Prominent Jewish Israeli activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman nearly crashed his car in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday after two of the vehicle’s wheels had been unbolted, suspectedly by Israeli settlers. The incident comes at the height of an escalation of settler attacks on Palestinians and solidarity activists in the occupied territories in recent weeks.
The incident occurred several hours after Ascherman — the director of the human rights group Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice, who has spent much of the last two decades accompanying West Bank Palestinians weekly to help defend them against settler attacks — and another Israeli activist arrived in the Palestinian village of Taybeh, near Ramallah, at around noon that day. The activists came at the behest of Palestinian farmers who had alerted them that settlers had arrived to their agricultural land.
Upon his arrival, Ascherman saw two young settlers walking around, one of whom was on horseback. When Ascherman left the area, two of his car’s wheels came loose, causing him to lose control. No one was injured.
“It was a miracle that it didn’t end in a more serious accident,” Ascherman told +972. “Imagine what would have happened if the tires had been completely unbolted and I had been driving at a faster speed. It would have ended in disaster.”
Although it remains unclear who sabotaged his vehicle, some settlers are celebrating the incident. “The traitor Arik Ascherman tried to create a provocation and found that someone played with the car’s wheels,” wrote one user in “The Struggle,” a Telegram group used by far-right settler activists and so-called “hilltop youth,” known for their violent attacks on Palestinians and the activists who come to assist them.
With the exception of the pro-settler news site Arutz Sheva, which described the incident as an “attempted murder,” not a single media outlet reported on the incident.
Settler attacks have been intensifying in the West Bank following the death of Ahuvia Sandak, a 16-year-old settler who was killed in a car crash last month while fleeing from police. Sandak and four other youths fled by car and were pursued by police after allegedly throwing rocks at Palestinian vehicles. Police claim the youth’s vehicle lost control and flipped over, while settlers say the police deliberately rammed into their car.
Sandak’s death has led to regular demonstrations in recent weeks by the far right in Jerusalem and the West Bank, which have included stone throwing at civilians, attacking buses, and vandalism.
Since Sandak’s death, the NGO Yesh Din has documented 37 cases of violence and damage to Palestinian property in the West Bank, including throwing stones at vehicles and riots inside Palestinian villages. In some cases, Israeli soldiers have stood by and did nothing to prevent the violence.
Israel’s defense establishment has expressed concern about the growing violence, which has also been directed at its security forces. Just a month ago, a settler opened fire on a group of Palestinian and Israeli demonstrators not far from where Ascherman’s accident.
This is also not the first time Ascherman has been subjected to settler violence. In 2015, a masked settler attacked and tried to stab him during an olive harvest near the settlement of Itamar in the northern West Bank.
‘All-time high cooperation between settlers and authorities’
In recent years, residents of an unauthorized settlement outpost near Taybeh have been releasing their cows and sheep to graze on agricultural land that is tended to by local Bedouin communities. The settlers’ animals regularly eat the crops, which the Bedouin depend on for income.
Israeli solidarity activists have been coming to the area to support the residents facing harassment and violence. “It is a long struggle,” said Ascherman. “This land is recognized by the state as private Palestinian land. The farmers rent the land from the residents of Taybeh, but the settlers are trying in every way to take it over.”
Ascherman recounted the events leading up to his crash: “The army and police arrived and one of the settlers kept the cows away, but the officer refused to take his details as we requested. After the officer left, the cows returned.
“Then we made the mistake and got too far away from the vehicle to deal with the cows. We arrived at around 1:30 p.m and got back to the vehicle at 3:30 p.m. When we started driving I began to hear noises; I thought I had run over something. I stopped several times to see what was happening and found nothing, so I continued.”
As they drove, two of the vehicle’s wheels came unbolted. “Luckily it happened when I made a U-turn. Two tires just fell off. I realized someone had released the bolts,” Ascherman said.
Ascherman said he did not see who sabotaged the car, but it is clear to him who was behind it. “I have no doubt it was the settlers. It was just me, one other activist, and the settlers. Even the Palestinians were not in the area because they were afraid [of potential violence]. We were far away, they unbolted the wheels on the driver’s side, most likely so we would not notice.”
The outpost closest to the agricultural area is “Neria’s Farm,” located just south of the Rimonim settlement, and not far from the new outpost that is being established to commemorate Sandak.
All settlements on the territories occupied since 1967 are deemed illegal under international law.
After the crash, many settlers from Rimonim stopped to offer Ascherman help, with only a handful stopping to curse him, including a boy who spat at him. Later, as Ascherman and the activist waited for the car to be repaired, two settlers on horseback — one of whom was at the scene the night before — began to circle them, promising to return to the same area. Ascherman says he plans on filing a complaint with the police.
“The settlers bring cows, goats, and sheep who eat what the Bedouin plant. This causes damage worth tens of thousands of shekels,” said Ascherman. “A year ago we managed to lessen the damage so that only 30 percent of the crop was eaten, but this year we’re seeing an all-time high in cooperation between the settlers and the authorities, which refuse to take care of the families who have lost all their crops.”
According to Ascherman, this year the settlers have begun grazing in the fields earlier than usual, leading to the destruction of most of the crops. “A few weeks ago, we helped families sow and plow. We hoped there would be a grace period of a few months, but [the settlers] released the cows, who ate the seeds and then the crops. At best, the army comes but does not do much.”
The following day, on Wednesday afternoon, settlers on horseback returned to the area with their cows — as did Ascherman and a number of Israeli activists. One 10-year-old settler reportedly beat and wounded one of the activists with a stick. When police arrived at the scene, they detained the wounded activist after the boy falsely accused him of attacking him. The police then arrested Ascherman after he refused to leave the area. The two were taken into custody and released on Wednesday night.
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.