Analysis

Denounce and Forget: Don't Be Too Impressed by Israel's Condemnation of Settler Violence

In the West Bank, after settlers attacked Palestinians and wounded a soldier, they will bow their heads just for a while, until the storm passes and the fury is brushed aside

Settlers from Yitzhar during clashes with Palestinians near Nablus, January 14, 2014.
Nasser Ishtayeh / AP

One shouldn't be too impressed by the wave of condemnations that began Sunday morning, after a few hours' delay, in the wake of two incidents in which Israeli soldiers were attacked at the Yitzhar settlement in the northern West Bank and the illegal outposts nearby. Anyone who covers what goes on in the West Bank is familiar with the script.

Violence against Palestinians and their property by extremist settlers is a rather common occurrence – both in response to Palestinian violence and also as part of long-standing land disputes. Violence against Israeli security forces is less common, but still exists. Except for the cases in which settlers murdered Palestinians, only the second category of violence – against the Israel Defense Forces – makes its way into the public discourse.

Every year or two, when attacks against the Israeli army or police are caught on camera or reach exceptional levels, the regular ritual begins. Each side knows its role: Senior IDF officers are shocked, politicians condemn, settler leaders renounce responsibility while explaining that violence does not represent the silent majority – only a deviant and negligible handful of settlers, and life quickly returns to normal. Judging by past experience, the probability that such an incident will end in a trial, let alone a prison sentence, is rather low.

Prefabricated homes in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, May 7, 2014.
REUTERS

Off the top of my head, without a systematic survey of the archives, here is a collection of examples: In 2005, settlers from Yitzhar and the surrounding outposts conducted a series of violent attacks on paratroopers and the battalion commander accused the general in charge of Central Command of not backing up his soldiers; In 2011, settlers broke into the Efraim Regional Brigade base near Kedumim in the northern West Bank, and aggressively attacked the soldiers, including the deputy brigade commander; in 2014, settlers rioted near Yitzhar and vandalized a small outpost manned by reserve soldiers; Last year, a Border Police officer was injured when a rock thrown by settlers in an outpost near Yitzhar struck her in the head.

After some of these incidents, the government took action. In response to the riot at the Efraim Regional Brigade base, the cabinet met for a special session and even established a committee to deal with far-right violence. After the incident in 2014, Border Police officers were sent to close the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in Yitzhar and took over the building, which they called a “front base for violent operations.”

But the common denominator of all these incidents is the same: Shock followed by prompt forgetting. It's rare that real steps are taken to curb violent extremists who attack police officers or soldiers. In most cases, which involve attacks on Palestinians or damage to their property, no effective investigation is conducted. Even worse, soldiers are often filmed watching such violence from a distance without getting involved.

Soldiers put back up a tent that had been torn down by settlers near Yitzhar, April 9, 2014.
\ Moti Milrod

Until the storm passes

The latest string of incidents began on Wednesday, when settlers from one of the outposts near Yitzhar attacked Palestinians who came to harvest their olives.

Later, a company commander from the Golani Infantry Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion arrested a young man suspected of participating in the violent attack. On Friday, in response to his arrest, settlers cursed and threatened the battalion commander, who was carrying out a training exercise with his soldiers at the entrance to Yitzhar.

Early Sunday morning, a few dozen settlers near one of the outposts around Yitzhar threw stones at two Golani patrol vehicles. One soldier was lightly injured in the hand. His comrades were forced to fire in the air and throw stun grenades to stop the riot.

Now comes the period of shock. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi released a scathing statement and announced a plan, coordinated with the Shin Bet security service and the police, to deal with the rioters.

Netanyahu and Cochavi attend a military exercise near Keren HaCarmel, June 19, 2019.
אלעד גרשגורן

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also joined in the condemnation while safely distancing himself from the incident and its implications. Netanyahu said he stood with the IDF soldiers and commanders “who are working around the clock to defend the security of all Israeli citizens without exception. I strongly condemn any assault on IDF soldiers. There will be no tolerance for lawbreakers who raise a hand to our soldiers.”

It was encouraging, even a bit unusual, to hear Netanyahu take a stand on the side of the rule of law these days. But where did the crude attack on soldiers take place and who was involved? From reading Netanyahu's statement, one could get the impression that it happened on the moon. The location – Yitzhar and its vicinity – and the identity of the attackers – Jewish citizens of Israel – were never mentioned.

Even the so-called Hilltop Youth know how to read between the lines. As long as this is the intentionally vague message broadcast from the top of the pyramid, its enforcement by the authorities – from the security services to the courts – will remain toothless. In the outposts, they will bow their heads for a while, until the storm passes and the fury is forgotten.