In the wake of the terror attack on Professor Ze'ev Sternhell, members of the government have engaged in an open competition - which one will more damningly condemn the extreme right and which will propose more stringent measures against the perpetrators who targeted the Israeli intellectual solely for his opinions. As if they were a panel of commentators, the ministers noted the direct link between the attack on the Jewish leftist and the Jewish violence against Palestinians in the territories. Like newspaper columnists, they complained of the authorities' powerlessness in the face of the ongoing unruly behavior by a gang of violent settlers in the West Bank.

This past weekend, joining the onlookers, commentators and the prophets of doom was GOC Central Command Gadi Shamni, as if he did not bear direct responsibility for what occurs in the West Bank. In an interview with Haaretz, the general condemned "fringe elements that are expanding" and operating against Palestinians and the security forces, and which disrupt the Israel Defense Forces' ability to execute its missions in the territories. The most senior officer in the West Bank, the sovereign of the territories, acknowledged that the IDF is indeed responsible for law and order.

Alas, the overall responsibility for enforcing the law in the territories rests on the IDF's shoulders, and not just due to formal considerations. Its extensive deployment of forces on the ground and the various means at their disposal allow it to be the first to arrive at the scene of any criminal activity. Law-enforcement regulations in the territories empower Shamni's soldiers with authority similar to that of police officers.

The general claimed that factions of the rabbinic and political leadership support the Jewish thugs, whether through explicit statements or in silence. Shamni certainly knows that not only religious and political figures are enabling a few hundred bullies to leave their imprint on an entire region. If it were not for the support of some of the officers under Shamni's command - whether through active assistance or restraint in the face of wholesale violations of the law - the West Bank would not have turned into abandoned territory. Military jails are packed with young Palestinians convicted of far less serious crimes than the violent acts of which the settlers are accused.

Three and a half years ago, in a report on the West Bank outposts, attorney Talia Sasson noted "the commanding spirit," as it was described to her: Even though the outposts were illegal, it was not for IDF soldiers to view the settlers' actions through the prism of the law because they were carrying out "a Zionist deed" worthy of "turning a blind eye, a wink, a double message."

The central command chief's message must be clear and unequivocal: The Zionism of the new century has absolutely nothing in common with harming the rights and well-being of a civilian population subject to the mercy of the State of Israel. The order must be clearly understood down to the last soldier: A Jew who raises his hand against a Palestinian or sets fire to his olive grove is subject to the same punishment under the law as a Palestinian who harms a Jew or his or her property.

Once settler leaders realize that the IDF is no longer the rioters' defense force, perhaps they will make an effort to rein in the violent youth. The arrest and swift indictment of the former head of the Kedumim regional council, Daniella Weiss, for striking a police officer, obstruction of justice and harassing an officer while on duty is a small step in the right direction. One must hope that it foreshadows a policy change, even if it comes infuriatingly too late.