Consistent stands against the depravity of the West Bank’s lawless settlers are the only way to put an end to their crimes
News that leftwing activists are facing increased pressure to stay out of the West Bank is a worrying development in local politics, especially at a time when settler attacks on Palestinians are on the increase. Rather than clamp down on the settlers perpetrating the violence, the authorities are pursuing a path of locking the doors to the outside world and pretending that nothing at all is amiss.
Not all settlers are inherently violent; to portray their entire subgroup as such is as disingenuous as claiming that all Palestinians are fanatics just because there are radical elements in their midst. However, just because all settlers shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush doesn’t excuse the inaction and indifference on the part of the Israeli authorities when faced with the crimes of the extremists among the settler population.
Of late, there has been a steady stream of brutal assaults carried out by settlers against their Palestinian neighbours in the West Bank, right under the noses of the lackadaisical army. The phenomenon is, sadly, nothing new; what has brought the story back into the spotlight are the efforts of human rights groups, such as B’Tselem to film the violence and document the shocking reality on the ground – which is why, it seems, the authorities are so keen to clamp down on their activity in the region.
However, the settlers don’t confine their vindictive and vicious attacks to Palestinians; they are not averse to attacking their Jewish peers either. Two recent incidents amply demonstrated the extent to which the Wild West Bank has become bandit country, with no sheriff’s posse daring to stand up to the rogue elements holding the region at ransom.
First up was a Breaking the Silence tour to Hebron, whose bus was surrounded by jeering settlers who blocked their path and showered those aboard with abuse. Instead of intervening on behalf of the victims of the threatening mob, the police “did not manage to disperse the mob”, “no arrests were made”, and in the end they simply ordered the tour group to return from whence they came.
Then another Breaking the Silence group came under attack from settler vigilantes, who doused the participants with boiling water after confronting them in the streets of Hebron and heckling them with cries of “traitor”, and other such hostile invective.
For anyone who’s been to Hebron, Kiryat Arba, or any of the settlements which play home to the extremist hardcore of the settler movement, incidents such as those in Hebron, or the assaults in Susiya, are by no means surprising. Being subjected to settler abuse and attack is part and parcel of the experience for Israeli left-wingers and Palestinian locals alike. Sordid as it may be, the depths to which many settlers have sunk is merely a symptom of the malaise infecting Israeli society, rather than the cause.
Radical elements exist in every religion, in every ethnic group, and in every country. Human nature dictates that there will always be those for whom conforming to societal norms is antithetic to their bigoted, boorish ways – but that is when those charged with keeping order in society are meant to be put into play. In Israel, the state apparatus should, in theory, be mobilised to full effect to quell any illegal activity, whether carried out by right- or left-winger, Jew or gentile.
The security forces are, of course, by no means scared to act when it suits them. Palestinian demonstrations are routinely put down with excessive force: rocks flung by pre-teens are countered with rubber bullets, tear gas, and – often – live and indiscriminate fire. But when it comes to clamping down on violence emanating from the settler community, a different set of rules apply, and the authorities’ reeking hypocrisy is exposed as endemic to the way in which they view the different strands of Israeli society.
I’ve witnessed the double standards for myself countless times, from the kid-glove treatment my platoon used when evicting the settlers of Homesh to the heavy-handed brutality meted out by the border police in the Palestinian villages of Bil’in and Nilin. What is explained away as “necessary in the interests of security” in one situation is turned on its head in another; softly-softly replacing an all-out show of force, simply because the assailants in question are religious Jews rather than Muslims.
The longer the duplicity is allowed to thrive in the military and political spheres in Israel, the worse the violence will get on the part of the settlers’ lunatic fringe. Giving them carte blanche to engage in low-level crime only encourages them to see how much more they can get away with, in their attempts to intimidate and bully anyone they see as against them in their holy war.
There’s unlikely to be a sea-change any time soon in the upper echelons of Israeli politics, given their tacit support of the settlement enterprise in turning a blind eye to illegal construction, and the army’s providing of military support to settlers the length and breadth of the West Bank. However, there has to be a concerted effort on the parts of all with an interest in human rights to follow B’Tselem’s lead and apply sufficient pressure on Israeli judges to see court cases through to a satisfactory conclusion.
Only by taking consistent and courageous stands against the depravity of the lawless settlers will there be an end to their crimes. The police force and army seem uninterested in calling them to heel, or allowing activists to bear witness to their crimes; it can only be hoped that the legal system is made of sterner, and more moral, stuff than them.