By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
Watching footage this week of the settlers of Yitzhar, a small community in the heart of the Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank, throwing stones at the Israeli security forces, who are supposed to be there to protect them, reminded me of a story from a visit to a rabbinical seminar in a nearby settlement a number of years ago. There I met with the seminar’s leader and sought his views on relations with Palestinians and the future of this conflict-riven place.
I sort of expected an outpouring of criticism of the Palestinians for posing a security threat to them, and for him to scold the Israeli government for not doing enough to protect them or support the expansion of the Jewish presence in the West Bank, plus of course the usual diatribe against the left and the media for hating them. Instead, to my surprise, my host expressed views that worried me even more. He didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by the environment around him. He declared that his main concern was to educate as many scholars of the Torah as possible and strengthen their belief in the Jewish creed. For a brief moment, he struck me as an innocent, almost naive person, but this was not the case. Behind this soft-speaking rabbi’s sweet talk lay a dangerous defiance of the law of the land in favor of divine law, and of the way he and his disciples chose to interpret Jewish scripture.
If, by any standard of international law, the entire settlement project, with its 600,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, is illegal, there are also outposts that have been built in defiance of both Israeli law and the Israeli government, and rogue elements that respect neither Israeli law nor the Palestinian Authority and are increasingly undeterred by Israel’s security forces. It is a small minority for sure, but a vocal one that sees itself as above the law in its adherence to a most extreme interpretation of Judaism and Zionism. According to their twisted view, Jews are the masters of the land and the Palestinians who have lived on the land of their ancestors for so many generations are merely tolerated residents.
Accordingly, the punitive nature of the occupation itself is not enough to force Palestinians to leave their land, and what is necessary is intimidation through acts of terrorism. Such premeditated violence aims to instill fear and drive Palestinians from their land, enabling the expansion of Israeli control throughout the Occupied Territories.
One of Israel’s most prominent human rights organizations, Yesh Din, has devoted an entire report to the violent behavior of the residents of Yitzhar. According to this account, “settlers and other Israeli civilians, arriving from the settlement of Yitzhar, its satellite outposts and the outpost of Giv’at Ronen, caused bodily harm or property damage to residents of six villages.” The incidents described in the report took place inside homes, on village streets and on the surrounding farmland. For instance, graffiti that read, “Here live enemies — expel or kill” was daubed on the walls of a house in the Palestinian village of Urif. Such vile messages are used as a form of intimidation against ordinary Palestinians. Their content is obviously a source of fear, but it also lets them know that settlers can come right up to their homes whenever they choose and with impunity, which must be a terrifying realization. What if, instead of cans of paint, settlers were to turn the assault rifles they carry, with license from the Israeli authorities, against these residents?
The behavior of these settlers should worry all law-abiding Israeli citizens who still believe that, at some future point, Israelis and Palestinians must reach a political agreement that will lead to peaceful coexistence, and that the law of the country should rule supreme. Instead, there are those within the Israeli authorities who are happy to turn a blind eye to Jewish terrorism against Palestinians, and who even sympathize with it and criminally neglect their moral and legal duty to stop it and bring to justice the perpetrators of these crimes, which they are failing to avert.
Those settlers who are disregarding both international and Israeli law have friends and sympathizers at almost all levels of the establishment, including government ministers and legislators, who are ready and happy to advocate for them. These are the very same politicians that call for the full weight of the law to be applied against Palestinian, including the demolition of their innocent families’ homes, whenever Jews are attacked, but see settlers’ acts of terrorism as acceptable and even lobby for perpetrators to be spared lengthy prison sentences, or even from having to face justice at all.
And, in the meantime, Palestinians are on the receiving end of hundreds of suspected offenses committed by Israeli civilians against residents of the Palestinian villages. Under the slogan “price tag,” settlers are torching Palestinian property, cutting down trees, destroying crops, slaughtering livestock, and blocking access to the farmland that is the main source of so many Palestinians’ livelihoods.
The entire settlement movement has been aimed at perpetuating the occupation of the West Bank, and also initially Gaza, leading to the annexation of at least part of these lands by Israel. By enabling and facilitating this illegal activity, the Israeli government has also created the monster of ultranationalist religious fanatics determined to make the lives of Palestinians a misery as part of their “grand plan” to take all the land for themselves and in so doing fulfill their distorted view of “the promised land to the chosen people.” It is for the law enforcement bodies in Israel to stop treating these fanatics with velvet gloves and ambiguity. These settlers are not only criminally terrorizing Palestinians, but simultaneously undermining the authority and credibility of Israel’s government, its democracy and its rule of law.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg