Capitulation to Jewish Settlers Has Enabled Violence Against Soldiers, Defense Officials Say

Officials in the defense establishment say that Israel's military policy in the West Bank is often dictated by settlement leaders 'to benefit the Jewish population' rather than by security considerations

Jewish settlers throws rocks towards Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, West Bank, 2013.
AP

Settlement leaders ignore violence by settlers against Palestinians and even policemen, denouncing it only when the people attacked are soldiers, as happened in the settlement of Yitzhar this week, senior defense officials said.

The officials added that settler leaders have put heavy pressure on the government, thereby undermining the army’s status in the territories and enabling violence against members of the security services.

“It’s expressed as an atmosphere that everything’s allowed,” said one senior officer involved in the defense establishment’s conversations with government officials.

In recent years, defense officials said, settlement leaders have gained more power over the government, and they have waged a persistent battle against the defense establishment’s policies through their representatives in the Knesset. This has led the government to capitulate to settler interests at the expense of defense considerations, the officials said.

Over the past few days, settlers from Yitzhar have attacked Israel Defense Forces soldiers several times. Senior defense officials said they are frustrated by “conflicting messages” about how they’re supposed to handle such violence.

Many said the incidents in Yitzhar reflect a much bigger problem – the growing influence of extremist settlement leaders over the government.

“It’s a handful that carries out the actual attacks, but the atmosphere that makes it possible doesn’t come from a mere handful,” said a senior IDF officer who until recently served in the Judea and Samaria [West Bank] Division. “The settlement community sees [those who attack soldiers] as part of itself.”

raeli soldiers try to disperse masked Jewish settlers from the Havat Gilad settlement, who were throwing stones at Palestinian villagers, east of the West Bank city of Qalqilya, 2012.
AFP

The officer added that this atmosphere has been evident for some time, but “nobody speaks about it openly.”

Pressure from settlement leaders has resulted in decisions that didn’t stem solely from security considerations, the officer said.

“In the vast majority of cases, the army uses risk management to minimize damage to the quality of life of both settlers and West Bank Palestinians,” he said. “But there were cases where, due to pressure from settlement leaders, decisions were made that didn’t stem solely from security considerations. Rather, they were intended to make life easier in Jewish settlements.”

As an example, another senior defense official cited the aftermath of a Palestinian attack last December that killed two soldiers near Givat Assaf. As usual, the army set up checkpoints on nearby roads immediately after the attack.

Later, however, the defense establishment wanted to remove them so as not to harm the Palestinian population. But this didn’t happen. At a meeting on the subject, defense officials said the decision to leave the checkpoints in place at certain hours stemmed from demands by settlement leaders.

Leaving the checkpoints in place, the senior defense official said, “was a transportation decision intended to benefit the Jewish population” by reducing traffic jams, “not an operational decision.”

Nevertheless, he added, to the best of his knowledge, there haven’t been many decisions like that.

“This is simply weakness on the part of the state, a lack of desire to deal forcefully with this problem,” said another senior officer who is very familiar with the settlements and their most powerful leaders. “It stems mainly from the desire to avoid friction with the settlers.”

“The violence is the end result of the whole problem of the hilltop youth,” he added, using a common Israeli term for violent settlers in their teens and twenties. “It begins with ignoring the illegal outposts, attacks on Palestinians, attacks on Palestinian property, arson and vandalism. When it relates to Arabs, it’s easier to ignore it. But when soldiers are attacked, it comes up again.”

The officer who formerly held a senior position in the Judea and Samaria Division said that during his years there, he and his soldiers frequently suffered violence at the hands of settlers.

“It’s not a pleasant feeling to serve in the Judea and Samaria division today,” he said. “Every action is seen as political. The leaders of the settlements embrace you and invite you for meals, but in the end, there’s a tailwind for those lawbreakers. It’s not a handful.”

When “hilltop youth” from Yitzhar clash with Palestinians, he charged, settlement leaders don’t care. “In their view, these aren’t lawbreakers; they don’t look at it like that.”

Moreover, he said, there’s growing frustration among officers and soldiers that they have to spend time policing civilian residents of the settlements. “A soldier isn’t a policeman. A soldier also doesn’t have the tools to deal with these lawbreakers.”

A former senior officer in the IDF’s Central Command said that settlement leaders, in their efforts to help wayward youth, often let them do as they please.

“It’s true these are teenagers who were thrown out of [school or other institutions], and the local population is trying to give them help and treatment,” he said. “But in practice, in most cases, the settlers let them live in the vicinity of their settlements and invade territory with tents, mobile homes and illegal buildings.”

In many cases, he added, settlement leaders back these teens when they use violence against Palestinians. “When it comes to attacks on security personnel, they try to denounce it, but that’s not enough,” he said.

Yitzhak Gatenyo, who dealt with many young lawbreakers in his former role as head of investigations for the police’s Judea and Samaria Division, said the Yitzhar yeshiva has been in the defense establishment’s sights for 30 years.

“This yeshiva comes up in every situation assessment, but they don’t do anything about it,” he said. “They need to make a decision to close it. That would reduce the violence, and also these teens’ desire to be there.”