Settler Violence: No Longer a Few Bad Apples

Following clashes overnight between settlers and soldiers in Yitzhar, the settler leadership can no longer claim a few extremists are responsible.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Settlers arrested in Yitzhar in the West Bank, April 30, 2013.Credit: Hadar Cohen

The commanders of the reserve battalion whose soldiers were attacked by settlers at Yitzhar early Tuesday were afterwards bombarded by journalists’ questions. Why didn’t you fire at the perpetrators of the rampage? How could you allow the Israel Defense Forces to be humiliated like that?

But the reservists are not the ones who need to answer these questions. First, it’s a good thing they didn’t fire. True, in the face of a similar rampage in Jenin, they probably would have opened fire (no doubt at the onset of the incident, in which hundreds of protesters at Yitzhar threw stones and blocked the way of border policemen).

But those who complain about killing Palestinian civilians when soldiers’ lives are not necessarily in danger, should not urge the army to kill Israeli civilians under similar circumstances. If soldiers or border police had fired at the protesters Tuesday and injured them, the ensuing political and public maelstrom would have paralyzed the country for many days. Secondly, the questions should directed at the senior political and military echelon – the prime minister, the defense minister, the public security minister and the IDF chief of staff, who have for years allowed the extremist wing of the settlers to run amok.

If, as the reservists said, no one prepared them for a scenario in which they would be violently attacked by Jews, the problem is not theirs, but that of the senior military command. Those who established a squad outpost next to Yitzhar, a settlement where residents and yeshiva students attacked soldiers 10 years ago, should have taken into account the possibility that the reservists at the encampment would encounter violence by Israelis. It is very possible that the soldiers should have been more assertive (what is meant by the statement “the settlers ordered the soldiers to stand aside”?), but that mishap reflects a broader failing. It manifests itself in almost every encounter between soldiers and the extreme right wing, from Hebron to Shomron.

In many such incidents, the soldiers’ confusion is obvious. Reservists, civilians for most of the year, are the least suitable to deal with the phenomenon. It would have been better not to have removed a Border Police company this year from the forces stationed in the West Bank (the Central Command managed at the last minute to reverse a decision to remove a second Border Police company). The Border Police should have been the ones to lead a face-off against Jewish rioters.

But the proposal reported Tuesday -- that a permanent police station be established at Yitzhar -- seems like an idea destined for failure. The response to violence should not be one-day gimmicks, but an uncompromising approach to lawbreakers, backed by suitable steps by the security forces and the courts. First signs of a slight improvement have actually been seen in recent months, when the Shin Bet security service and the Central Command toughened their response to suspects of hate crimes (“price tag” actions) against the Palestinians, arresting a few of the perpetrators and issuing restraining orders against others.

The timing of Tuesday’s incident was dictated not by the settlers, but by the security establishment. Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon must personally approve demolition orders for structures in the West Bank, not to mention for inhabited homes in Jewish settlements. Surely Ya’alon is aware of the consequences of such decisions in the West Bank. He was the head of Central Command and the IDF chief before assuming his post as minister of defense a little over a year ago. As such, he went to great lengths to rein in IDF commanders in the West Bank and monitor any actions that could have ramifications on the ground – certainly the kind that could get him in trouble with the settlers, whose envoys in the Likud Central Committee have given him substantial political support over the past few years.

Ya’alon himself approved the demolitions on Monday morning. It was a punitive measure, plain and simple, for slashing the tires of Col. Yoav Yarom, commander of the IDF’s Samaria Brigade, in Yitzhar on Sunday. The previous such incident, which took place a few months ago, prompted Yarom to send text messages to settler leaders in which he intentionally downplayed the significance of the event. Statements given then by Ya’alon and IDF top brass that talked about “crossing a red line” sounded like empty words.

This time, the minister decided not to let it go, approving demolition of the homes in Yitzhar for the second time in a week. Meanwhile, Yitzhar settlers (or yeshiva students studying there) slashed the tires of another military jeep, this time one that belonged to a reserve battalion tasked with keeping them safe.

Police and Border Police who entered Yitzhar on Monday night thus entered a particularly tense area. The result, even if it was harsher than perhaps anticipated, should not surprise anyone. After the clash with the settlers came the attack on the encampment, a “price tag” action that was directed this time against the army rather than against Palestinians in neighboring villages.

As expected, Tuesday morning brought a series of condemnations of the settlers’ violence. In contrast, Yitzhar representatives are accusing the security forces of “collectively punishing” the settlers for the slashing of tires. Over the last year, the security establishment has vowed to take stronger measures against violence from the far right.

The extreme right will respond to Tuesday morning’s clashes, most likely with more attacks on Palestinian villages in the West Bank. Yet it remains to be seen whether this incident will, in the long run, result in more restraint exercised by Yitzhar extremists – or ignite a larger conflict between them and the state.