Exactly two weeks ago Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev came under a strong attack from the Right, due to the fact that when US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, who was on a visit to the Middle East, told him that the State Department is monitoring settler violence, he replied that Israel views such violence seriously, adding that he was acting with the Defense Ministry to put an end to the phenomenon.
Bar Lev was apparently referring to the introduction of several additional army regiments into Judea and Samaria to deal with Jewish attacks on Palestinians.
We do not know exactly what he said to Nuland, since the only Israeli report of the event is a tweet by Bar Lev himself, so we do not know whether he made it absolutely clear that the violence is caused by a limited group of several hundred (some say more) relatively young settlers, many of them marginal, and living in “illegal” settlements – not “illegal” under international law, which considers all Jewish settlement in territories occupied by Israel during the Six Day War as illegal, but “illegal” in the sense that they were not approved by the Israeli authorities.
In fact, as long as we are not speaking of the mere occupation of another nation as constituting an act of violence according to international law, there is no doubt that the majority of Jewish settlers – whether their motivation for choosing to live in Judea and Samaria is ideological or economic – are law-abiding and nonviolent, and are not involved in activities such as random attacks against Palestinians, random destruction of Palestinian-owned property, as well as attacks on Israeli security forces involved in law enforcement activities that are anathema to the more extreme settlers.
In fact, speaking privately, most of my friends and acquaintances who live in Judea and Samaria admit that the violent settlers, but in particular the “hilltop youth,” cause damage to the settlement cause, though few are willing to speak publicly about it or take any concrete measures against them. Some of the settlement leaders actually refer to those settlers who are critical of settler violence against Palestinians and against the security forces as traitors of sorts.
The truth is that we do not know the exact dimensions of the phenomenon. We do not know exactly how many persons are involved, though presumably the various security forces have at least partial data. Even the exact, or even approximate number of violent events is unknown, because the Palestinians are not inclined to complain to the appropriate Israeli authorities, since their experience is that most of their complaints are not dealt with seriously, if at all.
However, the general impression of those who try to keep track of these events is that their number and frequency is growing.
In all likelihood the number of attacks by Palestinians on Jews is much larger than similar attacks by Jews on Palestinians, and certainly deadlier, but that is really not the point. Already during the May riots in mixed Israeli cities, right-wingers complained that blaming both Arabs and Jews for the violence distorts the reality, since there is no symmetry. Back in May they were inclined to belittle the Jewish violence in the mixed cities in Israel, and in the current exchange of accusations are inclined to belittle the Jewish violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.
I believe that we are responsible for our own conduct, and – whether we consider ourselves as “the chosen people,” believe we should serve as “a light unto the nations,” or merely consider ourselves to be part of the more liberal world that takes human rights and the rule of law more seriously – our yardstick for judging ourselves should not be the conduct of our neighbors, but our own laws and proclaimed values.
Besides, this is our state, and we have law enforcement institutions which protect us and act on our behalf, while the Arab citizens of our state are not treated as equals, and the Palestinians in those areas of the West Bank that are subject to the attacks of Jewish hoodlums on them do not have a state of their own, nor law enforcement institutions that are able to protect them. So at least in this sense the situation is not symmetrical.
But to return to Bar Lev. Another accusation hurled at him by the Right has been that he erred in raising the issue of settler violence with the under secretary of state.
In fact, it was not Bar Lev who raised the issue but Nuland, and it is well known that both the Americans and the Europeans try to monitor what is going on in what we refer to as Judea and Samaria, and they refer to as the occupied territories. That does not mean that they are Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions supporters, or enemies of Israel, and Israeli representatives, ministers included, cannot brush them off when they raise their concerns about what goes on in these territories – no matter how one refers to them.
OF COURSE, if Bar Lev’s predecessor Amir Ohana, from the Likud, were still public security minister, his reply to Nuland would undoubtedly have been different, and he would have told her that the phenomenon of settler violence is negligible and under control (even though it was not in the past, and is not today).
But the Likud is not in power; there is a new government; Bar Lev, from the Labor Party, is public security minister, and he believes that the problem of the Jewish hoodlums should be dealt with more effectively than it was dealt with in the past. He did not say that the problem is Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria in general, and apparently said nothing about what he considers to be the desirable solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
If the government were a purely Center/Left government, he might have expressed his view. But it is a Right/Center/Left/Arab government, and the desirable solution to the conflict is not mentioned in the coalition agreement, nor are strategies and tactics to try to attain such a solution.
Besides, Bar Lev was asked about settler violence, irrespective of its dimensions – not about the solution to the conflict.
AS ONE might have expected, the worst attacks on Bar Lev came from Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, who wrote the following in a tweet which he addressed to Bar Lev:
“Listen, forgive my bluntness, but you are simply contemptible. Hundreds of thousands of brave settlers suffer from daily terror, for which they pay a high price with their blood, and now you are spilling their blood [figuratively speaking – S.H.R.] in a nasty manner, and participating in a false and antisemitic campaign that besmirches them, in order to appear to be enlightened, and find favor with a bunch of hypocrites. Shame on you, little man.”
It is unbelievable how many lies and false accusations Smotrich managed to pack into a single tweet. Bar Lev did not react to these despicable words. However, in his usual blasé manner he did suggest that if anyone among his critics in Israel has difficulty acknowledging the reality of settler violence, they should drink a glass of water.
The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to be published in English by Routledge.