‘We must protect settlers,’ Bennett says amid Bar Lev ‘violence’ row

The public security minister Omer Bar Lev spoke with US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland on several topics regarding the Palestinians.

 Israeli settlers clash with Palestinians after throwing stones at houses on the edge of the Palestinian village of Burin, November 6, 2021 (photo credit: YESH DIN)
Israeli settlers clash with Palestinians after throwing stones at houses on the edge of the Palestinian village of Burin, November 6, 2021
(photo credit: YESH DIN)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett came out in defense of the overall settler community on Tuesday, after Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev tweeted about discussing “settler violence” with a US official.

“Settlers in Judea and Samaria have suffered daily from violence and terrorism for decades,” Bennett tweeted, remaining silent about Bar Lev. “They serve as a protective wall for all of us and we must protect them in word and a deed.”

Bennett spoke amid a public row over comments Bar Lev made when he tweeted a photo of his meeting with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland.

The minister wrote that Nuland was “interested, among other things, in settler violence and a way to reduce regional tensions and strengthen the Palestinian Authority.”

 Ambassador Victoria Nuland, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, points her finger while joking with a photographer before testifying as a witness during a hearing to examine U.S.-Russia policy at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., US, December 7, 2021. (credit: SARAHBETH MANEY/POOL VIA REUTERS) Ambassador Victoria Nuland, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, points her finger while joking with a photographer before testifying as a witness during a hearing to examine U.S.-Russia policy at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., US, December 7, 2021. (credit: SARAHBETH MANEY/POOL VIA REUTERS)

But Bar Lev made no mention in his tweet of any conversation about Palestinian attacks on Israelis, including the one in which South African tour guide Eliyahu Kay, 26, was killed in Jerusalem last month.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej indirectly accused Bennett of supporting settler violence.

“Not all settlers are violent,” Frej said. “But there is a great deal of violence that originates in the settlements. Anyone who ignores this problem and does not deal with it, encourages it.”

The left-wing group Combatants for Peace was more blunt, saying Bennett’s remarks “give full backing to criminal settler violence, which has reached a record high” since he has been in office.

The prime minister’s words “gives a green light to the Wild West in the territories and a shot of energy to the hilltop youth,” which the NGO said was the “military arm of the settlement enterprise.”

Bennett said that while every group has a fringe element and all efforts must go into dealing with them, “we must not generalize” against an entire group of people.

Left-wing NGOs that report on incidents of settler violence say that many attacks take place while the IDF and security forces are already at the scene. This includes during a high-profile incident in September in which a four-year-old Palestinian boy was hospitalized for a head injury after settlers stoned his home.

Right-wing politicians, however, took exception to Bar Lev’s words, and skipped over or denied any issue relating to setter violence, despite repeated reports of such attacks.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) told Bar Lev on Twitter, “You’re confused. The settlers are the salt of the earth. What should shock us are the daily incidents in which stones and Molotov cocktails are thrown at Jews – just because they are Jews – with the assistance of the PA. I suggest that you talk about this violence with Madame Nuland.”

Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich attacked Shaked’s comments as disingenuous, and said she was to blame for Bar Lev’s position as public security minister.

“With your own hands you have turned this bastard from the sleepy fringes of the Left into a senior minister,” Smotrich said, adding that Shaked shouldn’t try to clear her conscience by tweeting. “You are to blame for the talk and especially for his dangerous deeds.”

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (Yamina) said it was sad to see a politician like Bar Lev with such a strong security background who “accepts such a false and distorted narrative.”

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel tweeted that Israel’s “central mission of the past decade is to restore governance in the Arab sector and neutralize autonomy... In Judea and Samaria, [it is] a fight against Palestinian terrorism. This is a priority in both domestic and foreign policy.”

The US is not alone in its concern over rising settler violence, as top politicians and diplomats in the global community are increasingly speaking out about the matter.

The UN General Assembly approved by a 146-7 vote last week a resolution that condemned “acts of terror by several extremist Israeli settlers.”

Bar Lev visited the South Hebron Hills on Tuesday and was briefed on Palestinian violence against settlers, but held his ground and did not retract his remarks.

“I understand that it is really difficult for some of you to put a mirror to your face,” Bar Lev said. The issue of “extremist settler violence” had caught global attention, that “foreign governments are interested” in the matter, and those who find this difficult should drink a glass of water.

“I will continue to fight Palestinian terrorism as if there is no extremist settler violence – and extremist settler violence as if there is no Palestinian terrorism,” said Bar Lev.

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.