National Reserve for Wild Weeds

Settlers from Yitzhar during clashes with Palestinians near Nablus, January 14, 2014.
Nasser Ishtayeh / AP

With or without a government, it’s clear to everyone just who is in charge in the occupied territories – the settlers. They act violently toward Palestinians on a regular basis, and every so often toward soldiers as well. With regard to the former, the Israeli public and its elected representatives have been utterly apathetic. When the army is attacked, in contrast, a momentary outcry erupts, but it soon dies down.

Settlers from an illegal outpost attacking local Palestinians who had come to harvest their olives last Wednesday, along with an activist from Rabbis for Human Rights, flew beneath the Israeli public’s radar, as well as that of most media outlets. But over the last few days, there have been several violent incidents between settlers and Israel Defense Forces soldiers, and these broke the radio silence.

During the Sukkot holiday, settlers repeatedly attacked soldiers in the settlement of Yitzhar and in nearby outposts. On Friday, settlers cursed and threatened a battalion commander who had come to conduct an exercise with his soldiers at the entrance to Yitzhar. Before dawn on Sunday, a few dozen settlers threw stones at two Golani Brigade patrol vehicles (wounding one soldier). On Monday, settlers threw stones at a Border Police unit near Yitzhar.

As usually happens in these cases, the hilltop criminals were immediately depicted as wild weeds rather than as a widespread problem that must be eradicated. The wall-to-wall denunciations served as a flak jacket that enables the lawlessness to continue. The fact that their political leaders – ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz and MK Ayelet Shaked – issued condemnations on Twitter or Facebook is merely part of Israel’s well-oiled denial mechanism. After all, these reactions are never backed by demands for significant punitive measures that could boost deterrence.

This weakness and self-abnegation is shared by the heads of the defense establishment. When IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi said, “It’s inconceivable that IDF soldiers, who work day and night to protect the residents, should be attacked by the people they’re protecting,” he sounded like an elementary school teacher, not a chief of staff. And his order to find everyone involved and exercise the full force of the law against them must be judged by the results, because statements like that have been heard in the past, only to prove meaningless.

The condemnation issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also a sorry joke. It’s not by chance that his statement omitted any mention that the lawbreakers were settlers, much less that the scene of this lawlessness was the territories. This sanitized language is no accident. Its goal is to legitimize a project of dispossession and oppression that operates on an enormous scale, with violence against soldiers as just one of its inevitable side effects. The settlements have long since become a national nature reserve for wild weeds.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.