JERUSALEM // Israel was fortifying its West Bank settlements and arming their Jewish residents in anticipation of clashes after Palestinian leaders ask for statehood recognition at the United Nations next month.
Israel's military expected "mass disorder" that may involve Palestinian marches on settlement roads, education centres and other "symbols" of Israeli control over the West Bank, an Israeli newspaper reported yesterday.
It was preparing for "more extreme cases like shooting from within the demonstrations or even terrorist incidents" by providing weapons training and dispatching tear gas and stun grenades to settlers, according to Haaretz, quoting excerpts from an internal military document.
The "main message the army is issuing is that the demonstrations will be controlled and that the army has sufficient forces in order to deal with every disturbance", the report said.
Palestinians have denied that they harboured violent intentions, however, and along with rights groups said offering additional weapons to already heavily armed settlers only emboldened them to act like militias.
"Further arming settlers would only encourage them to continue and expand their ongoing violence and terrorism against the Palestinians," said Ghassan Khatib, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority, which has documented a rise in settler attacks in recent months.
The Palestinians were widely expected to receive an endorsement from the UN General Assembly in September. Expecting Palestinian demonstrations, Israel's security establishment has gone on a spending spree in recent months, stockpiling everything from extra tear-gas launchers to importing riot-control horses from Belgium.
The Haaretz report noted the military's efforts for September, code named Operation Summer Seeds, included helping to demarcate settlements into two firing zones. Palestinians breaching the outer zone would be subject to riot-dispersal weapons, such as tear gas, while those approaching the inner one - the "red line" - would draw "open fire at the legs of demonstrators".
It was not clear if these zones had been clearly marked. Soldiers were also equipping chief security officers at an undisclosed number of settlements with riot-dispersal weaponry, as well as offering them training sessions on how to head off demonstrators, the report said.
Saying that it was "devoting great efforts to training local forces and preparing them to deal with any possible scenario" in the West Bank, the military released a statement and did not deny that it had been increasing arms deliveries to settlers. It said the military "maintains an ongoing, professional dialogue with the community leadership and security personnel throughout" the West Bank that included "training first-response teams".
However, Michael Sfard, a legal adviser for Yesh Din, an Israeli organisation that monitors settler abuses in the West Bank, criticised weapons provisions for settlers as "worrisome" and raised concerns about "the establishment of armed militias in the West Bank".
"This could contribute to the fulfilment of the horror scenarios that Israel is setting the stage for as September approaches," he said.
Dror Etkes, an Israeli expert on settlements, said the arming of settler civilians had posed problems for Israel's military since settlement growth began after the 1967 war.
Particularly problematic were the settlement security chiefs, who were armed by the military despite their civilian status.
"This is why the military has a hard time controlling these guys. They are a weak link in the military echelon in the West Bank: they are not soldiers and they are ideologically committed to the growth of settlements."
As a result: "This has been a source of endless violence around settlements."