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The attack on Prof. Zeev Sternhell is neither surprising nor mere chance. Sternhell is not popular, to put it mildly - not with the extreme right, and not with the moderate right. He has been quoted as making statements that, in the right's view, justified the murder of settlers by terrorists and tried to foment civil war. The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice against Sternhell's receipt of the Israel Prize because of an article he published in Haaretz on May 11, 2001.

In that article, he wrote: "Many in Israel, perhaps even the majority of the voters, do not doubt the legitimacy of the armed resistance in the territories themselves. The Palestinians would be wise to concentrate their struggle against the settlements, avoid harming women and children and strictly refrain from firing on Gilo, Nahal Oz or Sderot; it would also be smart to stop planting bombs to the west of the Green Line. By adopting such an approach, the Palestinians would be sketching the profile of a solution that is the only inevitable one: The amended Green Line will be an international border and territory will be handed over to compensate the Palestinians for land that has already been or will be annexed to Israel."

The High Court rejected the petition and Sternhell got the prize, but his words came back to haunt him. Many on the right and in the settlements, when interviewed by the media after events such as the shooting attack in Jerusalem's Mercaz Harav yeshiva this March, still viewed his statements as a searing insult and incitement to murder.

Nor did a statement in an earlier article, published in the now-defunct Davar on April 5, 1988, add to his "popularity" on the right. "Only those who are prepared to take Ofra with tanks can stop the fascist erosion threatening to drown Israel's democracy," he wrote.

The attack on Sternhell was apparently carried out not by a known extremist group, but by an individual who heeds neither the rabbis nor other leaders, like the "Sicarii" who harassed leftists and journalists in the early 1990s. The Sicarii set fire to the doors of homes of media figures like Amos Schocken, Dan Margalit and Mina Tzemach, sent threats to politicians and academics, and left fake bombs at the editorial offices of Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth.

Most of the extreme right objects to attacks on Jews, as opposed to attacks on Arabs. Their rabbis strongly object to such acts; even Rabbi Meir Kahane, the unchallenged leader of the Kach movement, who was assassinated by a Muslim in the United States 18 years ago, forbade it. Hence the prompt statement by the Jewish National Front, the successor of the Kach movement, that this is not its way, and it had nothing to do with the attack. A more moderate group, Homesh First, suggested that the pamphlets found at the scene of the attack were a provocation, a la Eyal, the organization founded by Shin Bet security service agent provocateur Avishay Raviv.