Israel’s Jewish-Terrorist Problem BY RUTH MARGALIT
For decades, radical Jewish settlers have been carrying out terrorist attacks on Palestinians although very little has appeared in mainline newspapers in the West. Here below is an article by Ruth Margalit on this subject, which first appeared in the New Yorker. Early on Friday morning, two masked men entered Duma, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, where they smashed the windows of two houses, threw firebombs inside, and fled. One house was empty; the other wasn’t. Ali Dawabsheh, an eighteen-month-old baby, died. His parents and four-year-old brother remain in critical condition. On the house, the attackers spray-painted, in Hebrew, the words “Long Live the Messiah King” and “Revenge.”
Israeli politicians condemned the fire as an act of terror. “Terrorism is terrorism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday, as he vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. “It is difficult to see that there are those within my people capable of such acts,” President Reuven Rivlin said. He added, “The shame is great, though the pain is greater.” Netanyahu and others said that they were “shocked” by the attack. They shouldn’t have been.
For nearly a decade, a radical minority among Jewish settlers has carried out “price-tag attacks” in response to Palestinian violence or any action by the police or military that these settlers deem unjust. The attacks have included the destruction of property—setting fire to cars, livestock, and homes—and the desecration of mosques and churches. Some attacks, such as the vandalism of a military base in 2011, have been aimed directly at authorities, but more often they target Palestinians. “These quote-unquote hilltop youths tried to form an equation that told us—‘You evacuate a settlement, we will hurt the Palestinians,’” Avi Mizrahi, the former head of Central Command, told Israel’s Channel 10, in a report on the phenomenon in 2013.
Friday’s attack came during the same week that an Israeli court ordered the demolition of two illegal apartment buildings in the West Bank settlement of Beit El. It has also been described as retaliation for the drive-by shooting of four Israelis in the West Bank last month, which left one dead. The price-tag attacks at once stoke Palestinian violence and feed off it; they are cyclical and create a chilling sense of déjà vu. The murder of Ali Dawabsheh took place a year after another Palestinian, a sixteen-year-old named Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was burned alive. That killing, too, was an act of revenge, for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teen-agers last summer, which led to a full-blown war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The first price-tag attacks took place in 2006, in response to Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and evacuations of Jewish outposts in the West Bank, which riled and radicalized the settler camp. The attacks grew rampant in 2008. The Yesha Council, the main body that represents settlers, denounced the attacks as immoral in 2011. But the Yesha Council’s authority has weakened dramatically in recent years, as violent far-right settlers, backed by extremist rabbis, have taken the law into their own hands. The group behind these attacks is estimated to range from a few hundred to some three thousand members. As it has become more radical, so have its attacks, which have evolved from property destruction to torching Palestinian homes at times when residents are likely to be in them. Last year, for the first time, the U.S. State Department included price-tag attacks in its annual terrorism report. It recorded nearly four hundred cases in 2013. In 2014, the number dipped slightly, to three hundred and thirty.
New evidence shows that these attacks aren’t caused by a few “wild weeds,” as they are called in Hebrew, but are supported by settler councils, which have grown more extremist and are paid for, in large part, by taxpayer money. A report by the liberal think tank Molad revealed settler-council correspondence that describes price-tag tactics as a legitimate means of protest against the government. “What does this have to do with targeting Arabs?” the head of a Samaria settler council asked rhetorically in one document. He answered, “We believe that the borders of the struggle are wide,” and called on settlers to act “creatively.” Itzik Shadmi, another settler leader, justified the targeting of Israeli soldiers in a letter to settlement residents. “We must treat our opponent as a criminal—full stop. As a robber who wishes to uproot you from your home and hand it over to murderers and liars,” Shadmi wrote.
While Netanyahu’s denunciation of Friday’s attack was swift, it seemed to exist in a vacuum. Two days earlier, as settlers rioted in response to the demolition of the illegal buildings in Beit El, Netanyahu approved the construction of three hundred new housing units in the buildings’ stead. That same day, Naftali Bennet, Israel’s education minister and the leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Home Party, showed up in Beit El; he called the rioting settlers “my brothers” and described the military’s removal of these apartment blocks as a “hasty, extremist, and inciting act.” There is now real, worrisome potential for conflagration. Hamas declared Friday a “day of rage” and stated that “every Israeli is now a legitimate target.” On Saturday, Palestinians and Israeli security forces clashed in Duma and in a refugee camp near Ramallah. On Monday, an Israeli woman was injured when a firebomb struck her car in Jerusalem.
Fifteen Palestinian homes have been set on fire in recent years, but not one of the arsonists has been put behind bars. While the police opened investigations into twelve of the cases, ten of them ended without indictments, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human-rights organization. (The three others were closed after the victims dropped charges.) It is undeniably difficult to gather enough evidence to bring the perpetrators of these attacks to trial: the settler community, which numbers more than three hundred thousand in the West Bank, covers assailants in a shroud of silence. In 2010, a far-right activist who spent hundreds of hours in the interrogation rooms of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal-intelligence agency, circulated a manual among settlers on how to avoid divulging any information that could be used as evidence in such cases. Tips included not talking to government-appointed lawyers.
Still, some on the left blame the police and military for the lack of prosecutions. In a statement on Friday, the human-rights group B’Tselem said that the latest attack was the result of “the authorities’ policy of not enforcing the law against Israelis who attack Palestinians and their property.” Others say that the government should be doing more to criminalize the attackers and the rabbis who hide behind them. “These rabbis have names, addresses, yeshivas,” Carmi Gilon, the former head of Shin Bet, said at a rally on Saturday in Tel Aviv. Gillon called on the government and the legal system to “deal with them just as you would deal with the religious leaders of Hamas.”
If Netanyahu is serious about stopping price-tag attacks, he should not only call the perpetrators terrorists but also treat them as such. Israel routinely holds suspected Palestinian terrorists for long periods of time without trial, under a controversial procedure known as administrative detention. Administrative detention has been used in the cases of just two Jewish Israelis, but this looks likely to change following an emergency meeting of the security cabinet on Sunday, during which it approved measures allowing the administrative detention of Israelis who attack Palestinians.
On Monday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon vowed that he would “fight Jewish terror without compromise” and recommended that the government “implement the drastic measure of administrative detention.” That same day, the police arrested Meir Ettinger, a far-right activist and the grandson of the militant Rabbi Meir Kahane, for suspected involvement in an extremist cell. Ettinger isn’t tied directly to the attack in Duma, but he is believed to be behind a group, calling itself “the Revolt,” which has plotted violent crimes against Palestinians in the past year. So far, he isn’t being held in administrative detention, but Haaretz reports that if he refuses to coöperate with the investigation, he will be.
“The idea of ‘The Revolt’ is very simple,” Ettinger wrote in a 2013 manifesto. “Israel has many weak spots: issues that are tiptoed around so as not to create riots. All we need to do is light up the explosives.”