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Opinion

Obama must stand up to Netanyahu on Israeli settler violence

The US State Department recent called Israeli settler violence against Palestinians 'terrorist incidents.' Though a step in the right direction, the label fails to highlight the Israeli government's responsibility for these human rights violations. Washington must take a bold stand.

By Ibrahim Sharqieh / October 9, 2012

A Muslim cleric stands at the entrance to a mosque in the northern West Bank village of Nabi Elias, after Jewish settlers sprayed a Star of David on the door Dec. 4, 2008. The US State Department recently labeled Israeli settler violence as 'terrorist incidents.' Op-ed contributor Ibrahim Sharqieh writes: 'Washington’s historic position on terrorism is well known for its zero tolerance....A failure to apply those standards in this case will beg the question across the region: Are all terrorists created equal?'

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP/file

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Doha, Qatar

My Palestinian driver had reason to worry as we passed near the Israeli settlement Yitzhar in the West Bank. The settlement is notorious for frequent attacks on nearby Palestinian citizens. Only a month earlier, my driver had himself been attacked by a group of settlers with a big rock that barely missed his car. Two miles farther up the road, he reported the attack to an Israeli Army patrol that was in the area. The patrol commander asked if anyone in the car had been injured. “No,” the driver had said. “Then you can go, no problem if no one was hurt,” the Army personnel replied.

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While my driver was lucky to escape the attack unscathed, others have been less fortunate. Returning to their Bethlehem home in August, the Ghayatha family was attacked by settlers who hurled a firebomb at their taxi. Ayman Ghayatha, his wife, their three children, and the taxi driver were all severely injured. “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms yesterday’s attack on a Palestinian taxi in the West Bank,” said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Subsequently, violent attacks by Jewish settlers against “Palestinian residents, property and places of worship” were cited for the first time in the US State Department Country Report on Terrorism as “terrorist incidents.”

While such a designation marks a significant development in how the US treats the settlement issue, it threatens to remain a label on paper rather than a term that inspires action. Crucially, the designation “settler terrorism” fails to highlight that the Israeli government bears the major responsibility for this phenomenon through its own policy and the complicity of its response to this violence. Viewing this campaign simply as isolated settler terrorism is likely to limit understanding of the problem and obstruct an effective strategy for addressing it.

Settler terrorism has been rising sharply in recent years. The first half of 2012 alone witnessed 154 attacks. According to a report drafted by senior European officials in February this year, the number of attacks rose from 132 in 2009 to 411 in 2011. A UN report released in July 2012 said that settler terrorism targeting Palestinians in the West Bank had risen 150 percent since 2008. These attacks have not been restricted to violence against individuals. Places of worship (mostly mosques) have been torched, trees have been uprooted, and livestock have been slaughtered. Also in August, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that 14 sheep were killed in a settler attack against Palestinian shepherds near the West Bank village of Akraba.

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