Opinion

If You Can't Say Israeli Settlers Are Civilians Too, You're Propping Up Apologists for Terror

To those activists on the left and for Palestinian human rights who deny West Bank settlers can be terror victims: 'Thou shalt not kill' isn't conditional

The fresh graves of Haya, Elad and Yossi, 3 members of the Salomon family stabbed to death in the Neve Tsuf settlement. Modiin, Israel. July 23, 2017
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

I still can’t quite believe I am writing this: I thought the ten commandments and the canons of other major creeds had covered it well enough. Thou Shalt Not Kill. 

But it seems that I missed the memo from some quarters of leftist activism and pro-Palestinians social media actors (including from some of my fellow academics) that murdering settlers at Shabbat dinner is only...sort of...wrong.

As the initial logic of a larger camp of activists goes, Jewish-Israeli settlers are just soldiers of state expansion in Sabbath attire, carrying out ethnic cleansing even without the army uniform, destroying the dignity and potential sovereignty of the Palestinian people in plain sight, and so don’t need IDF camouflage attire. (There were even some echoes of these ideas in a recent Haaretz op-ed.) 

For some, the farthermost reaches of this argument arrives at the point that a family of ten sitting down to a festive meal is fair game for slaughter. After all, today settlers are barely viewed as human beings to many on the left and blamed as the sole obstacle to peace in the occupied territories.

Candles and an Israeli flag placed next to the home where three Israelis were killed in the Neve Tsuf settlement. July 22, 2017
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

I never thought I would need to put this to paper but here it is: human rights aren't only for the politically-correct people of the planet. The inalienable freedom not to be murdered in your kitchen as you sit down to dinner with your family applies to all. There is no moral or political justification for wanton slaughter. One's political beliefs have no bearing on the fundamental entitlement to life and safety. Settlers, too, are human beings with human rights. [Full stop.]

I hope that Omar al-Abed, the Palestinian terrorist, will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and that others in his community who may be inspired by these acts will know the crushing force of judicial and social recrimination.

Now for the inevitable accusation that I’ve drunk the settler Kool-Aid: Believing that all human beings - even those with controversial ideologies - deserve equal protection doesn’t mean one subscribes to ultra-nationalist politics. You are lying to yourself if you say you are a liberal but don’t actually think all peoples are deserving of the same dispensations; that the lives of Yosef, Chaya, and Elad Salomon are somehow less worthy than other lives in the West Bank.

Moreover, for those of us concerned about the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories, it is sheer hypocrisy to decry the death and disenfranchisement of a population under occupation on a daily basis, while turning a blind (even benevolent) eye to terrorists that would do the same to their neighbors in their own homes.

Palestinians march on Pope Mountain, near the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, which is encroaching on their lands on the outskirts of Jerusalem. April 28, 2017
Heidi Levine/AP

I am not nave about the idea that deployment of rights-based discourses is ripe for manipulation in respect to the occupied territories - I wrote a whole book about it recently. I don’t deny the slipperiness of the distinction between 'settler' vs 'soldier’, when most are armed veterans living in a dangerous environment, nor the blurriness of what constitutes a civilian or a battlefield in the age of asymmetrical warfare. (Of course, these are certainly questions we ask about Gazans living under Hamas' regime.) The juridical position that renders settlements (land) but not settlers (people) as illegal is a distinction that's apparently hard to make, not least for terrorists themselves

It’s also worth considering how Israel’s settler-colonial state compares to many other modern liberal democracies and whether civic nationalism is a fantasy - is every citizen of a nation-state merely a conscript of the regime’s agenda? It is also relevant to discuss the role of armed resistance in other conflict zones and their transitions to peace and democracy. 

While these topics may make for interesting philosophical discussion about the limits of international law and liberalism over a boozy dinner at Oxford — they cannot be a thought-experiment played out over a bloody Sabbath meal in the occupied territories. Words have meaning, and the pen (or the tweet) can be equally mighty to the sword in a West Bank settlement. Academic and activist conversations have consequences - deadly consequences.

That said, retribution is also not on offer on this bloody table: the Halamish attack and similar attacks do not entitle settlers or the State of Israel to deprive others of their human rights, civil freedoms, or basic dignities (not to mention political will), so I pray that reprisals - which we should call clearly and full-throatedly as terrorism and demand equal punishment -- will not be forthcoming.

The cycle of violence in Jerusalem, which has now spread to the West Bank, is still within human control. I hope Palestinians and Israelis will disavow those within their own communities who choose violence and revenge and make the difficult concession of returning to the path of reconciliation after a week like this.

At the heart of the matter is this: if we allow human rights to be applicable only to some of history's subjects, we will all have lost our humanity at Halamish.

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. She is the author of City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 (Harvard University Press). Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1