Why Can’t Violent Settlers Be Held Accountable?
Last month, Israel’s Public Security Minister, Omer Barlev, created a firestorm when he said that he planned to increase the number of police in Judea and Samaria, and instruct them on how to respond to attacks by Jews on Palestinians. What should have been a statement of the obvious, provoked such a stream of vitriol from the right-wing, you’d think Barlev had called for the sacrifice of the first born.
For example, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked tweeted: “You are confused. The settlers are the salt of the earth. The violence that is shocking is the dozens of cases of stone-throwing and beatings of the Jews that happen daily, and all this with the encouragement and support of the Palestinian Authority.”
Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich called Barlev “a bastard,” and said, “Hundreds of thousands of heroic settlers suffer terrorism daily and pay dearly in blood and you despicably spill their blood and take part in a false and antisemitic campaign that slanders them,”
Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana said settlers were “not violent, but pioneers.”
The Likud Party accused Barlev of defaming Israel, and implied that any reference to “settler violence” ignores Palestinian terror.
Barlev doesn’t need to be lectured. He knows as well as his critics that Palestinian terror is the principal cause of violence in the territories.
Constant vigilance is required to protect Jews not only there, but inside the Green Line, where terrorists from the West Bank seek out Jewish victims in response to the incitement from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Many Jews settled in the territories because they believe it to be part of Biblical Israel. Most, however, do not have a strong ideological commitment to living there, and took advantage of various financial incentives to buy homes in nice communities, close to their jobs, at a fraction of the price they would pay in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
The hundreds of thousands of Jews living in these legal settlements are not the people Barlev is worried about. Many of them have good relations with their Arab neighbors, and employ some 30,000 Palestinians in their communities.
The problem of Jewish behavior in Judea and Samaria dates to the earliest efforts to reestablish communities in areas where Jews lived before being expelled by the Jordanians in the 1948 War of Independence. Whether or not you support these “pioneers,” there is no escaping the fact that some have engaged in illegal activity and gotten away with it for decades. Setting aside the often-complicated issue of who owns a particular plot of land (some settlements are allegedly built on Palestinian land), the Israeli government and the courts have repeatedly said certain settlements (“outposts”) are illegal.
This is not some leftist plot.
Israeli prime ministers have acknowledged that some outposts have been created without government approval. Ariel Sharon, for example, said: “I have committed to the President of the United States that Israel will dismantle unauthorized outposts. It is my intention to implement this commitment. The State of Israel is governed by law, and the issue of the outposts is no exception.”
He subsequently appointed Talia Sasson to study the issue, and the resulting report said the violation of the law had become institutionalized, and sent a harmful message that “settling in unauthorized outposts, although illegal, is a Zionist deed … and [it] has a very bad influence — both on the I.D.F. and on the Israeli police.”
Sharon was talking about only 24 outposts when he made his promise to President George W. Bush. He admitted later that one of his regrets was not fulfilling his pledge.
According to The New York Times, the number of illegal outposts has mushroomed to 140. Just a few months ago, settlers created the Evyatar outpost without government approval. The government forced them to leave, but agreed to keep the structures intact and turn it into a military outpost.
Prime Minister Bennett wants to authorize the outpost; Barlev said he would oppose the decision.
Besides failing to enforce the laws regarding illegal outposts, the Israeli government has devoted little attention to settler violence.
When an IDF officer gave me a tour of the West Bank, I asked him about this. His answer reflected the view of Barlev’s critics, explaining that the problem of Palestinian terrorism took precedence. This is understandable, given the greater threat posed to Israeli security by Palestinian violence; nevertheless, the police and army can walk and chew gum at the same time, and have no excuse to ignore Jews engaged in criminal activity in the territories any more than they would inside the Green Line.
Out of nearly 500,000 settlers, the number of troublemakers is tiny and unrepresentative, but they manage to have outsized influence in blackening Israel’s image.
How many times does the major media report (not always accurately) on settler attacks on Palestinians, on incidents of Jews interfering with the harvesting of olives or burning down Palestinian olive trees? Left-wing groups supporting the Palestinians sometimes provoke incidents to catch Israelis on video and disseminate it on social media. The perception that the law is applied differently to Jews and Palestinians only fuels the specious comparisons to South Africa.
Several settlers told me that the violence is instigated by outside agitators, not people who live in Judea and Samaria; but that seems to rarely be the case. For years, radical settlers have engaged in acts of revenge against Palestinians referred to as “price tag attacks.” These are often in response to government measures against the settlers, and terror attacks on Jews.
Extremists attack the Israeli army as well as Palestinians, which makes it even more difficult to justify their behavior. In December, for example, the army reported that about 200 settlers were stopped trying to reach the outpost of Homesh. Prime Minister Sharon ordered the eviction of the inhabitants as part of the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and the settlers wanted to rebuild it in response to the murder of Yehuda Dimentman, who was killed in a Palestinian ambush.
According to Haaretz, “The army stated that settlers were physically and verbally violent, attacked soldiers, vandalized military property and broke through the checkpoints.” The report did not mention any arrests.
The settlers claimed the army was lying.
The situation is growing worse, which no doubt prompted Barlev’s comment.
According to the Times of Israel, violent attacks perpetrated by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank increased by nearly 50% in 2021, to a total of 397. Haaretz reported 135 incidents of settlers throwing stones at Palestinians. The same day as the confrontation at Homesh, Haaretz reported that police arrested three Israelis suspected of setting a Palestinian car on fire.
I understand the reluctance to focus on settlers when the main source of insecurity in the West Bank is terrorism emanating from the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, it is contrary to Jewish law and morality to suggest, as Barlev’s critics implicitly do, that Jews who commit acts that are illegal under Israeli law should not be pursued — let alone punished — if their crimes are perpetrated against Palestinians. It is mind-boggling that even suggesting that settlers be held accountable is considered taboo by some Jews.
We rightly boast about the independence of the Israeli judiciary, and the equal rights accorded by Israeli law to all its citizens. Barlev is right to ensure those laws apply equally to Jews living in Judea and Samaria.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and author/editor of 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East.”