This weekend’s attack on Israeli peace activists by violent West Bank settlers should put to rest any attempts to doubt or dismiss the severity of what is a grotesque and accelerating campaign of terror. But perhaps even more alarming than the attempts to turn a blind eye to settler violence is the misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the settlers’ goals.
Most of the violent attacks by West Bank settlers are not random acts of sporadic hooliganism. The extremist settlers’ violent attacks are harnessed to a strategy, a political objective, which Israeli politicians – including some members of the current coalition government – wholeheartedly endorse.
While that has been the case since I covered these violent acts for Haaretz back in the late 1980s and mid-1990s, the goals of the violence have shifted.
To better understand that strategy, and the way in which violence serves it, it’s worth re-examining the so-called "price tag" phenomenon, which has for more than a decade and a half laid the foundations for what we’re seeing today.
"Price Tag" was a strategy adopted around 2007 by young activist settlers, often endorsed by veteran leaders of the settlement movement, to deter the Israeli government and its law enforcement agencies from dismantling rogue settlements constructed in the West Bank without government authorization, in violation of Israeli law.
These proto-settlements, known as illegal outposts, were (and still are) the settlers’ way of expanding their footprint at a time in which the Israeli government halted the establishment of new, authorized, "official" settlements.
The settlers’ leaders vociferously endorsed active resistance to government attempts to dismantle outposts. This resistance gradually turned into violent acts of vandalizing Palestinian property and sometimes bodily harm of Palestinians. The severity of the acts was typically low – graffiti, puncturing tires, cutting trees – so as to avoid accountability, to not overly alienate Israeli public opinion, and to leave room for escalation. Most attacks occurred right after illegally built structures were torn down by Israeli authorities.
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The extremist settlers’ hope was that by initiating these attacks, they would deter law enforcement and allow illegal outpost to turn into full-fledged settlements.
The tactic worked. Israeli governments, both under Benjamin Netanyahu and now under Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, rarely take action to dismantle illegal outposts. Those now number approximately 120 throughout the West Bank.
Meanwhile, particularly during Donald Trump’s four-year term, the Israeli government shifted its policy toward illegal outposts from enforcement of the law to legalization of the blatantly unlawful. Officially so. The legalization effort accompanied a government drive – fueled by the settlers and their lobby in the Knesset and the government – to bolster Israel’s grasp on Area C of the West Bank.
Area C, about 61 percent of the West Bank, in which all Israeli settlements are located, was designated by the Oslo Accords as an area under full Israeli security and administrative control. It was not destined to be annexed to the State of Israel, however. Most of it, according to past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, would become a part of the future state of Palestine.
While former Prime Minister Netanyahu flirted with the idea of annexing Area C to Israel, his defense minister, Naftali Bennett, a former director of the settlers’ Yesha Council and who previously published a plan to annex Area C, announced exactly two years ago the establishment of a "forum to fight for the future of Area C" in the Ministry of Defense.
The goal was to encourage Israeli settlement construction and outpost legalization and to discourage Palestinian construction in Area C. In practice, the goal was de-facto annexation of Area C. Bennett at the time said: "The State of Israel’s policy is that Area C belongs to it. We are not the UN." While this was not endorsed as the official policy of the Bennett-Lapid government, creeping annexation continues.
Enforcement to remove unlawful construction in illegal outposts has all but stopped, and the government connected most of the illegal outposts to Israel’s national water system and to the electrical grid.
For the settlers, Bennett’s 2019 push signaled a paradigm shift, a huge victory and an opportunity. Now the government is formally on their side, actively working with them to legalize the illegal, to endorse a rogue tool used to systematically seize land from Palestinians, and to dispossess Palestinians.
Indeed, in the past couple of years, this became the strategic objective of the settlers, their imperative. And the use of anti-Palestinian violence to harass, terrorize, and dispossess Palestinians has dramatically increased. It is a tool to drive Palestinians out, to maximize Israeli presence there and minimize Palestinian presence. As simple as that.
With government wind in their sails, the settlers have been fighting in the past couple of years what they view as a zero-sum war in Area C. And - à la guerre comme à la guerre – when you fight, you use violence.
Law enforcement efforts alone are not enough for settler violence to subside, for its perpetrators to be caught and for the violence itself to be deemed as utterly illegitimate. An effective effort must include a political shift.
The government of Israel must divorce itself from the very objective of the violence: A no holds-barred land grab. Otherwise, the perpetrators will continue to view themselves as acting on behalf of the state to advance its goals.