Security and Defense: Combating lawlessness

IDF feels that to tackle ‘price-tag’ phenomenon, the gov't needs to toughen legislation, increase policing, send a clear message.

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December 16, 2011 00:05
'Price tag' attack on mosque

'Price tag' attack on mosque 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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In November, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrachi met with commander of the Israel Police’s Judea and Samaria District Amos Ya’acov to coordinate the planned evacuations of a number of illegal outposts in the West Bank.

Two important decisions were made at the meeting. The first was that border policemen would carry out the actual evacuation and IDF troops would set up positions along the outer perimeter to prevent right-wing reinforcements from trying to reach the outposts and to protect against potential Palestinian terrorist attacks.

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The second decision was also significant: while policemen had come armed to previous evacuations, this time Mizrachi and Ya’acov decided, they would come without weapons, not even batons.

“We told the forces that they would have to manage without weapons since we wanted to send a message that we did not want violence and preferred to retain national unity,” one senior officer who had been involved in the discussions said Thursday.

That was in November. On Monday, following the settler attacks against IDF soldiers at the Efraim Regional Brigade base near Kedumim, everything changed. For example, on Wednesday night, when border policemen and IDF troops entered the illegal outpost of Mitzpe Yitzhar to evacuate it, they were carrying bats, pepper spray and tear gas.

National unity, is important, a senior IDF officer explained on Thursday, but so is protecting our security forces.

So-called “price tag” attacks, in which settlers commit acts of violence in order to make Palestinians or Israeli security forces pay a “price,” are not a new phenomenon and have been around for some years now but were widely ignored. This strengthened the group, which is now believed to number around 500 core activists who within hours can grow to several thousand with right-wing reinforcements from within Israel.

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On Monday night, the series of incidents – which included the crossing of the Israeli-Jordanian border fence by a group of far-right activists, the stoning of Palestinian cars and the attack against the Efraim Brigade base – was set off by a mass text message sent out by settlers urging their supporters to immediately come to Ramat Gilad to prevent the outpost’s evacuation.

The text message claimed that Defense Minister Ehud Barak had dismissed Likud Minister Benny Begin’s efforts to broker a deal between the government and the residents of Ramat Gilad and that the evacuation was imminent, set to take place in the coming hours. It didn’t matter to activists that the IDF was not planning to evacuate the outpost and that Mizrachi had yet to receive an order to do so.

Three buses departed the center of the country and Jerusalem packed with activists on their way to Ramat Gilad. The Central Command received a warning about the buses but did not make much of it since it wasn't planning to evacuate the outpost.

Even when the 50 or so activists descended on the Efraim Regional Brigade base at the entrance to Kedumim, the IDF soldiers and officers stationed saw Jews, heard Hebrew and did not expect the evening to develop into anything more than a demonstration. Suddenly, though, the IDF found itself under attack.

What was interesting about the buses was that they were not the bulletproof ones usually used by Israelis traveling in the West Bank, which belong to the local settlement councils.

This was understood within the IDF to mean that settlement councils do not want to be directly connected to the activists and as a result, the organizers have to rely on Israeli bus companies. The police are now looking into the bus companies to try and get to the people who are supporting the hilltop youth and their violent activities.

Mizrachi is extremely frustrated with the lawlessness in the West Bank and the lack of deterrence in preventing settler attacks. While there was criticism this week of the IDF’s failure to apprehend any of the attackers, Mizrachi told subordinates that soldiers are not policemen and that if the government wants to stop the growing settler violence in the territories there is a clear way to do so.

The first step, according to Mizrachi, would be to beef up the police’s Judea and Samaria District with more manpower and resources as well as the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division.

The next step would be for the legal system in Israel – particularly the courts – to understand that “Muhammad is a pig” spray painted on a mosque is not the same as graffiti spray painted in downtown Tel Aviv. Currently, both fall under the category of defacing public property.

Because the legal system does not distinguish between the two types of crimes, “it would not have made a difference if we had arrested the attackers since they would have been back out on the street the next day,” a senior officer from the Central Command said.

Mizrachi has tried to do what he can to change the legal situation. Last year he went together with Hagai Dotan, Ya’acov’s predecessor at the Judea and Samaria Police District, to meet with the president of the Jerusalem District Court.

The purpose of the meeting was not to influence a court decision – there were no relevant cases on the docket at the time and anyway that would have been unethical – but to explain the difficulties the police and the IDF encounter in collecting evidence that can stick in court when trying settlers and far-right activists.

Since that meeting, though, nothing has really changed – even though the price tag attacks have not only continued but escalated.

In the past three months alone, attacks included the infiltration and subsequent vandalism of the Binyamin Regional Brigade base, the firebombing of a mosque in the Israeli-Beduin village of Tuba-Zanghariya and the burning of a mosque last week near the Ariel settlement.

This is not strictly the court’s, fault since the directive needs to come from above; from the government and particularly from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The problem is that for both Netanyahu and Barak, the price tag attacks – as bad as they are – are somewhat politically convenient.

Neither one wants to confront the settlers, particularly as elections loom on the horizon and as they both prefer to stay focused on the real challenges and threats that Israel is facing.

The outposts have been a thorn in Israel’s side since the early 2000s, but then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert were able to get the Americans off their backs when it came to evacuating them, since both were negotiating a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians.

Today, there is complete disconnect between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and, as a result, Netanyahu, the so-called leader of the Right, cannot argue with the Americans that he will evacuate the outposts together with the rest of the West Bank, since there aren’t even negotiations going on.

The IDF is also not pinning its hopes on Netanyahu’s recent announcement that he is ordering a system-wide crackdown on settler violence. His announcement on Wednesday night, for example, that pricetag perpetrators could be tried in military courts was not even known to senior officers in the Central Command on Thursday.

And although Netanyahu announced that soldiers would be given the authority to arrest suspects, they have always had this authority in cases when the Central Command declares an area a closed-military zone. Either way, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.

Benny Gantz does not plan on ordering his troops to begin arresting settlers. This would take away from their focus on preventing Palestinian terrorist attacks.

The problem is that the government’s failure to stop the attacks is essentially what is empowering the extremists who are behind them. Instead of sending a message that their action will not be tolerated, the feeling within the IDF is that the government is sending them a different message. That needs to change.

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