But I can't show it to you because I don't know who you are. He say now I have another way to take these videos from you. So he took my phone and my ID, put them in his pocket and take me to the Jeep. They handcuffed me, covered my eyes and take me, like, inside the Jeep, started driving.

After a short while, like about 10 minutes, they brought me down from the Jeep, start pushing me from my back. I wasn't see anything because my eyes were covered. And the soldiers, when I ask them, they ask me to shut up. They shouted me, shut up. You're a dog. We know who you are. What are you doing? After several hours, they drive me back to the entrance of the village, and that officer came and gave me my phone and my ID back. The police don't come, don't arrest these settlers even after we filmed them. We record everything. And we go to file a complaint in the Israeli police station. These settlers does not, like, no one is stopping them from that. But as I mentioned, the Israeli soldiers come to help them doing it.

ESTRIN: That's Palestinian journalist Basel Adra describing one of the recent settler attacks that he was filming. And the Israeli Union of Journalists called, Basel, your detention appalling and a serious violation of freedom of the press. I want to turn to Hagar Shezaf. Hagar, you've been reporting on a recent killing that just happened last weekend. What happened?

HAGAR SHEZAF: Last Friday, a Palestinian was shot dead by a settler. He was shot dead following about two hours of basically clashes that erupted after settlers came into Palestinian private land. And, I mean, I spoke to witnesses from the village of Burqa, where the attack happened. And they said that at first, you know, a few settlers were grazing in a privately owned Palestinian land. Then Palestinians came there in order to basically chase them out. More settler came. Settlers and Palestinians threw stones at each other. Settlers burned a Palestinian car and also used live fire, live ammunition against the Palestinians. And at the end, the result was a young man who was killed.

ESTRIN: And he was just 19 years old.

SHEZAF: Yes. He was just 19 years old. And yeah, so he was shot dead by them. And a settler was actually severely injured at the incident as well. The settler who was injured is the main suspect.

ESTRIN: And tell us about - there's another suspect who has a connection to the current Israeli government, right?

SHEZAF: There's another suspect who was arrested. He's actually now in a house arrest. And he's a very well-known character in the Israeli far-right, in the younger generation of the Israeli far-right. His name is Elisha Yered. He - for a few years - he's very young. He's in his early 20s. And for a few years, he, you know, was some sort of like a spokesperson for the hilltop youth, like we call them. And then when the new Israeli government was formed, he became a spokesperson of a member of Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, called Limon Sun Har Melech. She is a Parliament member from the Otzma Yehudit party, which is a far-right Jewish supremacist party headed by Itamar Ben-gvir.

ESTRIN: The national security minister.

SHEZAF: Right, the minister in charge of the Israeli police nowadays.

ESTRIN: So you're describing one of the suspects in a recent murder case against a Palestinian who has a direct connection to a member of Israel's current ruling governing coalition. What is going on here, Hagar? I mean, on the one hand, Israeli defense officials and the U.S. are calling these acts of terrorism. On the other hand, we see this connection with the current Israeli government. What is Israel doing about this?

SHEZAF: Right. So I think the first thing that is quite interesting and that is happening now is that there is a certain rift, I would say, between the Israeli security establishment and the Israeli government, or at least some very senior Israeli politicians. Because it's very clear that the Israeli police actually tried quite hard to keep Elisha Yered in detention, and he was eventually released for house arrest. So you see these different kind of forces that are pushing two different directions. And in this particular case, because I think the political stakes are quite high, you see that very clearly.

ESTRIN: Well, Basel Adra, let me end with you. How are Palestinians organizing to respond or to prepare for these kinds of attacks? How do you see the next weeks and months looking?

ADRA: It's really very hopeless. And we don't see any good vision for the future with what's going on, especially a lot of communities, small communities, as I'm saying, start leaving their villages after what happened in Hawara and Turmus Ayya and Burqa that the settlers reached and burned houses and cars. But look at Hawara, for example. They burned dozens of houses and cars. A lot of families were homeless. But there is, like, as Hagar's saying, weekly and daily harassments by settlers and soldiers toward Palestinian communities in order to ethnic cleansing the lands from Palestinians, to push Palestinians out of this land to an exit as Israeli land and to take it for these settlers and these settlements.

And what's happening here on the ground is different with what you say that they are calling this in the ministry as terrorism and the U.S. calling it terrorism, but on the ground, doesn't change. And the only change is happening only very bad. And the settlers and the soldiers by their forces is really changing the de facto on the ground in order to steal this land and so the settlers can have it and settle in it.

ESTRIN: Basel Adra, Palestinian activist and journalist, thank you so much.

ADRA: Thank you.

ESTRIN: And Hagar Shezaf, Israeli journalist with Haaretz. Thank you very much for being with us, Hagar.

SHEZAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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