Palestinians, Israelis Form Neighborhood Watches

The Palestinian push for statehood recognition has sparked fears of new violence in the West Bank. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis appear content with the security provided by their own governments, and "Neighborhood Security Watch" groups have been formed by both groups. While settlers are trained by the Israeli Defense Forces, Palestinians are forming teams to monitor, document and detain settlers they believe will seek out attacks. Sheera Frenkel reports.

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dominated the spotlight at this year's United Nations General Assembly as Palestinians make a push for full U.N. membership. Tomorrow, the U.N. Security Council will hold a special session to study the Palestinian bid. A decision isn't expected for weeks, even months. The Palestinian push for statehood recognition has raised tensions in the occupied West Bank. Neither Palestinians nor Israeli settlers appear content with the security provided by their own governments and neighborhood watch groups have been formed by both sides. Settler groups are aided by the Israeli army; Palestinians are forming teams to monitor and protect their communities. Sheera Frenkel spent time with both groups.

SHEERA FRENKEL: The alert about a settler attack came in a telephone call.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (foreign language spoken) They want to go over (unintelligible). I have one more number and (unintelligible)...

FRENKEL: This call came just as a group of Palestinian activists was heading out for lunch. They had spent the morning waiting in a nearby village for exactly this type of alert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

FRENKEL: It was the first day on the job for the newly formed Palestinian Neighborhood Watch Group, a ragtag collection of local and international activists who have come together to protect Palestinian targets from attacks by Jewish settlers.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE AND MEN SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

FRENKEL: On this day, a small group of young men from the settlement of Yitzhar attacked the home of one family in the adjacent Palestinian village of al-Sira. The neighborhood watch group reached the village just as settlers were fleeing and as Israeli soldiers arrived on the scene. Wasem Hawaja says he came to Al Sira to document settlers' actions with his camera.

WASEM HAWAJA: 'Cause I want to help. 'Cause you all see the settlers were doing here around the West Bank. This is the job of the group. It's to document those have been here.

FRENKEL: As he speaks, Israeli soldiers fire off rounds of tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the group of Palestinian men that has gathered on the edge of the village. Hawaja points out that there are no Palestinian police in sight. The only assistance that people are receiving is from a handful of ambulance workers.

HAWAJA: The government can't support the people in the village with camera and ambulance. They can't protect them. So we just got to protect the people.

FRENKEL: Hawaja says that the Palestinian security apparatus doesn't have the jurisdiction to intervene when it comes to Israel settlers. The best the Palestinian neighborhood watch can do, he says, is gather evidence and appeal to international bodies. Down the road the Jewish settlement of Itamar is holding a demonstration. Nestled between the sprawling Palestinian city of Nablus and Palestinian villages, Itamar has been a frequent target of attacks by armed Palestinian extremists. In March of this year, five members of the Fogel family were stabbed to death in their homes as they slept.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

FRENKEL: This week, a march to reclaim the neighborhood started from the Fogel family house and wound its way down the road. Rachel Melchi came with her husband and two children.

RACHEL MELCHI: (Through Translator) The march is to show Palestinians that we are against their statehood bid. People like that, people who are murders, killers, shouldn't have a state.

FRENKEL: Her husband, David, stands next to her with a rifle slung over his shoulder. He is part of a group of settlers who are tasked with guarding the settlement in coordination with the Israeli military. The group is put together by Israeli settler leaders but receives training and weapons from the army. Settler spokesman Itamar Ben Gvir says the group is a necessary line of defense against Palestinian attacks.

ITAMAR BEN GVIR: (Through Translator) The Arabs tried to take every chance to attack us so we are forced to defend ourselves.

FRENKEL: He says that a shoot-to-kill order has been given in many of the settlements if they see Palestinians approaching the area.

BEN GVIR: (Through Translator) The best defense is a good offense. By patrolling their neighborhoods, keeping an eye out and forming our own neighborhood communities, we keep control of the areas that are rightfully ours.

FRENKEL: This weekend, both the Israeli and Palestinian watch groups was on high alert. It's a likely time for violence, they say, and they must be prepared. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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