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Dozens of armed settlers from settlements in Samaria, and in particular from Yitzhar, rioted two days ago in the village of Asira al-Kabaliya after a 9-year-old boy was stabbed by a Palestinian who infiltrated Shalhevet Yam, near the settlement of Yitzhar. The Palestinian's crime served as justification for mass delinquency by the settlers, who went there to shoot and destroy. The men in uniform from the Israel Defense Forces and police were made to look like fools. One can learn by rote the international law that stipulates that the army is the sovereign in occupied territory (and that the police are subordinate to it), but in reality, there is no basis for this. For all practical purposes, the law is not the law, the settlers are the sovereign, and matters are handled as they decide.

As was to be expected, the commanders at the site have a ready answer to complaints about them: The soldiers and policemen are in order, perhaps also the lawyers who prepare the indictments against the people suspected of participating in the violence; the problems lie with the judges who are too lenient and forgiving. This claim is not completely untenable. In the law-enforcement system as well, the weakest link in the chain causes a breakdown, and in the courts there are too many hearings in which the judges take pity on the young Israelis who have attacked Palestinians and their property.

The defendants end up with a light sentence that does not deter them. They return to the territories and to their exploits, and even when they appear in court for a second or third time, sometimes in the courtrooms of the very same judges, the result is similar and does not make it possible to fight their delinquency with determination.

It is not correct, however, to place everything at the doorstep of the courts. The military and police links in the chain, even if they are less brittle than the judicial link, are still very fragile, and very soft on settlers who break the law. This is true both in word and deed. It is rare to hear a senior officer in the IDF or police express himself as vehemently as Col. Amir Baram did when he ended his term as brigade commander in the area of Yitzhar. Baram - who made the comments only on the eve of his departure for studies abroad - was an exception, both because officers seek to distinguish the violent minority from the moderate majority of settlers and because very few people dare anger the settler extremists, lest they become targets. The settlers are there forever with their ostentatious political power, while the officers come to do a job for two years or so and then move on; their main objective is to avoid getting into trouble.

This state of affairs makes a mockery of Israel's pretensions to improve the Palestinians' quality of life. There is not much point in removing roadblocks and giving incentives to the economy if at the same time there is a private body operating in the area that belittles the government and promotes its own agenda. Fifty-five years ago, the world did not believe David Ben-Gurion's claim, made the day after the IDF's attack on Qibya, that it was enraged "settlers" who carried out a private act of retaliation in response to murders. Today the only possible interpretation of the government's oversights in its handling of the rioting settlers is that the situation is convenient for the government, which prefers it to confrontation with the rioters.

As long as Israel hesitates to impose its military sovereignty on the territories it has occupied, its ability to demand that the Palestinian Authority implement its power in the territories under its control will be impeded.