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In Photos: The Anatomy of an Israeli Settler Price Tag Attack in the West Bank

In the West Bank village of Burin, Palestinian farmer Bilal Eid has suffered repeated "price tag" attacks by extremist settlers. Daniel Easterman visited his home — and recorded one such incident in photographs and video.

by Daniel Easterman
Dec 24 2014, 6:05pm

Photo by Daniel Easterman

On a warm autumn evening, Bilal Eid toured his property on a hilltop just outside of Burin, a small village of about 3000 people in the occupied West Bank. He has owned the modest building for almost two decades, but over the last few years it has been under siege.

Photos and videos by Daniel Easterman

Just under a mile from Nablus, Bilal's land is surrounded by three Israeli settlements - Bracha, Yitzar and Givat Ronen - all of them illegal under international law.

Since 2006 the Israelis that live there have carried scores of so-called "price-tag" attacks - acts of violence or vandalism against Palestinians.

The attacks on Burin's citizens have taken many forms. Masked settlers have been filmed beating Palestinian olive pickers and burning their trees. Animals have been stolen from local farmers, cars have been burnt and Molotov cocktails have been tossed through the windows of family houses.

Similar incidents have been taking place across the West Bank with almost total impunity over the past few years. According to reports from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, violent actions by settlers took place at least once a day in 2013.

The Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din says that in 96.6 percent of attacks on Palestinian olive, fig and almond trees - the primary source of their income - the cases were closed due to the failures of the police to properly investigate. 

On Sunday, Israel saw its first ever conviction for a price-tag attack, of two residents of the Havat Gilad settlement, for setting fire to Palestinian vehicles.

In Burin, one of the worst affected villages in the West Bank, only one police complaint has ever led to an indictment in just under ten years.

For Bilal, the trouble starts by simply making routine visits to his house. Almost every time he makes the short trip from the tiny apartment he is forced to rent in the village to his land opposite Givat Ronen, he is attacked, he told VICE News. In 2010 he was hospitalized with a fractured spine and skull after being ambushed by a settler wielding an iron bar. On another occasion his brother was shot by another settler carrying an assault rifle.

As we drove to the top of the hill, a panoramic view of the West Bank village unfolded before us. Only a few days prior to our October visit, Bilal had finally finished repairs on the hill-top building that had lay abandoned for thirteen years after settlers almost destroyed it in 2002.

We strolled around the house, boarded up with metal bars to prevent intruders and vandalism. As things stand, Bilal can never bring his wife or 11-year-old daughter to take in the landscape of valleys and olive groves below. The threat from settlers is getting worse every year and the protection from Israeli security forces is non-existent.

"Nothing will change," he said, a resigned look across his face. "Many have come and said they will write articles about this place, but it does nothing to stop the settlers. They still keep coming."

In the background, the settlement of Givat Ronen could be seen: a few trailers and small out-houses so tiny it's rarely displayed on official maps.

Suddenly, driving down the hill back to the village, Bilal's precarious situation was laid bare. We spot movement on the hillside. 

Maggie Foyer, a university lecturer from the UK working with Bilal, peered out of the car in the direction of Givat Ronen towards settlers moving their way quickly down the slope.

We reached the bottom of the road, stopped the car and began creeping back up. The settlers, dressed in prayer shawls and white kippot had moved onto the road, shifting large boulders onto the path to stop us returning.

A magnified version of the image below shows a settler moving a large boulder and another carrying an assault rifle.

One of them was carrying what looks like an M16 assault rifle - a common feature of price tag-attacks by settlers who own firearms issued by the Israeli military. Bilal shouted loudly to try and scare them off, but it did not work.

Minutes later, three young, heavily armed soldiers appeared from the military outpost stationed by the settlement. 

At first their response was confused. One of them told us that the land is not Palestinian and that the settlers can move rocks onto the road whenever they want.

The soldiers began talking to Bilal and his friend Munir, another Palestinian from Burin who speaks Hebrew and explains to them that the land belongs to Bilal.

One of the officers called headquarters to check if what they're is saying is true. "Is he allowed to work here?" he asked repeatedly down the phone. After several minutes pass the answer comes back: "Yes, the land deeds are in Bilal's name".

The settlers still lingered in the area. An officer told them the land belongs to Bilal but they refused to accept it. "No, it's my house!" one of the bearded men pictured shouted back, as he sprinted towards Bilal's house, several soldiers running behind him.

What was happening was, in a way, the best scenario Bilal can hope for. Often he and his friends are stopped from reaching the area by Israeli Defense Force stun grenades, teargas and rubber-coated bullets, he said. In other cases, soldiers have been pictured standing in front of settlers from all three of the local Israeli outposts, protecting them as they hurl rocks at Palestinian civilians.

But even with his right to the land acknowledged, Bilal's presence was still unwelcome. The remaining soldiers, left to guard us, demanded that we leave. As we walked towards the car at the bottom of the road, Bilal glanced round to see what was happening to his barricaded house further up the hillside, but the scene had faded from view.

A week after the incident we returned to survey the damage. Once again, as soon as we reached the hilltop and looked through our binoculars towards Givat Ronen we saw armed settlers running towards us. This time the confrontation was stopped, as army vehicles stationed near the area held back the men. The house, it seemed, had survived with no extra damage but Bilal's chances of ever living there with his family look slimmer by the day.

Last Thursday, Bilal's house reportedly came under attack again, this time from settlers cutting his electricity supply. The incident sparked clashes between settlers and Palestinians in the area.

Towards the end of August, just after a ceasefire had been declared in Gaza, Israel announced its largest settlement grab in 30 years - declaring 1000 acres from the area around Bethlehem state land. As more and more settlements are built on Palestinian land, the chances of these price-tag attacks ending is slim.

Additional reporting by Philip Kleinfeld

Follow Daniel Easterman on Twitter: @daneasterman