Israel needs to combat settler violence - opinion

Like other aspects of life in this country, there is a type of lawlessness in the West Bank that needs to be confronted with a comprehensive policy.

 MASKED ISRAELIS clash with a Palestinian olive farmer from the village of Hawara near the settlement of Yitzhar in October 2020. (photo credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images)
MASKED ISRAELIS clash with a Palestinian olive farmer from the village of Hawara near the settlement of Yitzhar in October 2020.
(photo credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Friday at three o’clock, Oded Revivi was one of the only politicians in Israel willing to recognize the truth.

Hours earlier, dozens of masked residents of the illegal outpost of Givat Ronen descended a mountain armed with bats and stones and attacked a group of left-wing Israelis and Palestinians who were planting trees in a nearby olive grove.

In one video, a masked man can be seen pouring a jerrycan of gasoline over a nearby car and then lighting it on fire.

In the hours afterward, not a word could be heard from Israel’s politicians. Yes, it was Friday, a day off in Israel, and there were other matters ministers needed to focus on, like Omicron, and speculation that Benjamin Netanyahu might sign a plea deal. But the silence was pretty loud.

Revivi, mayor of Efrat in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, was the first settler leader and member of the Yesha Council to condemn the violence.

ODED REVIVI: In the Trump deal, there are things that are hard to swallow. There are things that are against what we wanted. But let us give it at least a chance. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)ODED REVIVI: In the Trump deal, there are things that are hard to swallow. There are things that are against what we wanted. But let us give it at least a chance. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

“These acts harm the settlement enterprise,” he said. “We fight daily to stop the delegitimization campaign against the residents of Judea and Samaria, and to show that we have the ability to get along with our neighbors. And then unfortunately there are those who decide to resort to violence.”

Revivi knows what it means to get along with his neighbors. As mayor of Efrat, he has cultivated a close relationship with leaders of the nearby Palestinian villages. After snow fell there on Wednesday night, the Jewish residents and their Palestinian neighbors were out together plowing the roads.

I caught up with Revivi on Wednesday – his full interview with me and Lahav Harkov can be heard on our podcast – to understand what compelled him to speak up.

On the one level, he said, he understands the mayors who claim that there is no reason to talk about settler violence, just like the mayor of Tel Aviv does not need to weigh in after every rape or murder in his city, since that is not his responsibility but that of the police. And Revivi also hears the argument that responding to these incidents only ends up amplifying them even more.

Nevertheless, he decided to speak up “because it is important to differentiate and say that this is not a representation of the vast majority [of settlers -Y.K.], but about a very small, violent and minor group that needs to be dealt with.”

Revivi said the images seen last Friday, and then on Tuesday when settlers ransacked storefronts in the village of Huwara, tap into a feeling about the general lack of governance in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, in Bedouin villages in the Negev, and also in Judea and Samaria.

“We are asking those who are responsible to start taking responsibility and to deal with this,” said Revivi. “There is a general understanding that no one is dealing with it – not in the circles of security and law enforcement, [and not] in the educational system or social services.”

Revivi is right. Like other aspects of life in this country, there is a type of lawlessness in the West Bank that needs to be confronted with a comprehensive policy.

That there is even something called an “illegal outpost” in Israel is itself a stain on the rule of law. Can you imagine someone deciding to build an illegal outpost on a strip of beach near Herzliya or in a forest near Jerusalem? Will the police not come within days to remove them?

But what works inside Israel does not apply once you cross the Green Line. Illegal outposts can stand there for 15 years and the state does nothing about it. Givat Ronen, the outpost from which the masked settlers launched their attack last Friday, was established in 1998. Twenty-four years.

An example of the imbalance of the rule of law was felt on Wednesday night, when 22 Arabs were arrested in clashes with police in east Jerusalem. How many Jews were arrested since the event on Friday? Not a one.

What is even more disturbing is why some people find it hard to condemn what should be so easy. Why did Defense Minister Benny Gantz take more than two days to put out a statement? Why was Revivi the lone settler leader to speak publicly on Friday?

The first answer is that people hesitate to denounce the settler camp, which has significant political power. Moreover, condemning the violence would give Netanyahu and the Likud another chip to be used against the Bennett-Lapid government. Party members would claim that the prime minister and foreign minister were weak on Palestinian terrorism and tough on Jews. No matter that it wouldn’t be true. The narrative would spread quickly, and immediately become fact.

Second, there is the desire among some members of the coalition not to rock the boat. To say something would expose again the major ideological differences between the different parts of this alliance, which could lead to more tension and create more problems against efforts to ensure that the government survives.

What happened earlier this month was a good illustration of this tension. Meretz MK Yair Golan, a former deputy IDF chief of staff, called the Jews who have been trying to illegally resettle the evacuated settlement of Homesh “subhuman,” after the army said that some of them had vandalized nearby Palestinian property.

Politicians inside and outside the coalition lashed back, saying Golan’s words bordered on blood libel, and that the settlers were Israel’s “modern pioneers.”

Golan – who later apologized – was wrong in his choice of language. Calling Jews subhuman conjures up memories of how the Nazis used to speak about Jews. It was mistaken and he knows it.

On the substance, though, he was not wrong.

There are violent criminals in some of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Israel can’t bury its head in the sand and pretend that they will just go away on their own, and attacking the messenger does exactly that. There needs to be a plan in place to confront this problem and solve it.

What our political leaders need to remember is that this issue strikes at Israel’s core.

Whether someone supports settlements in Judea and Samaria or is apathetic to their existence, the damage this tiny but violent group is causing to the good name of hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the territories cannot be ignored. The Biden administration is talking about it, the Europeans are talking about it, and even regular Israelis can no longer turn away from what is happening weekly just over the Green Line.

It also undermines Israel’s moral fabric. The Palestinians are a minority in Israel, a fact even those opposed to a two-state solution recognize. As such, Israel has a moral responsibility to protect that minority. This applies to Israeli-Arabs within the state’s official borders, as well as to the Palestinians who reside near Jews in land that is controlled by the State of Israel.

While it is true that Jewish violence is nothing on the industrial scale compared with what we see from the Palestinian side, that does not absolve Israel from having an obligation to do something.

This needs to stop, and the government needs to come up with a comprehensive plan. But until it does, our political leaders need to be clear that these acts are not acceptable. There should be no hesitating with condemnations. The next time these masked men strike, the entire government needs to stand as one and condemn it. Their voices must be heard.