The IDF fails in its duty to protect Palestinian farmers from Israeli raiders. Is it a case of “can’t” or “won’t”?

The string of posts describing the theft and exploitation emanating from the illegal outpost of Adei Ad – beginning with the general one, followed by a description of the lack of law enforcement and ending with the financial damage it causes to Palestinians – has a common theme: The unwillingness of the sovereign in the West Bank, that is the IDF, to properly do its duty according to international law and defend the Palestinians. The international law regarding occupied territories – and Israel keeps the territories under belligerent occupation – says the occupier must protect the local population. It also forbids the transfer of population into the occupied territory, whether by force or not, but that is not the issue.

The HCJ ruled back in 2006 (the Rashed Murad decision) that the IDF must implement four principles in protecting the rights of Palestinians to work their lands. The first is protection: “First, action must be taken to ensure the safety of the Palestinian farmers who set out to do their agricultural work, and inasmuch as necessary to protect them while they are doing their agricultural work. The protection of the Palestinian farmers must be administered with minimum interruption of their agricultural work.” In practice, seven years after the ruling, the IDF allows Palestinian farmers only limited access to their lands, twice a year – and in a long and documented series of cases, when settlers reach the place the soldiers order the Palestinians to head back home. Often, they also refrain from protecting the Palestinians, or from fulfilling their legal duty to detain the rioters.

The second principle says that the IDF has to allow Palestinian farmers as much access as possible to their lands. The HCJ wrote that “Second, clear and unambiguous instructions must be given to the forces operating on the ground as to how to behave so as not to deny residents who are entitled to it access to their land, unless there is a legal basis to do so.” In practice, however, the IDF prevents Palestinians from entering a significant part of their lands. Naturally ,such limitations are not placed on the settlers – and the founder of Adei Ad, Boaz Melt, was convicted of trespassing after an olive orchard was pillaged.

The third principle is simple: “Third, forces must be deployed to protect the property of the Palestinian residents.” But the IDF, as an internal report of the comptroller of the Ministry of Defense shows, does not see the protection of Palestinian agricultural lands as part of its mission, so long as the Palestinians are not present on it. The comptroller recommended in 2006 that forces be allocated to protect the Palestinians “all year long, at day and at night, and not just during the harvest season.” This recommendation went unheeded.

The fourth principle of the HCJ might as well have been chiseled on an iceberg: “Fourth, the complaints raised by the Palestinian residents should be examined objectively and investigated as soon as possible. Investigations must be opened as soon as information is received of an act of harassment and patrols should be initiated by the military and security forces to discover such acts … Therefore, the enforcement, investigation and prosecution mechanisms must be perfected […] The respondents must act independently to locate the violators, hold them accountable and consider what measures can be taken so such blatant violations of the law will not be repeated.”

About things as they are, the justices had some choice words: “If the intended purpose is to protect the safety of the Palestinian farmers from violence that is directed at them, the appropriate measure ought to be directed at the threatening party, namely those who commit the assaults on the Palestinian farmers. The problem is that when setting out to protect the Palestinian farmers the military commander chose to act against them again, even though they are the victims of the assaults.” Later, they wrote even sharper words: “The policy that denies Palestinian residents access to land that they own, in order to achieve the purpose of protecting them from attacks against them, is like a policy of ordering a person not to enter his home to protect him against a robber waiting for him there to attack him.”

The justices, one can see, are shocked, shocked at the fact the IDF and the security forces – the police is empowered to act in the West Bank by an act of the military commander – aren’t doing enough to protect the Palestinians. One wonders whether the justice system does not have any organizational memory: Much the same words were written in the Karp Report, which is more than 30 years old; in the 1994 Shamgar Report; and of course, in the Sasson Report, dedicated wholly to the outpost issue. For more than 30 years, the justice system bemoans the lack of a rule of law in the West Bank; perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the fact that such a being never existed.

The main problem, again, is the IDF. It allows itself to disregard the third and critical principle of the HCJ: Allocating forces to protect the property of the Palestinians. The reasons for this are uncomplicated. As the Disengagement showed, the ability of the IDF to face down determined settlers is rather low, and it needs large forces to carry out such missions. Enforcing the decision of the HCJ would force the IDF to recruit large numbers of reservists, as its normal order of battle is insufficient to the task.

Which might have been a positive move: Perhaps then Israelis would become aware of the rising price of the occupation. But the IDF refrained from calling the reserves, with the Palestinians paying the price as usual. Another point is also easy to understand: The Israeli soldiers trained for decades seeing the Palestinians as enemies, and soldiers serving in the occupied territories grew accustomed to seeing the settlers as civilians in need of protection. Turning this paradigm upside down, forcing the soldiers to treat the Palestinians not as enemies but as protected civilians and the settlers not as pioneers but as pogromchiks, would be too much of a cognitive dissonance for the troops.

The result, as in any occupation in history, is that the military is incapable of carrying out both its occupation mission and treating the occupied as defensible population. You can’t see a person both as an enemy and as someone under your protection for any length of time. This is one of the reasons an occupation is supposed to be short. The occupation of Nazi Germany, a dangerous country if ever there was one, ended – in its western part – in 1955, that is some 10 years after the occupation; and a significantly independent government was formed as early as 1949. The occupation of imperial Japan, also a belligerent nation prone to war crimes, ended even earlier, in 1952.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank has been going on for almost 46 years now. It is not a normal state of affairs, nor can it be. If the IDF does not want to continue and serve as a tool of dispossession of the innocent, the occupation must end.