The quest for Palestinian statehood at the UN has worsened a climate of fear on the ground in the Occupied Territories
The settlers come down the hill from the outpost, mostly on foot, but occasionally on horseback or in tractors or 4x4s. They carry Israeli flags, and sometimes bring guns, shovels and dogs. There may be as few as three or as many as 40. They taunt the local villagers and sometimes attack them. Often the Israeli army arrives and trains its weapons on the villagers.
In Qusra, deep among the terraced hills of the West Bank, fear is on the rise. "The settlers are provoking us continuously," said Hani Abu Reidi, head of the village council. "They uproot olive trees, kill our sheep, burn our mosques and curse our prophet. They want to drag us into the sphere of violence. We do not want to go there."
As the Palestinian quest for statehood looks set to be mired in diplomatic back rooms for weeks or months, tension on the ground is mounting. Both Palestinian villagers and Jewish settlers say each other is responsible for a spike in attacks over the past fortnight; mostly small-scale incidents such as throwing stones, molotov cocktails and insults. Both sides claim the other is preparing to invade their communities and attack their people. It has created an edgy climate of fear and menace, and is a forewarning of potential battles to come if the struggle for the land moves up a gear with impending Palestinian statehood.
The request by the Palestinians to be admitted to the United Nations as a full member state, formally submitted on Friday, will now be considered by the security council for an undefined period, during which efforts to get both sides back to the negotiating table will intensify.
If no progress is made, the Palestinians will press for a vote at the security council, a move the US has pledged to veto. The Palestinians would then have the option of asking the 193-member general assembly for enhanced status, albeit short of full statehood. As this process inches forward, anger on the ground is rising.
On Friday, a routine stand-off between settlers from the outpost of Esh Kodesh and Qusra villagers ended in a haze of teargas and a hail of live bullets fired at the villagers by Israeli troops, two of which struck Issam Odeh, 33, killing the father-of-eight.
Qusra set up a defence committee earlier this month after one of the village's four mosques was vandalised in a settler attack condemned by the US and the European Union. Up to 20 unarmed men patrol the mosques from 8pm to 6am every night, and Abu Reidi claims they have already foiled at least one attack. Other Palestinian villages have followed suit. On the hilltops, preparations for clashes have also been under way for weeks. Security around settlements and outposts has been reinforced with extra barbed wire, CCTV cameras, security guards and trained attack dogs. And the settlers themselves are armed and primed in anticipation of what they believe will be incursions by Palestinians intent on making their hoped-for state a reality on the ground.
This week, photographs were published on a pro-settler news website, Arutz Sheva, showing women from Pnei Kedem, an outpost south of Bethlehem, learning to shoot. In Shimon Hatzadik, a hardline Jewish enclave in the midst of the the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in east Jerusalem, settlers are preparing to invoke a law allowing self-defence against intruders. "We are talking about shooting at their legs and if that doesn't work, and our lives are in danger, we won't be afraid to shoot straight at them. Most of the residents here are armed," spokesman Yehonatan Yosef told parliamentarians two weeks ago.
Activists in the settlement of Qiryat Arba, on the edge of Hebron, have distributed clubs, helmets and teargas to nearby outposts. "They've been given all of the tools we could provide for them in order to protect themselves," Bentzi Gopstein, a member of Qiryat Arba's council, told the Ynet news website. "But we must remember that the best defence is offence. We can't stay close to our fences. If the Arabs can come to us, they must learn we can come to them."
The settlers believe Israeli soldiers will be hampered by restraints imposed by commanders fearful of negative publicity. "They are not receiving the right orders," said radical activist Itamar Ben-Gvir from Qiryat Arba. "There's no state in the world that would allow the enemy to cross its lines and enter its communities. If the IDF will not act properly, we will have to defend ourselves."
Women and children would take part in defensive action, he said. "We want to present an equation: women against women; children against children. The Arabs are intending to use their children and we will not sit still."
Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Bethlehem, expects the focus in the coming weeks to "move from hypothetical issues in New York to practical terror here in Judaea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank]". Gush Etzion had a comparatively good relationship with its Palestinian neighbours, he said. "We are trying to talk to them to reduce friction and tension. But if the Palestinians march towards the settlements, there is a red line. If they try to cross, to penetrate our communities, it will be a big problem."
As well as fighting on the ground, many settlers believe they must also wage a political battle against the Israeli government. "Netanyahu is a weak leader, not standing for the values he was elected for," said Goldstein. "The [settlement] construction freeze was the first in history – and this from a rightwinger. So we have to push him, to press him, to keep him to hold the line."
The settlers are not just fighting to hold on to the land they already occupy; they intend to expand and grow – as they see it, reclaiming the land that has been willed to them by God.
"Our purpose is to build new towns and communities, new outposts in Judaea and Samaria," said veteran activist Daniella Weiss. "It's our role as Jews to build the land of the Jews."
In Qusra, Abu Reidi agreed the land is at the heart of confrontations between Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers.
"Their ultimate goal is to drive us from our land," he said. "Defending the land is a holy task. If we let them succeed, they will take more and more."