Settler Terror: Aberration Or National Vanguard? – OpEd


The level of settler violence, always high, has reached a fever pitch of late.  Usually the attacks go by the common name “price tag,” which alludes to a form of payback against the government for dismantling illegal settlements.  Though lately, the attacks seem to have taken on a life of their own and need no spark to ignite them: three mosques have been burned, two in the past week; a West Bank IDF outpost was trashed and a senior officer injured with a brick thrown through his car window; settlers occupied an abandoned monastery on the Jordanian border to warn King Abdullah not to interfere in matters concerning the Temple Mount; death threats and vandalism against Peace Now leaders.

In particular, the assault against the IDF unit and wounding of the officer seems to have unnerved many in Israel.  While Israelis argue about many things, there is an avowed reverence for the IDF in many circles.  Whatever you trash, you don’t trash our boys, the ones who protect us.  The most radical of the settlers have violated this national covenant because, while there are few threats against their political agenda, if the nation ever turns against them, they understand it will be the army that will face them.  In the few instances where the State musters the fortitude to dismantle an outpost or settlement, it is the army that does it.  That’s why the most radical settlers espouse outright hatred of the army and engage in regular acts of vandalism and harassment though till now, they’d never risen to this level of intensity.

All of Israel seems to wringing its hands, with the common refrain being–these settlers are not representative of the overwhelming majority of law-abiding settlers.  They’re an extremist minority within a minority.  They’re an aberration, a schandeh, an embarrassment to Israel in the face of the world community.  This Jerusalem Post editorial is typical:

What is needed is some proportion. The burning of mosques by Jewish hooligans is deplorable, but it is no more representative of the country – or the direction it is going – than Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ burning of a Koran in May was a reflection of America.

Terry Jones doesn’t live in occupied territory (unless you want to argue we should return Florida to the Pensacolas).  He doesn’t have the mortgage for the house where he resides and which sits on occupied territory, subsidized by the U.S. government.  The government hasn’t built roads to his home cutting through land belonging to a foreign nation.  Terry Jones doesn’t elect members of Congress who mirror his views precisely.  The president doesn’t meet regularly and consult with Terry Jones’ best friends.  Terry Jones hasn’t yet killed anyone, let alone a neighbor living next door to him on that occupied land.  Terry Jones is a Christian lunatic crackpot.  Settlers are most definitely not.

The Israeli government, which itself shares most, if not all of the values of the settler extremists went into emergency session to determine how to deal with the threat posed by the hooliganism and violence.  The answer Bibi Netanyahu devised is to begin treating settler criminal suspects just as badly as Palestinian security detainees.  In other words, arrest without speedy trial, denial of legal representation, etc.  So techniques and tactics which have failed to quell Palestinian resistance will now be used in a failed effort to suppress settler revolt.  Not to mention that Israel’s vaunted democratic values, what’s left of them anyway, will be further eroded.  But this doesn’t matter to most Israelis, who see security detainees as individuals who don’t deserve any rights.

There was one bridge too far for Bibi, though.  He won’t say the “T” word.  He wouldn’t call the settlers terrorists.  Doing so would allow the State to treat the settlers basically as the U.S. treats Guantanamo detainees, offering them virtually no rights at all.

Former defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer’s response to the settler pogroms was to recommend shooting them as the IDF would any Palestinian group which had the chutzpah to invade one of their camps.  Shimon Peres called the settlers a schandeh fahr di goyim (but in Hebrew, of course).  Jeffrey Goldberg said Israel should “declare war” on them and throw them in the desert prison where it houses Fatah and Hamas terror prisoners, Ketziot (where Goldberg himself served in the IDF).

But there is one basic, fundamental problem with everything I’ve described above and which renders Israel’s response the height of hypocrisy.  The settlers are not an aberration.  They are not a schandeh.  They don’t represent an extremist minority.  In fact, about them you could say: “L’etat c’est moi.”  The settlers ARE the State.  They may be slightly ahead of the conventional political mainstream, but as the American politicians say about Israeli prime ministers when they come to DC: “there’s no daylight between Israel and the U.S.”

I can hear liberal Zionists like Goldberg or Gershom Gorenberg protest that I overstate my case.  Even some readers will no doubt try to take me to task.  But I maintain that just as Malcolm X said after the Kennedy assassination that the latter’s killing was the “chickens coming home to roost,” so settler killings and general hooliganism are a manifestation of an overall national consensus that Israel must maintain the Occupation virtually forever.

Yes, I know there is supposedly general support for a two state solution, liberal Zionists are fond of pointing out that Bibi even claims to support this approach.  But that’s not how to determine what a nation believes.  Watch what I do, not what I say, is an old motto regarding politicians.  It holds true of nations as well.  The vast majority of Israelis may say they support two states, but they also don’t believe there will ever be peace with the Palestinians.  A nation which has given up on peace will never make the choices necessary to achieve it.

Why else are settlers who are guilty of major crimes like murder, maiming, arson, etc. almost never charged, let alone prosecuted?  Why else when a settler is imprisoned (but only for the most heinous of crimes like mass murder) are they invariably sent to a mental hospital and judged insane, rather than to prison?  Why else do Israeli presidents invariably pardon or grant clemency to almost every single Jewish terrorist?   At some point, you have to recognize that the terrorist, he is us.

So if Israel wants to maintain the Occupation.  If it approves of the ongoing theft of Palestinian land.  If it supports the building of the Separation Wall and the consequent sequestration of another 15% or more of available Palestinian land.  If it shrugs its shoulders at the constant drip-drip-drip of settler and IDF homicidal violence against both Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, then it must take responsibility for the criminals within, who are little more than mirrors of Israel itself.

Frankly, I’m sick and tired of the faces and arms raised to the sky whenever a settler commits an especially outrageous act (such as the assassination of Rabin, for one).  These are not alien acts committed by body snatchers or pod people.  These are your own kin, your own fellow citizens.  They act on your behalf.  They ARE you.  You cannot deny them.  You cannot distance yourself.  You cannot say they work for themselves alone.

From the very first moment of the settlement enterprise shortly after the 1967 War, Israel blessed it and said it was doing God’s and the nation’s work.  Even Shimon Peres, who leads the hand-wringers today in claiming these settlers are bad, bad boys who must be spanked by their mommies; even Peres went to the settlements at a critical juncture in the early stages and threw in his lot with them.  There would be no Hilltop Youth, no Baruch Marzel, no Yigal Amir without the prior approval offered by Israel’s power élite to the Greater Israel-Gush Emunim movement.

Many Israeli commentators are getting carried away talking about a cancer in the body politic.  The most extreme of the settlers are not alien to Israel, they ARE Israel.  Look at the Israeli government, at the Knesset.  The bright, shiny faces representing Israel on the world stage could just as easily be throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails at IDF officers if they took off their suits and ties (when they wear them).  Lieberman?  A former Kach member.  Yaalon?  Committed an act of insubordination against PM Sharon in refusing to evacuate Gaza settlers.  Netanyahu?  Spoke openly of expelling Israeli Palestinian citizens as recently as 1988.  There is almost a seamless web of ideological conviction and action between the current Israeli governing élite and the settlers.

What is to be done?  That’s one of the hardest questions to answer.  This is why I’ve come to despair that an answer can come from within Israel.  Until he died, on good days I believed that Sharon might take on the settlers in the same way Ben Gurion took on Begin by sinking the Altalena in 1948.  Now that Sharon is gone, there’s no one.  Tzipi Livni?  Gimme a break.  She may not even win the next Kadima Party primary, let alone become prime minister.  Barak?  Don’t even go there.  So who?

The key is outside intervention.  Israel is rapidly turning into Serbia or apartheid era South Africa or Putin’s Russia.  It is an outlaw nation.  A nation not of laws but of whims and caprices.  What Bibi wants, Bibi gets.  A TV channel airs documentaries critical of you?  Shut it down.  An NGO exposes injustices committed by the army or intelligence services?  Turn off the tap of foreign support.

Similarly, what settlers want, they get.  They are never satisfied with half a loaf when they could have the whole.  And the whole invariably involves a Palestinian village or family who owns an orchard or spring which would look might fine with some sprightly new tile-roofed settler homes sitting on that land.

The settlers have theft in their heart, which means that Israel is a nation built on theft.  And you cannot separate settlerism from Zionism (as practiced by the Israeli political élite) or Israeli national identity.  They are interchangeable.  That is why I despair that any Israeli leader would have the political will to make a virtual political suicide pact to extirpate the settlers as a power base within Israel.  For that is what it will take.  There can be no compromise, no saying that settlers may be criminals but not terrorists as Bibi does.  Someone’s got to look this scourge in the eye and say: we’ve seen the enemy and he is us.  Until then, you’re just talking about window-dressing.

I’ve been watching the bitter unfolding of a vendetta between the Israeli government and Tom Friedman, who’s writing increasingly vitriolic prose about the Netanyahu government.  The spectacle of Israel’s liberal Zionist forward cadre turning its back on the current government in a most public and disconcerting way is almost a joy to behold.  Not that Friedman has grown much wiser from the thrashing.  He’s still touting Fayyadism as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But as far as his analysis of the current Israeli government, he’s quite acute on that score.

The problem of course for liberal Zionists like Friedman is that they hold out hope that Israel can save itself, which I no longer believe.  It will be interesting to watch for any evolution in Friedman’s thinking on that score.

This article appeared at Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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