Opinion |

The Israeli Occupation's Problem Isn’t Just a Few Violent Settlers

Avshalom Zohar Sal
Settlers and Palestinian protesters clashing in the West Bank Village of Asira al-Qibliya, in September.
Settlers and Palestinian protesters clashing in the West Bank Village of Asira al-Qibliya, in September.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Avshalom Zohar Sal

I was not a general in the Israeli army, and certainly not a major general or head of the Central Command. I was a simple soldier, and like nearly every other combat soldier, I too was compelled to pass through that strainer that is nominally known as service in the territories. What I saw is the same as what thousands of other soldiers have seen, before me and after me. It is surprising, then, that in a country in which so many of its sons are sent to the territories, it takes three retired generals to tell the public that Jewish terror is a problem.

I served in the Nahal infantry brigade. I spent less than a week in Hebron, but even that was long enough to make it clear who runs the shop there. You immediately see how the “ravshatz” (the settlement’s security coordinator, who liaises with the local IDF presence) is telling the deputy battalion commander what to do. You watch as your low-ranking commander doesn’t say a word when the security coordinator calls you “soldier boy” and tells you to go through a Palestinian neighborhood to show them who’s the boss here.

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On one of my guard-duty shifts, in the evening hours, a gang of settler youths gathered in a circle around a 3-year-old girl, who didn’t even come up to their knees. “Fucking whore,” they yelled. “Where are your terrorist parents? We’ll slaughter them.” We drove them off. But not before one of the youths spat at me, and said: “You’re worse than the Arabs.”

That same evening, the eve of the Torah reading of “Chayei Sarah” in Hebron, I met Itamar Ben-Gvir for the first time. Every year at this time, the city is filled with revelers. We saw a bunch of drunken settlers walking around with Ben-Gvir. A few minutes after he left, they decided to pick a fight with a group of Palestinians who were sitting there. We ran over and moved the Palestinians off to the side. One of the settlers had either a rock or a club, I no longer remember which, and smashed to pieces a television set from the Palestinian’s shop. We did not stop him.

It may be that the soldiers in the field, including the high-ranking officers, were only trying to please the higher echelons like we were. But the policy that we implemented was not charted by the commanders of the regional command. No, it is longstanding Israeli policy, the logic of which remains the same: protection of the settlements, and seizure of land for them.

The three heads of Central Command analyze well in their article the damage caused by Jewish terror in the territories on the security, political and ethical levels (“Settler violence endangers Israel’s security,” Nitzan Alon, Avi Mizrachi and Gadi Shamni, Haaretz.com, January 14). But they forget that this violence is only one component of the sum total of the occupation, and that it has objectives – driving Palestinians off their land and gaining control of it. As such, this violence is not very different from the official policy in the area, from the vitriolic discrimination of the Civil Administration in the awarding of construction permits to Palestinians, to the ban on entry by Palestinians to the land around unlawful settlement outposts.

Perhaps in the past it was possible to differentiate between our military control in the territories and the settlement movement, but we have long ago moved beyond that. The two are highly integrated now. The violence of the settlers is only one component of the problem; the continuation of military rule over millions of people is a decidedly more significant source of the damage described by the Central Command chiefs.

Uri Misgav raged on the pages of this newspaper about the leftists who did not embrace Alon, Mizrachi and Shamni. I actually respect these generals, and remember the frequent settler harassment directed at Alon when he headed Central Command. But if we continue to pretend that the issue is a few violent settlers, then we would be lying to ourselves. These settlers are violent with permission, and that permission was given them because, in their way, they are serving the aims of the occupation as a whole.

The generals are right on one important thing: The existing situation is intolerable, unstable and dangerous. Out of our responsibility for the people living here, we must follow the biblical imperative to “seek peace and pursue it.” We have an obligation to end the occupation and separate from the Palestinians, to make it possible for each nation to realize its right to sovereignty, and enable the State of Israel to reinforce its unique character as a Jewish and democratic state.

Avshalom Zohar Sal, who served as a combat soldier in the Nahal Brigade, is a political consultant.

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