Imagine what would have happened if young Palestinian men had pepper-sprayed soldiers in the West Bank and thrown stones at Israeli vehicles.
The attack would have been described as a terror incident, and, in all likelihood, the assailants would have been “neutralized,” a polite word that often means shot dead.
Most assuredly, everyone at the scene would have been arrested.
One need only recall Otzma Yehudit Party leader MK Itamar Ben-Gvir brandishing his gun during a riot in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and urging police to shoot the Palestinian stone-throwers.
In the black of night, in the predawn hours of Thursday, a group of young male “settlers” pepper-sprayed soldiers in the West Bank town of Huwara and were able to flee the scene. None of the Jewish rioters was arrested at the scene and no one was shot. Police have since taken three suspects into custody.
In its reporting on the incident, which generated public condemnation due to the attack on soldiers, Channel 13 noted the discrepancy between IDF treatment of Palestinians and Israelis in such a scene. It emphasized the ease with which the Jewish assailants had been able to get close to the soldiers.
A series of violent events
It was not an isolated incident of settler violence.
According to the Israeli left-wing group Yesh Din, there have been 37 acts of West Bank violence by settlers and right-wing extremists from September 27 until October 19, not including the Thursday Huwara incident. Out of those, six were in Huwara and within the last 10 days.
The town, situated near Nablus, in the West Bank’s Samaria region, is often a flashpoint for violence. Route 60, one of the region’s main arteries for both Israeli and Palestinian vehicles, runs through it.
Among the more highly publicized Huwara incidents was on October 13 when settlers and right-wing extremists stoned Palestinians, vehicles and homes, even though IDF soldiers were on the way. In one highly publicized photo on social media, one of the vigilantes had what looked like an ax in his hand.
Then there was the settler attack outside Bethlehem against a 70-year-old Israeli woman who went to help Palestinians harvest their olives on Wednesday.
It was only when soldiers were targeted on Thursday, however, that Israeli politicians issued condemnations, from Prime Minister Yair Lapid to the Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich, who said simply that “one doesn’t raise a hand against IDF soldiers, period.”
There is an easy explanation for this, of course. There is a kind of moral clarity of right and wrong that comes from a situation in which Israelis attack their own soldiers in a Palestinian town. There are few explanations that would justify such a step, particularly in a hostile situation in which the lives of the Israelis could have been in danger and the soldiers would have been their defenders.
It was a case of Israelis attacking Israelis, in which the soldiers are a sacred symbol of security.
Even then, the word terrorist was not applied by the country’s leaders. The worst Lapid could utter was that they were “dangerous criminals.” Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was even careful to note that it was important not to smear the settler community because of a few isolated individuals.
It is correct that most settlers, indeed most Israelis, are not walking around trying to attack Palestinians. The silence of that majority and those of top leaders around such actions, however, gives the appearance of tactic support to those actions.
Where is the public condemnation to the violence?
Some of the public hesitation to condemn comes from fear of not fully understanding the situation. They worry that the reporting is simply wrong or that there must have been an incident prior to that violence, which would turn the incident into an act of self-defense if only one knew the true facts.
There is in some ways - despite the reports and videos - a refusal to believe that Jews, including those wearing skullcaps, are capable of acts.
Then there are those who subtly suggest that it is justified vigilante violence that is an understandable response to the wave of violent Palestinian shooting and stoning attacks that in some cases have claimed Israeli lives. It almost seems perverse to them to speak of violence against Palestinians when their own lives are in danger.
It is almost as if they are justifying the violence. Others are simply immune because those attacked are Palestinians, a population that they consider globally to be their enemy, and one would kill them if the opportunity arose. In short, they lack empathy.
The realm of response makes a simple situation very complicated. It’s true that Palestinians are attacking Israelis in what in many cases could be seen as terror attacks.
But it is also true that Israelis, whether they are called extremists, Jews or settlers, are attacking Palestinians. In some cases, those acts rise to the level of what would be considered a terror attack.
There is never a situation in which it is acceptable to attack innocent people, no matter what their nationalistic status or ethnic identity. Such acts should always be roundly condemned, labeled for what they are, and prevented from ever occurring.
The ability of a society and a nation to prevent harm to innocent people is one of the barometers of its moral health.
Israeli Jews like to speak of how they are once again a sovereign nation in their ancestral homeland. Being a sovereign carries with it the responsibility to protect minorities and other groups.
As a sovereign country, Israel has a sovereign army to protect it so there is no need for vigilante action. The only acceptable time to draw a gun or throw a stone is in absolute self-defense.