Settler violence should be on the conscience of all Israelis

Settler violence should be on the conscience of all Israelis

Settler violence should be on the conscience of all Israelis
Young Israelis walk in Old Jerusalem following an eviction in the Muslim Quarter to make way for settlers, July 11, 2023. (AFP)
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For most Israelis, what happens in the Occupied Territories stays in the Occupied Territories. Israelis are a modern version of the three wise monkeys, who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” ignoring what is being done on their behalf by a military in which many of them have served, by a government they voted for and by means of taxes they duly pay.
Nothing better illustrates this than the violence that Israeli settlers are accustomed to meting out to ordinary Palestinians — a violence that is constantly spiraling out of control in terms of its frequency and viciousness. The number of settlers involved in the habitual harassment and other forms of violence against Palestinians might be small, but by turning a blind eye to it, as most Israelis do, they have become complicit in these crimes.
Settler violence is not a new phenomenon and it has not gone unreported in the past, but the very nature of the current ultranationalist-religious government has legitimized this ugly phenomenon. Further red lines have now been crossed, in some cases with the explicit support of government ministers.
This year, two extremely violent cases have caught the eye in the most troubling way, as entire Palestinian communities have been terrorized. Both took place in the occupied West Bank, one in February in Huwara and one last month in Turmus Ayya. In Huwara, a mob of Israeli settlers entered the town and began burning houses, vandalizing shops and torching cars and orchards. During the attack, a 37-year-old Palestinian man, Sameh Al-Aqtash, from the nearby village of Zatara, died after being shot in the stomach, while more than 350 Palestinians were injured. The fate of Turmus Ayya was no better when masked settlers armed with assault rifles tore through the town and opened fire. As was the case in Huwara, they torched homes, cars and fields in an ugly rampage that ended with one Palestinian dead and many more wounded.
To justify their contemptible behavior, members of this violent segment of the settler population claim their actions are in revenge for the murder of Israelis by Palestinian terrorists and are acts of deterrence. What they are really instigating is mob rule and a complete breakdown in law and order, as they take the law into their own hands and behave like a militia in order to prove that they are the masters of this land. Terrorizing entire communities in revenge for the acts of individuals is primitive behavior that has no place in a civilized society. Palestinians who murder Israelis are, in most cases, killed on the scene or shortly afterward and the tiny minority who are captured are put on trial and spend decades in jail. On some occasions, the occupying force punishes their families by sealing up or even demolishing their houses, which by itself is an abhorrent practice of guilt by association followed by collective punishment.
Settlers are Israeli citizens and, even if we ignore just for a brief moment the fact that their entire presence in an occupied land is illegal, their ongoing violence against Palestinians adds insult to injury. This situation is made worse by Israel’s security forces, which either remain as bystanders while these atrocities are committed or, on other occasions, see their role as protecting the perpetrators of these crimes because they are Israeli citizens, not one of protecting the victims.
Under no circumstances should settlers be allowed to take the law into their own hands and, if there were any modicum of decency or integrity left in the government, it would have forced an immediate halt to all forms of settler violence against Palestinians. But then it might be rather naive to expect a government that itself behaves illegally and robs Palestinians of their land, and in many cases their lives, to protect the very same rogue settlers to do the right thing.
Huwara and Turmus Ayya might look like extreme incidents — cases of settlers having a rush of blood to the head — but this is far from the truth. These atrocities are merely the tip of the iceberg. They are not just spontaneous, impulsive and angry reactions that themselves are no less criminal and reprehensible, but are part of a well-organized campaign of harassment against Palestinians aimed at making their lives more and more miserable until they either give up on their national aspirations and submit to all the whims of the settlers or just pack up and leave. Not that either of these scenarios is likely to happen, but that does not stop the settlers constantly resorting to these tactics.
According to a disturbing report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in the first six months of this year, Israeli settlers were involved in 570 attacks of various kinds, including about 160 that caused physical injuries. Various human rights organizations have made it clear that these violent acts date from the very first days of the settlements project and include “beating, throwing stones, issuing threats, torching fields, destroying trees and crops, stealing crops, damaging homes and cars, blocking roads, using live fire, and, in rare cases, killing.”

As an occupying force, Israel has the responsibility to protect the occupied civilian population.

Yossi Mekelberg

These settlers are no longer on the margins of Israeli politics, but at the heart of its government. Following the events in Huwara, a senior minister and a settler himself, Bezalel Smotrich, opined: “The village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think that the state of Israel needs to do that — not … private individuals.” Settler violence has become another branch of the occupation’s oppressive machinery; one that does not adhere to any law or authority beyond that of their religious and political leaders, among whom are those who themselves have perpetrated acts of violence against Palestinians and are encouraging others to copy this contemptible behavior.
As an occupying force, Israel has the responsibility to protect the occupied civilian population. By not doing so, it becomes complicit and culpable for these actions. It is time for those who are protesting against the antidemocratic drive of the current government to add to their list of demands the call to stop settler violence. Equally, the international community, which facilitates the occupation in so many different ways, must make its voice heard in Israel’s corridors of power and make it clear to the country’s leaders that it will not stand idly by in the face of the suffering of innocent and vulnerable people at the hands of settlers or any other Israeli.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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