Civil Fights: A disgrace for everyone concerned

The real problem in Hebron was not the thugs, but the governmental and societal (non)response.

settlers throw stones 248 ap (photo credit: AP)
settlers throw stones 248 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak lauded the police and army last week for their "efficiency" and "decisiveness" in evicting Jewish residents from a Hebron home. And, as usual, they were dead wrong. What happened in Hebron last week was a disgrace for everyone concerned - the police, the army, the government and the broader settler community. Topping the list, of course, are the Jewish thugs who rampaged through Hebron for days to protest the eviction, attacking soldiers, policemen and Palestinians and vandalizing property. But thugs exist in every society, which is why law enforcement agencies also exist. Thus far more disturbing than the thuggery itself was the response, or lack thereof - because that is what determines whether society controls its thugs or is controlled by them. The police and army The former's primary task is keeping the peace; the latter, as the territories' legal sovereign, shares this task. Yet both neglected their duties shamefully last week, allowing bands of teenage thugs to rampage unchecked for days. If any efforts were made to prevent the rioting, they were so half-hearted as to be risible. The army, for instance, did not declare the area a closed military zone, which would have enabled it to keep the thugs out, until days after the disturbances began, nor did police make any serious effort to arrest perpetrators afterward. The claim that the security forces lacked sufficient manpower is absurd: They could easily have brought in reinforcements from elsewhere. Some 20,000 soldiers and policemen were sent to Gaza for the disengagement; an extra few hundred could surely have been sent to keep the peace in Hebron. Indeed, reinforcements were brought in for the eviction itself (which involved some 600 soldiers and policemen), indicating that the police and army viewed evacuating the house as a higher priority than containing the thugs. That is a severely warped order of priorities for organizations whose primary mission is supposed to be protecting the public. Compounding the offense was the excessive force used during the eviction: The Jerusalem Post reported, for instance, that though resistance was largely nonviolent, police threw many demonstrators out the door head first, risking serious injury. Thus the same police that refused to use force against violent thugs had no qualms about using force against nonviolent demonstrators - once again evincing a badly warped order of priorities. The government Governments exist to set priorities. And had ours ordered the security forces to allocate the manpower and resources necessary to contain the thugs, they would presumably have done so. Instead, Olmert and Barak demonstrated the same warped priorities as the police and army: They did order the security forces to devote whatever resources were necessary to evacuate the house. But despite numerous public statements about how thuggery cannot be tolerated, neither the prime minister nor the defense minister ever issued comparable orders regarding keeping the peace. This is negligence so gross, and so inexplicable, that many settlers believe it was deliberate: that the government let the rioters rampage unchecked to turn public opinion against all settlers. But one need not believe in malice aforethought to find what happened frightening; incompetence on this scale is frightening enough. The broader settler community Most settlers are decent, law-abiding people who would never condone such thuggery. And to blame them for not preventing the violence is ridiculous: They, unlike the security forces, have no power to forcibly restrain others. Nevertheless, too many settlers have been far too willing to "understand" the thugs' rage, insisting that however unjustified their behavior, the government is at fault for provoking them with an unjustified eviction. Orit Struck, a leader of Hebron's Jewish community, for instance, told the Post that the violence was the direct result of Barak's decision to evacuate the house. Change a few words, and that sounds remarkably like Western apologias for Palestinian terrorists: Of course murder is wrong, but you have to "understand" their rage; you have to "understand" the intolerable provocation of settlement construction. No morally sane person could view building a house, however illegal, as an acceptable explanation for murder. But for exactly the same reason, neither is being evicted from a house - and while there were mercifully no deaths in Hebron last week, we came perilously close. One settler opened fire, wounding three Palestinians; this incident could easily have ended in death instead. So could the numerous attacks not involving live fire: Rocks are also lethal weapons. That is why Israel jails Palestinian stone-throwers. And even if the shooting was, as the settler claims, in self-defense, it makes no difference: With the security forces doing nothing to stop the Jewish thugs, a violent Palestinian response was inevitable; that no deaths resulted was sheer luck. IN SEPTEMBER, I argued in this space that correcting Israel's democracy deficit was essential to prevent additional teens from joining the thugs. That remains true. But there is another side to the equation, which seemed so obvious that I spared it only one sentence: that thuggery "is something no society can tolerate, and better law enforcement is clearly part of the necessary response." Those who have already crossed the line must face the full force of the law - along with unequivocal societal condemnation. Many settlers view the violence as a side issue that should not be allowed to distract attention from the "main" issue: Jews being kicked out of their homes. Tactically speaking, this attitude is self-defeating. Dismissing the thuggery as unimportant instead of wholeheartedly condemning it plays right into efforts to tar all settlers with the same brush. This alienates even some of their staunchest supporters, which is a poor way to win a war. But the argument is also wrong substantively - because while thuggery properly confronted and condemned would indeed be a side issue, thuggery unchallenged by either the law enforcement agencies or the society from which it springs is anything but. When not properly confronted, thuggery can quickly come to dominate society. And a society controlled by thugs is not worth living in. If you doubt it, just take a look at the Palestinian Authority.