Why Israeli settlers are lashing out

Rights groups report a sharp increase of attacks by West Bank settlers on Palestinians, as well as rising right-wing violence against left-leaning Israelis.

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Armed and building: An Israeli settler worked on a synagogue along with Palestinian laborers earlier this year in the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Bruchin.

When Yaron Ezrahi was a young political science professor in 1983, his star student was Emil Grunzweig, who had just completed his thesis on free speech.

Two days later, Mr. Grunzweig was killed at a peace rally here, when a right-wing activist threw a hand grenade into a crowd of people demonstrating against Israel's involvement in the war in Lebanon.

Today, Dr. Ezrahi sees a resurgence of the same blend of violence and lawlessness that took the life of his favorite student 25 years ago. His alarm stems from a pipe-bomb attack last week outside the home of Zeev Sternhell, a colleague to whom he is personally and ideologically quite close.

Professor Sternhell, who has been a prominent and outspoken critic of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and is active in the organization Peace Now, was lightly injured in the attack. Near his Jerusalem home, police found posters offering a 1 million shekel reward [close to $300,000] to anyone killing a member of Peace Now, which opposes Jewish settlement in the land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.

To Ezrahi, there is a clear connection between an upsurge in violence perpetrated by settlers against Palestinians in the territories, particularly in the northern West Bank, and the reemergence of Israeli-on-Israeli acts of violence inside the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 borders.

In a report last month, Btselem, an Israeli human rights organization, reported that it was looking into at least five violent settler attacks on Palestinians that occurred between July 29 and Aug. 4. "These cases reflect a sharp increase in reports of such violence, and represent a peak to an escalation that has been under way over the past few weeks," the group said.

"We're at a turning point of great significance," Ezrahi says. "What happened in the occupied territories was a growth of a culture of illegalism, and when this culture is allowed to flourish for a long time, violence enters and people think they will be invincible to any repercussions from the apparatus of the state."

Ezrahi pointed to several recent acts of violence by settlers – both against Palestinians and against Israeli soldiers who are posted in the West Bank.

"Some historians of this conflict say the settlers are feeling weakened by the increasing pressure of the international community on the Israeli public to evacuate settlements," Ezrahi adds. "And the US and Israel are both in a transition to new administrations. This is always a vacuum that they try to enter and make gains: they are trying to impress the new administrations and show what they are capable of doing."

On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Israel is indeed moving into an uncertain period. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, under a cloud of suspicion as part of a major police investigation, has tendered his resignation but is still serving as premier until his successor, Tzipi Livni, can form a new government. At their weekly cabinet meeting, both made statements to condemn the attack on Sternhell and the possibility of more violence on the horizon.

"An evil wind of extremism, of hatred, of malice, of violence, of lawlessness is blowing through certain sectors of the Israeli public and threatens Israeli democracy," Mr. Olmert said at the cabinet meeting Sunday.

Michael Sfard, a lawyer who represents several human rights groups and is the coauthor of "The Wall of Folly," a book on Israel's West Bank separation barrier, said that monitoring groups have noticed a shift in the behavior of rightists.

"There has been an increase in settler violence, and moreover, a change in tactics. We've been saying that a new phase of settler violence, or Jewish terror, is about to happen," Mr. Sfard said at a briefing last week. "We've sent out letters [to government agencies] saying: 'Look. Our research reveals that settlers, the more extreme among them, have decided on a new approach, and that is that there is a price tag for any move that is considered damaging for the settler movement.' "

Sfard says the strategy is to "create havoc on the roads and in nearby Palestinian villages. The logic is that the army, government, and state of Israel should know that dismantling any outpost or stopping construction will bear a price."

In response to official admonitions against settler violence from Olmert and Ms. Livni, a new group called the Citizens Committee for Samaria issued a statement warning that their attitudes were what creates divisions in Israeli society and "would eventually lead it to civil war." In general, Sternhell's right-wing foes charge that his writings justify terrorism and promote violence against Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.

But Ezrahi says that Olmert's government and its predecessors have taken a laissez-faire attitude toward the settlers. He notes that coalition politics in Israel, where any leader needs to lure multiple parties into government – including those more sympathetic to the settlers' outlook – hold leaders back from more concrete action.

Sternhell, who was treated for his injuries and has returned home, says he doesn't plan to be muffled by the attack.

"My job is to criticize," Sternhell told the Haaretz newspaper in a pre-New Year's interview. Sternhell regularly writes a column in Haaretz, the country's left-leaning broadsheet paper of record, and he won the 2008 Israel Prize for Political Science.

"I'm glad my injury shocked the cabinet and Knesset. But what remains of [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin's murder, which caused a much greater shock? A one-day annual festival," he says about the legacy of the former Israeli leader who was assassinated by a right-wing Orthodox Jew.

"Occupation is rotting our society," Sternhell said. "The terrible violence in the territories is spilling over the Green Line. This is inevitable – different standards and laws for different people cannot exist without affecting all of society. I'm not seeking absolute justice, only an end to building a de facto apartheid, only to ensure the creation of a society that future generations will not be ashamed of."

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