Israeli settler violence is not legitimate discourse - opinion

It is done out of hate, fear and intolerance. They are willing to destroy their country if their demands are not met. Democracy is an impediment, not a goal.

 SETTLERS HURL stones at Palestinians during the annual harvest season, near the settlement of Yitzhar in 2020.  (photo credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)
SETTLERS HURL stones at Palestinians during the annual harvest season, near the settlement of Yitzhar in 2020.
(photo credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)

The settlers who attack Palestinian villages across the West Bank destroying crops, burning homes and beating at random, even using bear spray, are not engaging in legitimate political discourse. Like the violent mob that assaulted the US Capitol last year and tried to overthrow an election, they recognize no authority but their own. They spread hate, violence and death, and say it is done out of love of country.

Of course it isn’t. It is done out of hate, fear and intolerance. They are willing to destroy their country if their demands are not met. Democracy is an impediment, not a goal. Some of the most extreme make no secret they prefer theocracy over democracy – so long as it is their god.

Both sides clashing on the West Bank, Jews and Palestinians, claim the land as theirs alone and want the other gone. For some, it is by any means necessary. “Whataboutism” is no excuse for either side. Just because the other guy does it is not a justification.

Palestinian violence remains an ongoing problem, although the Palestinian and Israeli security forces working together have been responsible for a noticeable reduction in incidents. It comes at a time when Israeli settler violence is on the uptick. The JTA reports a nearly 50% increase in settler attacks on West Bank Palestinians in 2021 over the preceding year.

Fringe gangs of young settlers carry out raids, often in the dead of night, throwing stones, smashing windows, setting fires, destroying crops, olive trees and vines, and stealing harvests.

 A car is seen aflame after Jewish settler extremists attacked near the village of Burin in the West Bank. (credit: YESH DIN) A car is seen aflame after Jewish settler extremists attacked near the village of Burin in the West Bank. (credit: YESH DIN)

Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s FBI, said it should be called Jewish terrorism. Omer Bar Lev, the public security minister, said as much and has been denounced by far-right Knesset colleagues as a traitor, murderer and terrorist.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Religious Services Minister Matan Kanaha “openly defend Jewish terror,” Ayalon said. Refusing to call it what it is threatens the future of the state of Israel, he added, noting that Jewish terror led to Rabin’s assassination, the firebombing of the Dawabsheh family home and other murders.

Ayalon said, “When Palestinians attack Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank, it’s terror but when Jews attack innocent Palestinians, it’s politically motivated crime, a price-tag action or hilltop youth violence.”

Additionally, the growing problem of settler violence poses a threat to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s efforts to repair the damage to relations with President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party and American Jewry done by his predecessor.

US policy long opposed Israeli settlement policies, with erratic efforts to translate that opposition into action, until 2019 when the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, declared the US no longer considered Israeli settlement of the West Bank a violation of international law.

The prior administration largely ignored settler terrorism, as it took its cues from Netanyahu, his Likud party, and an American ambassador and presidential adviser/son-in-law with close ties of their own to the radical settler movement.

Biden is a longstanding opponent of the settlement policies and as president, his administration has taken a new interest in settler violence. The State Department’s annual terrorism report last year gave extensive attention to anti-Palestinian settler violence. Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, denounced it as abhorrent.

Seven prominent American Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Conservative and Reform movements, denounced the ongoing terrorism and political violence by Jewish Israeli extremists in the West Bank against Palestinians, Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers, the JTA reported. 

The organizations called on the Israeli government to condemn the violence and confront the growing threats from extremists. They didn’t use the word settler, but it is clear that is who they were referring to. They warned the violence and failure to act decisively were damaging Israel’s image and relations with the US government, the American people, and American Jewry, as well as Israel’s status as a democracy.

In the West Bank, the Israeli police and army have been criticized for inconsistent responses. Their reaction is quicker and more professional when the victims are Jews, critics say, but when they are Palestinians, police often fail to take eyewitness evidence, they accept the suspect’s alibis without verifying them, fail to follow through, and investigations, if any, are careless, Sfard said. Prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges against the settlers even when police file complaints or make arrests, he added.

From the street on up the chain of command, there’s a desire to avoid conflict with the politically potent settler movement and its violent, often well-armed and volatile gangs.

It’s called protekzia and it starts at the top. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a former leader of the settlement movement, head of the religious-nationalist Yamina party and opponent of Palestinian statehood. Pro-settler parties have been linchpins in his and many government coalitions. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was their obedient servant.

Settler leaders halfheartedly criticize the violent gangs and underplay their actions as the work of a few fringe young hotheads.

The vigilante bands, often known as Hilltop Boys, are usually masked and armed with clubs and firearms. They’re equal-opportunity criminals. They attack not only Palestinians but Israelis who come to show solidarity, and often police and soldiers who try to protect their victims.

It is always open season on Israeli Jews who show support in demonstrations and work on Palestinian farms planting and harvesting. Terrorism is the right word since the violent settlers’ goal is to drive out the Palestinians by any means possible and take over the land, erecting illegal outposts by bringing in caravans and establishing facts on the ground in the expectation that the Israeli government will let them remain and eventually grant them legitimacy.

Bennett faces a difficult choice that should be very easy: Terrorism or tolerance.

The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).