The Rise of Settler Terrorism: The West Bank’s Other Violent Extremists

Reference: Foreign Affairs

September-October 2012

By Daniel Byman and Natan Sachs

Late this past June, a group of Israeli settlers in the West Bank defaced and burned a mosque in the small West Bank village of Jabaa. Graffiti sprayed by the vandals warned of a “war” over the planned evacuation, ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court, of a handful of houses illegally built on private Palestinian land near the Israeli settlement of Beit El. The torching of the mosque was the fourth such attack in 18 months and part of a wider trend of routine violence committed by radical settlers against innocent Palestinians, Israeli security personnel, and mainstream settler leaders — all aimed at intimidating perceived enemies of the settlement project.

This violence has not always plagued the settler community. Although many paint all Israeli settlers as extremists, conflating them with the often-justified criticism of Israeli government policy in the West Bank, the vast majority of them oppose attacks against Palestinian civilians or the Israeli state. In the past, Israeli authorities and the settler leadership often worked together to prevent such assaults and keep radicalism at bay. Yet in recent years, the settler movement has experienced a profound breakdown in discipline, with extremists now beyond the reach of either Israeli law enforcement or the discipline of settler leaders.

Nothing justifies violence by extremists of any variety. But to be stopped, it must be understood. The rise in settler radicalism stems from several key factors: the growth of the settler population over the past generation, the diversification of religious and ideological strands among it, and the sense of betrayal felt by settlers following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Israel, through the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and other security agencies, must now assert control over groups that no longer respect the state or the traditional settler leadership. Yet just as radical settlers pose an increasing threat, mainstream Israeli society has become more apathetic than ever about the fate of the Palestinians. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians remain deadlocked, and even their meaningful resumption, let alone success, seems unlikely in the near future. The Israeli government thus feels little political or diplomatic pressure to confront the extremists.

But with the peace process frozen, what happens under Israeli control matters more, not less. With Israel likely to govern parts of the West Bank for some time, it can no longer shirk its obligations — to protect not only its own citizens but Palestinian civilians as well — by claiming that a two-state solution is on the horizon and that the Palestinians will soon assume full responsibility over themselves. And if Israel wants to preserve the possibility of a negotiated peace, it must address this problem before it is too late. Whenever extremist settlers destroy Palestinian property or deface a mosque, they strengthen Palestinian radicals at the expense of moderates, undermining support for an agreement and delaying a possible accord. Meanwhile, each time Israeli leaders cave in to the demands of radical settlers, it vindicates their tactics and encourages ever more brazen behavior, deepening the government’s paralysis. In other words, Israeli violence in the West Bank both undermines the ability of Israel to implement a potential deal with the Palestinians and raises questions about whether it can enforce its own laws at home. …

Radical Jewish activists have staged politically motivated attacks against Palestinians and pro-peace Israelis before. In the early 1980s, for example, one group, known as the Jewish Underground, carried out a series of bombings against Arab mayors and shot three Arab students in the West Bank. And in 1995, an Israeli law student, Yigal Amir, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, dealing a devastating blow to the peace process. Israeli authorities have investigated and prosecuted those involved in these operations, and they have disrupted other attacks before they could occur. Yet they have failed to stem less dramatic violence, such as arson and assault. According to UN investigations, in 2011, extremist settlers launched almost 300 attacks on Palestinian property, causing over 100 Palestinian casualties and destroying or damaging about 10,000 trees of Palestinian farmers. The UN has also reported that violent incidents against Palestinians have proliferated, rising from 200 attacks in 2009 to over 400 in 2011. The spike in assaults on Palestinians by settlers has come despite the fact that over the same period, Palestinian terrorism fell dramatically. …

The rise in violence among extremist settlers stems from deep changes in the settler population, particularly its dramatic growth and shifting ideological composition. Israeli civilians began moving into the West Bank and Gaza shortly after the 1967 war, when Israel conquered both territories. Some Jews sought to return to Jewish villages destroyed by Arab armies in the war of 1948, and a few hoped to reestablish a Jewish presence near holy sites such as Hebron, which both Jewish and Muslim tradition hold is the burial place of the patriarch Abraham. The Israeli government also sought to create several small settlements for security reasons: to establish “facts on the ground” that might allow Israel to keep several strategic points in the West Bank as part of a peace accord and might even, some argued, help Israel defend itself against an Arab invasion. In the early 1980s, the settler community was still a relatively small, coherent, and disciplined society of about 24,000. Some settlers were secular, but others subscribed to the ideology of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), a religious-political movement that sought to fulfill what it viewed as a divine obligation to settle the complete Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), the territory Jews regard as having been promised to them by God, which includes the West Bank. …

The Israeli government does not support or condone settler violence, but it has failed to adequately combat it. Soldiers have been known to look on as violence occurs, and they sometimes do not aggressively seek the perpetrators after the fact. According to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, of 781 incidents of settler abuse monitored since 2005, Israeli authorities closed the cases on over 90 percent of them without indictment. And the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that the IDF is currently probing 15 cases, all of which took place between September 2000 and December 2011, of Israeli soldiers witnessing clashes between settlers and Palestinians and failing to intervene. …

Although Gush Emunim strongly opposed any government policy that curtailed the settlement project, it respected the primacy of the state. For example, in the early 1980s, when the Israeli government evacuated all settlements in the Sinai as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Gush Emunim protested but did not call on its members to take up arms (although several of its members went on to form the Jewish Underground anyway). For religious-nationalist settlers, the state remained an instrument of providence, carrying out God’s mission by upholding Jewish sovereignty and protecting Jewish religious life in the Land of Israel. Adherents of Gush Emunim believed that salvation itself would emerge from the state and thus did not challenge its political authority. The IDF and settler leaders maintained close contact and coordination, with the military relying on the settler leadership to police its own while it focused on preventing Palestinian terrorism.

Since then, the settler movement has changed dramatically. In the past three decades, the number of settlers in the West Bank has grown more than tenfold, to some 300,000. Today, most live in large communities that function as suburbs of Jerusalem or greater Tel Aviv. The inhabitants of these settlements represent all walks of Israeli society, including secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not share the nationalist zeal of Gush Emunim. Many of these Israelis moved to the West Bank primarily for economic, rather than political, reasons: the settlements are subsidized by the government, so living in them is much more affordable than living in cities inside the Green Line. Most policymakers in Israel and the United States do not consider these particular settlements to be insurmountable obstacles to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In the past, Palestinian leaders have suggested that they might accept land swaps that would allow Israel to keep some of these settlement blocs in exchange for other territory, and many of these settlers would likely consider accepting compensation if they were told to leave their homes in the context of a peace agreement. …


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