The Rise of Settler Terrorism

The West Bank’s Other Violent Extremists

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.

ecently, Israeli leaders have begun to recognize the problem. Following extremist vandalism against the IDF and mainstream settler leaders over the past year, some Israeli generals and government ministers began to label radical settlers as terrorists. Now, the Israeli government should translate that bold rhetoric into decisive action. To begin with, it should officially designate the perpetrators of violence as terrorists and disrupt their activities more aggressively. Security agencies should then enforce Israeli law, prosecuting violent settlers as they would terrorists, Palestinian or Israeli. And to slow the tide of radicalism, Israeli leaders must denounce extremists and shun their representatives, placing particular pressure on religious leaders who incite violence. Meanwhile, the United States and other countries seeking to revive the peace talks must encourage Israel to take these steps before things worsen. Washington should itself consider designating violent radical settlers as terrorists and should push Israel to crack down on them. Settler extremism tarnishes Israel’s name and imperils its future. Friends of Israel, the Israeli government, and even those who support the settlements in the West Bank should fight back against this dangerous phenomenon.

Courtesy: Foreign Affairs

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