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Friday, January 17, 2014 - 3:15am

Palestinian Leaders Defied Villagers' Fury In Protecting Israelis

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, incidents between Jewish settlers and Palestinians happen almost every day. Olive trees and grapevines are destroyed, tires are slashed, mosques are defaced. It's not just property destruction. Violence has cost lives on both sides.

Figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, show that settlers are responsible for the vast majority of incidents, which have nearly quadrupled since 2006, when OCHA began keeping track.

All this keeps on-the-ground tensions at a constant simmer, sometimes boiling over. But last week, a potentially explosive confrontation took an unusual turn. The unexpected resolution also highlights disagreement within the Israeli community over settler actions.

More than a dozen Israelis, the youngest 14, were trapped in a half-built house by a crowd of angry Palestinians. They were later rescued by other Palestinians from the same community.

It happened in a valley between Esh Kodesh, a small community of Jewish families that was built without the approval of the Israeli government, and the Palestinian village of Qusra, in the central West Bank.

Palestinians say the settlers had come to the village to destroy property. There had already been one small confrontation in a village olive grove that day.

This time, Palestinians cornered the Israelis, an angry scene caught on video and later shown on TV. People had been hurt on both sides. Pinahasi Baron, a 23-year-old who lives in Esh Kodesh, was among the settlers. He was hit in the head with a rock.

"I thought they were going to kill me," he said, days after the incident. "I thought about my wife and children. And I thought about the hope that people will come and avenge our death."

Ziad Oday is a religious leader in Qusra and sits on the village council. He and other leaders rushed over when they heard what was going on. He said there was still some fighting when he arrived, but soon all the Israelis were under Palestinian control.

"We saw how the settlers' faces were bleeding, how they'd been beaten up by our young men," says Oday. "Our message to them was leave us alone; we don't want to kill you. We do want to show our strength."

Qusra village council head Abdel Wadi is the first person locals call when they are in confrontations with settlers. He arrived around the same time as Oday, and says he and other Palestinian authorities put themselves physically between the cornered settlers and the angry crowd. He says despite the fury of his fellow villagers, he did not want this to turn into a tragedy.

"We acted despite the fact that our citizens were extremely angry," says Wadi."They are always angry because they are sons and daughters of martyrs, because their houses have been burned by settlers before, because their trees have been uprooted."

The actions of the village leaders won grudging thanks from settler supporters. One conservative Israeli commentator wrote that although he hated to perform a "degrading dance" in front of Israelis who oppose settlements in the West Bank, he had to "do the decent thing" and acknowledge that many settler attacks on Palestinians are immoral and should be stopped.

Dani Dayan agrees. He leads the Yesha Council, a settler political group, and feels actions carried out by an extremist fringe is hurting the settler movement overall.

"Not only does it not help our cause, it's the single most dangerous, most detrimental issue," Dayan says. "The people that commit these things are both criminals and idiots."

But Gadi Zohar, a former Israeli military commander in the West Bank, says the Yesha Council and extremist young settlers share a political goal: stopping negotiations that could lead to a possible Palestinian state.

"They do not want this process to succeed," Zohar says, referring to the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that restarted with U.S. prodding last July. "They do not want to be evacuated."

Zohar doesn't think the Yesha Council offers direct support to settlers who carry out violence. But he says the group's leadership could do a lot more to try to stop such incidents.

The trapped Israeli settlers were eventually turned over to Israeli troops. The settlers say they were only out for a hike that day, but Israeli police later detained half a dozen, putting them under house arrest for five days for entering Palestinian areas and attempting to destroy property.

Pinahasi Baron was among those arrested. He says the settlers lost this round, but vowed not to let anything like that happen again.

"Maybe we'll walk with weapons to make sure they won't dare attack us again," Pinahasi says. "We've made some decisions I can't tell you about. But these scenes will not be seen again."

People in Qusra say they get along fine with some settler neighbors, who live just yards away, and come into the Palestinian village to shop. Several young men in Qusra said their leaders did the right thing by saving the settlers. One said he would have obeyed the village council members, if he had been part of the incident. But his feeling, he said, would have been to break the settlers' necks.

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