"A small violent group of people is ready to burn everything down. They are tire burners and barn burners who do so because they lost control of the parliament. I have news – you are not democracy; you are violent people.”
That was a tweet on Tuesday by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party. Based on the events of the past week, one could easily be mistaken for assuming that Smotrich was taking a strong public stand against the settler rampages that took place over the last week in the West Bank.
There was the torching of homes and cars on Saturday in the Palestinian village of Umm Safah near Ramallah; a few days before that was the rampage through the village of Turmus Aiya, during which settlers fired guns on the streets and torched dozens of homes and vehicles; a Palestinian man was killed during that incident.
And, of course, there was the verbal assault against IDF Col. Eliav Elbaz, who was kicked out of a home on Monday night where he had paid a shiva call to honor one of the victims of the terrorist attack last week outside Eli. Elbaz, who risks his life daily to keep Israeli citizens safe, was called by these youth a “traitor” and a “murderer.”
Was Smotrich’s tweet about any of those incidents? No. While he did say that the youth who assaulted Elbaz needed to be “ashamed of themselves,” when it came to the settler violence, that – the finance minister made a point of saying – was not terrorism. He was tweeting about the protests against the judicial reform that were held on Tuesday outside the home of Justice Minister Yariv Levin. It was a message that Smotrich’s former running mate Itamar Ben-Gvir also made a point in repeating. During a late-night meeting with government officials, Ben-Gvir said that the vigilante attackers were “sweet kids.”
Politicians' words have great impact
To think that this does not impact the way people think and then behave would be naïve. There are government ministers right now in Jerusalem who do not have a problem with settlers or right-wing activists who take the law into their own hands. When Smotrich finally decided to speak out on the issue, it took him more than 48 hours and the beginning part of his statement was about how the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) are not doing enough and need to be more active in protecting Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria. After that, he paid some lip service to calling on people not to take the law into their own hands.
Some of these government officials are promoting the idea that the protests against judicial reform are the same as the violence in the West Bank. This is not only ludicrous but it is also dangerous.
LAST I checked, the protesters in Tel Aviv who might occasionally block the Ayalon Highway, have not thrown a Molotov cocktail into someone’s home or opened fire at Arabs driving nearby. The right-wing vigilantes in the West Bank acted in a way that is incomparable.
Nevertheless, this way of thinking has caught on even in what used to be mainstream religious-Zionist circles. Rabbi Yaakov Medan, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion and one of the more moderate religious-Zionist rabbis, said on Tuesday that while the violence was not the same, when people see protesters block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv and not get arrested, they think they too can take the law into their own hands in the West Bank.
And while Medan made a point of calling the settler violence a “desecration of God’s name,” he did praise the settler youth for their drive to settle the land of Israel and their religious fervor. That might be impressive to some people, but for most people these attackers are hooligans and terrorists who think that because they believe God is on their side, they can take up arms and do in the West Bank what they want.
The problem is not only in the government. For decades, the IDF and the police have turned a blind eye to the problem of Jewish violence in the West Bank. We all know what would have happened had a group of masked Palestinian men stood on a main road in the West Bank shooting in the middle of the day. Let’s just say they would probably not be with us anymore.
WHEN JEWS do that though, it is a surprise if someone is even arrested. So far, despite a number of severe and violent incidents, only a handful of people have been arrested.
Instead of blaming the blocking of the Ayalon as the reason that settlers think they can rampage through Palestinian towns, people should look closer to home. For decades, the residents of Judea and Samaria have been able to get away with land grabbing and building violations on a scale that is unknown within sovereign Israel where the rule of law is – for the most part – upheld.
It is true that there were periods of time when these land grabs were done with the approval of various governments – some even on the Left – but it has led to a situation when people do what they want without even bothering to ask if it is okay.
Take the illegal outpost of Evyatar as an example. Originally evacuated in July 2021, settlers returned to the outpost numerous times over the last two years and were repeatedly removed. That was until last week when they returned with the tacit approval of the government and under the protection of the IDF. Alongside the resettlement of Evyatar, other activists have established three more outposts throughout the West Bank just in the last week.
Part of the problem today is the way this government divided up control over the West Bank. While Yoav Gallant is formally the defense minister, Smotrich has set up a second “defense minister-like” office on the 15th floor in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv from where he oversees all the decisions that are made regarding housing permits, construction, and legalization of illegal outposts. While Gallant is still officially the sovereign authority over the territory, Smotrich is the one calling the shots.
The problem with this is that instead of dealing with the root of the problem, Israelis prefer to resort to a strong defensive narrative. Settler violence, people declare, is not the same as Palestinian terrorism and therefore should not be spoken about in the same terms. On the one hand, these people are right – settler violence is carried out by a tiny group of people who are condemned by almost all parts of Israeli society and government, while Palestinian terrorism is oftentimes directly supported by society and government.
On the other hand, why should we care? Israel has a problem within society that is not only morally abhorrent, but also undermines strategic objectives like possible normalization with Saudi Arabia which the US secretary of state explained on Wednesday is moving farther away when “there is a fire burning in their [Israel’s] backyard.”
Israel needs to take off the gloves and stop this wave of Jewish violence. It is intolerable.
The writer is the immediate past editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.