In Israel, Addressing the Extreme Right’s Violence Isn’t a High Priority

The public security minister has described attacks by settlers on army outposts as 'terror,’ but that’s just lip service.

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One of the seven Yitzhar settlers is brought in handcuffs to the Jerusalem Magistrates court. April 10, 2014 Credit: AFP

To borrow from the cliche, it was the puncture that broke the camel’s back. On Sunday, Col. Yoav Yarom visited the settlement of Yitzhar, part of preparations for him to be succeeded as Samaria Brigade chief by Lt. Col. Shai Kleper. After the two men met with Yehuda Liebman, a resident of the settlement and a lieutenant colonel in the reserves, the two went outside and discovered that their jeep’s tires had been punctured.

Liebman represents the settlement’s pro-government wing, which favors full cooperation with the authorities. But the extremist wing’s damaging of military property certainly didn’t surprise Yarom, whose tires were punctured three months ago during another meeting at Yitzhar. After the 2005 Gaza pullout, many of his predecessors were treated similarly, depending on the tension at the time between the settlers and the Israel Defense Forces.

The puncturing of the tires was revenge for the demolition of buildings at Yitzhar last week. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon saw the demolition as a chance to redraw the red lines between the defense establishment and the settlers. Despite his hawkish views toward the Palestinians and his close ties with settler leaders, Ya’alon sometimes appears willing to confront them for violating the law, especially when it comes to attacks against the security forces.

On Monday he approved another operation: the demolition of four buildings at Yitzhar. Ya’alon didn’t deny that this was retaliation for the punctured tires, and the settlers paid him back with their first-ever demonstration near his home, not that this fazed him.

Attacking the IDF

The violence was more serious when five Border Police companies showed up to provide security at the demolition Monday night. The police said dozens of residents threw stones at them and burned tires, and that more than 600 people tried to prevent the operation from happening. But the big story was the work of the 50 or so settlers who raided an IDF encampment near the settlement. They wrecked the place while six reservists looked on and did nothing.

As usual, the nighttime pogrom led to a wave of condemnations, from the defense minister up to President Shimon Peres, who was visiting China this week.

Surprisingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was silent. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein convened an urgent meeting of law enforcement officials and announced greater efforts to stop violence on the extreme right. On Tuesday, the police arrested three Yitzhar residents suspected of taking part in the rioting; the next day they arrested five.

In the near future, surveillance by the police and the Shin Bet security service might make it hard for Yitzhar extremists to act. But as usual, the main price will probably be paid by the residents of Palestinian villages in the area. There will probably be a repetition of “price tag” attacks against Arab property, and maybe against mosques, too.

Despite the sudden media interest, which for some reason wasn’t as great when the victims were Palestinians, it would be naïve to assume that the shock shown by government officials this week will change their relations with the settlers.

Addressing the extreme right’s violence is not a high priority for the government. In recent months, the army, the police and the Shin Bet have joined forces to deal with Jewish ultranationalist crime; this can be seen in the increase in the number of indictments and restraining orders for suspects in price-tag attacks. But there’s still a very long way to go.

The rioting at Yitzhar was no surprise for the government. This is Netanyahu’s second consecutive term as prime minister and Yitzhak Aharonovitch’s second consecutive term as public security minister. Aharonovitch called Monday’s events “terror for all intents and purposes,” adding that the perpetrators should be treated accordingly.

But this is just lip service. Neither the police nor other authorities have treated attacks by settlers against the IDF or Palestinians the way they treat Palestinian terror, which kills and wounds far more people.

The sad truth, which is well understood by the IDF, the police and the settlers, is that in most cases the tough talk is merely talk. Soldiers and police will receive limited support if they clash with settler lawbreakers, while extremist settlers have broad political support that helps them avoid punishment. At most, they receive light punishments.

Unwritten rules

MK Orit Strock (Habayit Hayehudi), who represents the settlers in the Knesset, condemned the security forces’ actions at Yitzhar. This week she received some good news. Despite the opposition of the State Prosecutor’s Office, the Shin Bet reduced by nine months the prison sentence of her son Zvi, who was convicted of abusing a Palestinian boy.

The bottom line is that the violent attacks against the army and the police (not to mention the Palestinians) serve settler extremists and don’t necessarily damage the settlement movement as a whole, despite the condemnations. Hilltop extremists scare their Palestinian neighbors and, for the most part, deter the security forces as well.

The district commanders come to the West Bank for two years and soon understand the unwritten rules of the game. They’re aware of the price for overenthusiastic enforcement of law and order. It’s enough for them to see how the last four Central Command chiefs have been targets of demonstrations by the extreme right — right outside their homes. Even their families get harassed.

The reservists whose encampment was destroyed have expressed their share of bitterness and frustration. Their commanders explained that the reservists didn’t act because they didn’t feel they were in danger and weren’t prepared for this contingency. They were sent to do reserve duty to protect Jews — that’s the thinking.

There is logic to the first part of this explanation. There is no reason to open fire when there is no real danger to human life. Basically, the security forces follow the oral law in the territories, as it were, which forbids them from firing on Israelis even if  lives are in danger.

The second part of the explanation is groundless. First, the duty of the reservists’ commander — or that of his superiors — is to prepare the soldiers for such scenarios.

Second, the brigade didn’t land in Yitzhar from the moon. Anyone who says he was surprised is pretending he hasn’t followed the news over the past decade. A reservist who enters Yitzhar is allowed to be surprised if the residents greet him with a “good morning,” not if they puncture his tires.

A military post near the West Bank settlement on Yitzhar after it was vandalized by settlers, April 8, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod