Settlers Challenge IDF's Monopoly on Violence

By using price tag methods against settlers, the army grants legitimacy to the tactic, rather than wiping it out.

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Settlers arrested in Yitzhar in the West Bank, April 30, 2013.Credit: Hadar Cohen

“How can the ‘price tag’ phenomenon be rooted out while applying a similar policy toward normative citizens? Is that same policy applied toward our Arab enemies …are their illegal houses destroyed as a punishment for the terror they commit?” Indeed, these questions, raised by the secretariat of the settlement of Yitzhar in an open letter to the defense minister, are stinging ones.

They are not a demand for equality in the brutality with which the Israel Defense Forces acts toward Jews and Arabs, but rather a demand to accord legal status to price tag actions (acts of vandalism carried out by settlers and right-wing Jews against Palestinian or IDF property, as retribution for any blow to settlements.) That is, as long as the army adopts a method of terror in dealing with the settlers, not only can the price tag phenomenon not be rooted out, but the IDF itself grants it legitimacy.

According to the “Yitzhar equation,” the destruction of illegal houses that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ordered is punishment for the puncturing of the tires of army officers’ cars. And against such retribution, price tag actions may be carried out.

The fascinating aspect of this dialogue is the internal debate in Yitzhar over whether and under what circumstances it is permissible to strike the IDF. The matter has still not been decided and it probably won’t be, and it certainly does not involve only Yitzhar. Many settlers share the view that the IDF is controlled by a government that is willing to give up the territories, break God’s commandments and give in to American pressure. As such, it is a hostile government, which should not have a monopoly on violent measures.

“According to their world view, the leadership lacks values, does not always act democratically, is involved in criminal activities and are wheeler-dealers. From their point of view, the leadership acts undemocratically to remove them from their land in an improper and harmful manner,” was the way Shin Bet security service head Yoram Cohen described this world view two years ago. In a lecture in February 2012 he correctly pointed out that groups of settlers had lost their faith in the state.

“This is an extreme group consisting of a few dozen activists, mainly in Yitzhar…they decided to act through terror and the instilling of fear in Israeli governments.” Because they cannot harm the government or the IDF, Cohen said, they lash out against Arabs and sacred symbols of other religions. “We treat this as terror. The public in Judea and Samaria are generally law-abiding and does not resort to violence,” he added.

The basic error in Cohen’s remarks is the premise, which has been proven wrong, that “they” cannot harm the government or the IDF. The second error is the assumption that the problem is limited to a few dozen settlers who live in Yitzhar. The third error is in defining their actions as terror.

The damage being wrought by settlers against IDF soldiers nowadays is not different than what was during the early days of settlement in the territories. Rabbi Moshe Levinger did not hesitate to spit at soldiers and officers; his wife slapped an officer and settlers punctured the tires of IDF vehicles and threatened the lives of commanders.

In no case were the perpetrators (if they were arrested at all) accused of using terror, and the price tag thugs are not terrorists, either. The prime minister rejected the Shin Bet’s demand that they be declared a terror organization and made do with a softer definition – prohibited association.

What happened in Yitzhar, and what will happen in other places, is not terror, but rather a campaign to create a balance of fear and deterrence between those who are authorized to use violence and those who object to the very legality of this authority.

Because in the view of the lawbreakers, and these are not only people who puncture soldiers’ tires and rip up their tents, but also those who rush to defend them, an army that uses the price tag tactic is not a legitimate army. Or, more accurately, it is an army of gangs and thugs.

Alternatively, those who see such an army as a legitimate entity are in any case laying the groundwork for price tag actions.

In either case, price tag actions are transformed from acts of terror to an index of legitimacy that threatens the authority of the IDF and its status as the sovereign in the territories.

That is the law coming out of Yitzhar, but it will not stop at its gates. It will crawl out and take hold in every settlement. The IDF has huge power, which can be used against Iran and Hamas. But in the battle for legitimacy, the lawbreakers will win.