Analysis |

Israeli Army and Police Blame Each Other as Settler Violence Rages On

'It’s very difficult to instill an understanding in the commanders and soldiers that their job is to protect the safety of both sides,' a senior security source said, 'Eventually, this violence will blow up in our faces'

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Settlers throw stones at Palestinians near the settlement of Yitzhar in the northern West Bank.
Settlers throw stones at Palestinians near the settlement of Yitzhar in the northern West Bank.Credit: AP

The Israel Defense Forces and police continue to pass the buck to one another in the face of increasing numbers of politically motivated anti-Arab crimes committed by Jews in the West Bank.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who toured the West Bank last week, heard conflicting explanations from representatives of the army and the police regarding the failure to deal with the phenomenon.

A senior security source told Haaretz that it represents a failure of the entire security establishment, resulting from a lack of understanding of its role in the territories and a lack of motivation and an indication of an “enabling atmosphere” created by the country’s politicians.

“It’s the duty of IDF soldiers and within their authority to act to stop violent incidents by Israeli civilians in the Judea and Samaria region, until Israel Police forces arrive on the scene,” the army spokesman said Sunday, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names. “IDF soldiers are expected to use this authority and not to stand by in such cases.”

Back in a meeting last December, Gantz had already said that he expected IDF commanders to demand that their troops intervene in cases in which Jewish civilians attack Palestinians. But the spokesman’s statement on Sunday was not made in a vacuum.

As reported by the Walla news website, an argument developed last week at a security cabinet meeting between IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev. Bar-Lev said that Israeli soldiers have the authority of police officers in dealing with Israelis in the West Bank – as well as the capability to detain civilians involved in violence until Israeli police arrive. But the IDF isn’t making sufficient use of its authority, Bar-Lev claimed.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi at Hatzerim Air Force Base, in December.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

For his part, Chief of Staff Kochavi claimed that the public security minister had been inaccurate in describing the reality on the ground and that according to an opinion issued by the attorney general in 1998, it is better for police officers rather than soldiers to deal with Israeli civilians in the territories.

Police officials were displeased with Kochavi’s remarks, viewing them as an attempt to shift responsibility to the police for what happens in territory that is under the army’s control. A senior security source concurred that Kochavi’s remarks were inaccurate.

“The IDF is responsible on the ground. It just has to use its authority,” he said, adding that although Kochavi does indeed believe that the police need to be made responsible for enforcing the law against the settlers, he also made it clear that soldiers are required to act to prevent attacks on Palestinians.

Gantz didn’t get into the details of the dispute on a visit to the area of the Homesh outpost, where he met with representatives of the IDF and the police. According to participants, he again called for soldiers to intervene in such cases and when necessary, to use their authority and detain those suspected of violence at the scene. In practice, however, they tend to stand by, the senior source said, quipping that “the IDF can’t bring itself to get into a confrontation with Jews.”

A car shattered by settlers in the West Bank town of Qaryut, in December, Credit: Moti Milrod

Police representatives at the meeting complained about coordination problems in the West Bank with the IDF. Gantz said at the meeting that as far as he was concerned, fighting such anti-Arab crime is a top priority, but police officers made it clear to him that the police top brass have a different set of priorities.

There are complaints in the army that the West Bank district of the Israel Police is the weakest and most disadvantaged in terms of human and material resources. One ongoing problem is a lack of patrol cars and other vehicles, which makes it difficult for the police to carry out their duties.

IDF sources also admitted, however, that soldiers have difficulties functioning in dealing with Jewish rioters. In many instances, a small army force is dispatched to a remote location. In the best of cases, the soldiers act to remove the feuding parties from the scene, but they usually don’t detain suspects. Generally, the soldiers and junior officers are also unfamiliar with the rules regarding the admissibility in court of camera footage. Gantz was told that the IDF has recently begun making more frequent use of tear gas in such incidents.

A shattered window in the West Bank village of Burqa, in January. Credit: Nasser Nasser/AP

Some of the responsibility for the increased settler violence, the senior security source said, lies with politicians. Referring to the Homesh settlement, which had been evacuated in 2005 and repeatedly illegally reoccupied, the source said, “You can’t ignore the enabling atmosphere. When the army came to evacuate Homesh, there was very harsh criticism of it at the political level, [from] the settlers’ leadership and even security officials. As a result, even without it being said explicitly, the rioters understand that they are receiving backing from Israeli power centers that is enabling the continued violence.

“It’s very difficult to instill an understanding in the commanders and soldiers that their job is to protect the safety of both sides,” the senior source noted. “They’re sent on an operational job to protect the Jewish population and prevent terrorism, and it’s clear to them which side of the conflict they’re on.” The commanders in the field, who are usually the ones to decide how to act during violent incidents, receive only vague instructions from the senior command, he added.

“Eventually, this violence will blow up in our faces,” the source warned. “Its continuation will lead to a security escalation the intensity of which is difficult to assess.” He said that, according to information presented at security deliberations, many young Palestinians believe that the settler violence should be responded to in kind, and “such an incident, [if it] ends with several fatalities, could ignite Judea and Samaria.”

The violence, he said, is also undermining the position of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas ahead of municipal elections in West Bank cities, something that greatly concerns the Palestinian Authority.

“The security establishment can deal with this violence, if they make the decision that this is what they need to do,” the source said. “Just as the IDF knew how to fight Palestinian lone-wolf terrorism and defeat it, so these lone wolves or small groups that take the law into their own hands can be acted against. The problem begins when only attacks on Jews are defined as a failed mission and harming Palestinians is seen as an error. If commanders on the ground were told that attacking [Palestinian] farmers or [Israeli] left-wing activists is a failure, they would view the subject differently.”

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