Analysis

How Israel Is Deterred by a Handful of Violent Jewish Settlers

This handful has the sympathy of countless others

Border police at the outpost of Kumi Ori, near Yitzhar, in the West Bank, October 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Three retired generals, all veterans of many years’ service in the occupied territories, were interviewed this week on radio and TV, following the violent attacks against soldiers in the settlement of Yitzhar and its adjacent outposts. Former Central Command chief Gad Shamni said he wasn’t surprised by the violence, noting that it could deteriorate.

“In the end, someone will fire on IDF soldiers. It’s only a matter of time,” he said (similar gloomy predictions were made during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, but so far this hasn’t materialized).

Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon, a former commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, described the assailants as terrorists who should be sent to prison. “The responses aren’t sufficiently forceful,” he said.

Avi Mizrahi headed the army’s Central Command at the beginning of this decade. Last year he headed an inter-ministerial committee appointed by then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and tasked with finding educational methods of dealing with the problem of the “hilltop youth.”

In an interview with Kan News, Mizrahi explained the political background to the failed systemic treatment of the violence of extremist right-wing elements. “Why play innocent?” he asked. “There was a very right-wing government here, with part of its base situated there. It didn’t want to adopt extreme measures. As soon as you don’t deal with Yitzhar right at the beginning, since you realize you have no support for doing so, this is what grows.”

The person currently in Shamni and Mizrahi’s shoes is Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan. Between Mizrahi and Padan there were two other heads of  Central Command. These were Nitzan Alon and Roni Numa. Both of them got their fingers burnt in conflict with the settlers. Their appointments to higher positions, such as head of Military Intelligence (Alon and later Numa) or even as chief of staff (Numa), were considered but dismissed, partly due to opposition by the right, and in one case by Netanyahu.

Padan tried a slightly different approach. He invested a significant part of his time in talking to settler leaders in the West Bank, in regional councils and in specific settlements. The results, as was seen this week, weren’t a great success.

Settler leaders did condemn the stoning and threatening of soldiers in Yitzhar and adjacent areas. But in that settlement, there was a sizable group that backed the extremists. As usual, there is an undeclared ranking regarding these incidents.

Violent attacks against Palestinians are unworthy of condemnation (other than in exceptional cases of murder, such as that of the Dawabshe family in the village of Duma four years ago); attacking leftist activists can always be described as an exaggeration or fabrication; attacking policemen and Civil Administration officials is not the same as attacking Golani soldiers.

Yitzhar is not an isolated phenomenon, as some tried to represent it this week. Only last week, settlers stoned a force headed by the Binyamin regional brigade commander and lightly wounded a Civil Administration official in an incident at outposts in the Shiloh Valley, north of Ramallah.

Last year, while negotiating with Yitzhar leaders, the army recommended on five occasions the demolishing of a trailer housing extremist young men in the outpost of Kumi Ori, near Yitzhar, which was the focus of this week’s incident. The politicians blocked this recommendation all five times.

On Thursday, some partial demolition was approved in another outpost. What Mizrahi said is well understood by officers currently serving in these areas. In an unceasing election season, there is an evident unwillingness of politicians to anger the radical right.

To this, one should add the ongoing incompetence of law enforcement agencies. The excessively forgiving attitude adopted by the courts towards violent right-wing activists has been recognized for decades. The Judea and Samaria police will also get no police commissioner’s citations in the coming years.

An activist named Neria Zarug has been issued a removal injunction from the West Bank. The police somehow can’t locate him, even though it seems he’s not making any efforts to hide. Earlier this week he was photographed during Simchat Torah celebrations in Yitzhar. Beside him can be seen the head of the Shomron Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, who has built up a lot of clout in the Likud Central Committee.

Wild weeds and the garden

The army estimates that the hard core of hilltop youth numbers no more than 200 activists, many of them minors. A quarter of them are considered violent, and 10 percent have been marked as people who could physically attack security personnel. However, behind these is a larger and more extensive group which expresses support or at least some understanding for their ideology and violent actions.

There is apparently another consideration at play here, too, one not usually mentioned in public. In the case of Yitzhar, there’s no doubt that the violent youth from the outposts are giving the settlements a bad reputation. Why aren’t they being removed? It’s not just because of some sympathy for them or fear. The most extreme scenario threatening Yitzhar, which for now seems totally theoretical, is a forced evacuation by the state. In that case, these thugs will afford some protection.

The government, police and army know that any attempt at evacuating Yitzhar will exact a high price and will involve violence. In fact, deterrence is working at this point, finding its expression in the unwillingness to demolish illegal construction or in officers refraining from directly confronting this violent group. But the attempt to distinguish between levels of violence, between violence one can live with (against Palestinians) and completely prohibited violence (against soldiers), is doomed to end up badly. 

This week there was another reminder of this, inside the IDF. The detention of 13 ultra-Orthodox Nahal soldiers was extended on Thursday. They are suspected of being involved in a violent brawl in which a Bedouin worker was assaulted at a Negev gas station. The soldiers claim that he taunted them with Arab ultra-nationalist slogans. If the suspicions against these soldiers are confirmed, it will be further proof of the difficulty of drawing a red line along the Green Line (1967 border), in other words, restricting the violence to the territories.

For the soldiers, a Bedouin citizen was just like a Palestinian stone-thrower and his treatment was the same. As in a similar case earlier this year, when Palestinian detainees were abused in the same battalion, there are signs of a conspiracy of silence and a cover-up by junior commanders.