SUSIA, West Bank (Reuters) - In the stony hills south of Hebron, Palestinian shepherds complain of frequent attacks by militant Israeli settlers encroaching on their land.
Israeli troops and police rarely intervene even when they are on the spot, Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups say. So now the victims are pulling out small video cameras to document abuses and spur the authorities to act.
Settler violence is growing, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which recorded 222 incidents in the first half of 2008, versus 291 in all of 2007. It said 23 of this year’s cases led to Palestinian casualties.
Shepherds who graze their sheep on the arid slopes of Susia in the occupied West Bank say they have endured harassment since an Israeli settlement, whose trees and red-roofed houses nestle by a well-watered vineyard, was established there in 1982.
The Palestinians grow some wheat, barley, olives and grapes, but have lost water sources and pasture to the settlement. They have to buy fodder for the sheep, and water by tanker truck to supplement what their women draw by hand from stone wells.
There is no mains electricity. To watch television, they hook the set to car batteries charged by a small windmill.
“The settlers try to frighten people and make them leave,” said Nasr Nawajah, 25, sitting in a tent with other farmers. “The Israeli authorities deny it, but with the cameras, we can prove what happens and force them to do their jobs.”
Nawajah acts as a camera coordinator with Israel’s B‘Tselem human rights group, which launched a project called “Shooting Back” last year to promote law enforcement and accountability.
“The idea is to give Palestinians the technology and know-how to document the reality of their lives, thereby exposing human rights violations and the reaction, or non-reaction, of the Israeli authorities,” said B‘Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli.
B‘Tselem has released several chilling clips of abuses that gained international media attention and shocked many Israelis.
On July 7, a Palestinian girl filmed from her house as a soldier, believing he was obeying an order from his battalion commander, fired a rubber-coated bullet at the feet of a bound, blindfolded Palestinian detainee standing next to them.
Ashraf Abu-Rahma, 27, who was wearing a thick boot, suffered only a minor injury to his toe, but the shooting at Ni‘lin did not come to light until B‘Tselem issued the footage on July 20.
The Israeli military has since charged Lieutenant Colonel Omri Borberg and the soldier with “inappropriate conduct.”
“The defense minister called it a very serious and unusual incident,” Michaeli acknowledged. “But B‘Tselem’s point is that this is not unusual. Mistreatment of detainees is very common.”
Citing another case caught on film, she said police laid charges against three settlers who abducted a Palestinian and tied him to a pole in a Hebron hills settlement on July 5.
On June 8, three Palestinians -- a 58-year-old woman and her husband and nephew -- were tending sheep near Susia when two settlers on a tractor told them to leave. When they refused, four masked men returned and beat them with baseball bats.
Footage of the start of the attack -- on a B‘Tselem tape confiscated at the scene and later copied by police for the rights group -- prompted the arrest of three suspects at Susia.
“It’s unlikely they will be able to get a prosecution and conviction on the basis of this footage, but it was clear that public pressure spurred the police to act,” Michaeli said.
That assault shows that filming is no guarantee against attack. Nawajah, the farmer who has a B‘Tselem camera, said he had once videoed settlers beating farmers as troops stood by.
“When I went back to my car, three soldiers came and took my camera, took the tape and threw the camera on the ground,” he said, adding that one had hit him on the ear, saying: “If we catch you filming again, we will make a ‘party’ in your house.”
Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for B‘Tselem, said Israelis had destroyed one camera in the Hebron hills and three in the city of Hebron in recent weeks. “Still, it’s our most effective weapon, a way of peaceful resistance,” he said.
The Hebron area houses some of the West Bank’s most militant Jewish settlers, who often try to expand the areas they control.
“Before the intifada, we were allowed to use about 80 percent of our land,” said Nawajah, referring to a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. “Now it is less than 30 percent.”
Israel occupied the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East war. International powers regard Israeli settlement, and in some cases annexation, of West Bank land as illegal.
Mohammed Nawajah, 62, a grey-robed farmer wearing a white headdress, said Israel refused to grant building permits to local people, even those with Ottoman-era land ownership titles.
“We are not allowed to build here -- even this tent is not allowed,” he said, recounting a history of disputes and court decisions involving a tiny community clinging to its land.
Editing by Sara Ledwith