Israel's Policing Army Is in Breach of Contract

Settlers attacking AFP photographer Abbas Momani in Beit El, March 2014.

In addition to widespread public condemnation, the attacks on Israel Defense Forces soldiers by settlers from Yitzhar have elicited criticism of the army itself, which for years has been tolerating breaches of the law by settlers. However, this criticism does not take into account the army’s complex structure.

Since the early 2000s, two armies have gradually evolved in Israel: One is the official army, subordinate to political echelons and operating under an orderly chain of command. The other is a policing, “implementation” army, formed in the West Bank while executing a policy which often oversteps official procedures. It’s easy to criticize the chief of staff for not acting with resolve against settlers who harm soldiers, but Aviv Kochavi is only one of the commanders of this policing army. This army is subordinate to a whole matrix of authorities, consisting of settler communities, security coordinators in various settlements, rabbis and others.

The formation of this policing-implementation army was not a result of political or military failure. On the contrary, it is the brilliant creation of a shadow body, operating in the name of the state in order to entrench its grip on the West Bank while foiling any possibility of establishing an effective Palestinian entity. Official Israel, subject to local and international law, cannot do so effectively through its official tools – mainly the army. This is why it resorts to nondescript entities such as the policing army. By its very nature this army operates within a dual framework of formal laws as well as unofficial rules and declarative commands as opposed to action on the ground.

Settlers attack Palestinians while the Israeli army stands by, Asira al-Qibliya, May 2019

Undergirding this implementation army is an informal contract with the settlers. It’s not by chance that many settlers man its ranks, along with other groups that identify with their goal: fighting Palestinians. This is not just ideological bias or the result of a power hierarchy. The settlers are the non-military arm that is meant to consolidate control of the West Bank, and this entails a complex contractual arrangement with the policing army. Looking the other way when settlers damage Palestinian infrastructure, foot-dragging, standing on the sidelines, delays in prosecuting offenders and more – these are not the army’s shortcomings but part of the logic guiding the unofficial implementation army. So is the supposed failure of law enforcement against settlers.

This structure leads to two types of tension. One arises when human rights advocates enter this deliberately caused vacuum, created by state institutions and those responsible for perpetuating the settlement enterprise. It’s no coincidence that the settlers and the policing army constantly harass these activists and portray them as traitors. To see this one only needs to watch the (partly gender-related) hatred expressed by settlers and soldiers toward volunteers from Machsom Watch, an organization of women peace activists who monitor the situation in the West Bank, during the construction of an illegal settler outpost in the Jordan Valley last week.

The second type of tension arises when army units breach the contract with the settlers while enforcing the law. The informal pattern of the policing army enables such exceptions, particularly with initiatives taken by units that are “loaned” from the official one, units that have not yet internalized the local rules of the game (as happened with the reconnaissance battalion of the Golani Brigade in Yitzhar, or with the Border Police, which operates by separate code and is not obliged to the settlers).

These are not failures of the IDF in enforcing the law when it comes to settlers, as critics claim, but a breakdown in the operation of the policing army, which sometimes leads to exceptions that anger the settlers, justifiably in their eyes. Their protest ranges from acts of violence against soldiers to the humiliation of their commanders. However, criticism should be directed to the logic that established this implementation army and to the political system that fosters it, not at the way army units function or the whims of its local allies.