The Cost of Settler Vigilantism in Israel

Settler attacks on the IDF and Israeli policemen testify to the depths of Israel's internal struggles.

To outsiders, Israel (along with the Palestinian-populated territories it administers) must be a confusing place. Take the recent spate of violence between unruly and law-breaking youngsters from the West Bank settlements (dubbed no'ar hagva'ot—literally, the hill-area youths), backed by their supporters in Israel, and the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli army.

Since 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan, the army has expended a great deal of blood and treasure protecting the Israelis who moved into the government-sponsored settlements that now thickly dot the region's hilltops and roadsides. Conscripts and reservists still spend long hours doing guard duty at settlement gates or on patrol along access roads. Yet earlier this week, hundreds of young settlers, including women, some of them masked, raided a regional brigade-headquarters camp near Kedumim in Samaria, burning tires, lobbing paint-filled bottles at buildings and vandalizing vehicles. Another group simultaneously stoned passing IDF vehicles, slightly injuring both the brigade commanding officer and his deputy. They also hit passing Palestinian vehicles. The following night, a group of settlers or their supporters inside Israel set alight an unused mosque in downtown Jerusalem, damaging the building.

The violence—like a series of similar incidents over the past few years—was triggered by a rumor that Israeli troops and police intended to destroy Mitzpe Yitzhar and Ramat Gilad, two of the West Bank's dozens of small satellite outposts that settlers over the years have constructed without government approval—illegally—near "official" settlements. Settlers have exhibited growing resistance to government attempts to uproot the outposts. Meanwhile, the government, partly in defiant response to Arab terrorist attacks and to President Obama's efforts to curb the settlement enterprise in general, has continued to expand official settlements, especially inside and around greater Jerusalem. The Netanyahu government hopes to retain these as part of Israel in an eventual peace settlement, but it knows that insisting on Israeli sovereignty over the city's eastern, Arab half is unacceptable even to the most moderate of Palestinians and will effectively stymie any peace negotiation.

During the past few years, West Bank settlers have torched a number of mosques in the territory and in Israel proper, destroyed Arab cars and stoned Arab traffic. Occasionally, they have stoned and beaten soldiers and policemen. The settlers call these "price-tag" actions—meaning that they are the price Palestinians and the Israeli establishment are paying for terrorist attacks on Israelis (for which they hold the government partly responsible due to its relaxation of West Bank security measures) or for government efforts to dismantle illegal outposts.

Left-wing Israelis have long criticized the government for its "soft" and ineffective responses to the settlers’ law-breaking price-tag campaigns. They charge that the right-wing coalition government supports the settlers and, in its heart of hearts, seeks to retain the West Bank for Israel (despite Netanyahu's pro forma endorsement of a "two-state solution" as the basis of peace with the Palestinians).

The settlers' leaders, for their part, have charged the press and some government officials with condemning the whole settler community because of the activities of "a small number of law-breakers." This round of violence elicited strong condemnations from Benjamin Netanyahu of the "hill-area youths,” and key West Bank-settler leaders, including some prominent settlement rabbis, joined in. They vilified those who would attack Israeli troops (though they apparently weren’t bothered by attacks directed against Arabs or Arab sites). The army and police managed after the attacks to arrest only one of the hundreds who had participated in the anti-IDF violence.

Left-wing critics charged that, irrespective of whether Netanyahu's condemnations of the violence are sincere and heartfelt (he reportedly said Tuesday that the violence against the IDF was "unconscionable"), the government, army and police are now reaping what was sown in years of official neglect and non-punishment of settler vigilantism. The IDF chief of general staff, General Benny Gantz, said Tuesday that what had happened was "absurd, this is a dangerous and illogical reality." He said he hoped that the perpetrators would be brought to book.

But past police and General Security Service (Shin Bet) performance in this regard gives little cause for optimism. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a small, clandestine group of settlers—dubbed by the press the settler "underground"—mounted a series of deadly attacks on local Palestinian leaders, including the mayors of Nablus and Ramallah. The GSS eventually caught them, and they got long prison sentences.

But the current settler violence is altogether different. On the one hand, it has avoided lethality and, on the other, it has included IDF troops and policemen as targets. This poses a more complex challenge, especially given the increased strength of the Right, with its general support for the settlement enterprise, in Israel's political arena. Following the settler attacks, Netanyahu empowered the army to arrest violent settlers (until now, only the police had powers of arrest) and authorized the trial of such settlers in military courts in the West Bank rather than in civilian courts in Israel, as has been the practice to date.