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Washington Times Analysis/Opinion: "West Bank settlers' lawlessness, violence hurts Israel" by Ori Nir, APN Spokesman

Israeli law enforcement authorities are connecting the dots. So are Israeli politicians, the media and most of the Israeli public. It's time for American friends of Israel to also sober up to the straight line that leads from the systemic lawlessness among Jewish West Bank settlers to political terrorism inside Israel.
APN Spokesman Ori Nir

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Israeli law enforcement authorities are connecting the dots. So are Israeli politicians, the media and most of the Israeli public. It's time for American friends of Israel to also sober up to the straight line that leads from the systemic lawlessness among Jewish West Bank settlers to political terrorism inside Israel.

Days before the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish terrorists in Jerusalem tried to assassinate professor Zeev Sternhell, a Holocaust survivor, an Israel Prize laureate, and a longtime activist in Peace Now, the Israeli organization that documents West Bank settlement construction. Mr. Sternhell suffered light wounds when a pipe bomb exploded on his doorstep, but Israeli democracy suffered a severe blow. The attack did not come in a vacuum. It was another symptom of the culture of violence and disrespect for the rule of law that Israel's occupation of the West Bank has spawned.

The terrorists who tried to kill Mr. Sternhell left behind dozens of fliers offering a bounty of a million shekels "to anyone who will kill a member of Peace Now."

These fliers deserve close examination. Media reports understandably focused on the incitement to kill peace activists. But most of the leaflets' text, summed up by the bolded bottom line - "the state of Israel has turned into our enemy" - is a venomous attack on a state that dares to consider territorial compromise, a state that "has turned into a nightmare."

Unfortunately, this toxic rhetoric is rampant on the hills of the West Bank. It characterizes the worldview of several thousand young, militant settlers, particularly in settlements around Nablus and Hebron, who routinely act violently against their Palestinian neighbors and against Israeli law enforcement officers. Masked settlers have in recent weeks used knives, rocks and even attack dogs against the very police officers and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who are there to protect them from Palestinian violence.

"There has been a rise in Jewish violence in Judea and Samaria," IDF commander of the Central Command, Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, recently told Israel's leading daily newspaper, Ha'aretz. "In the past," he observed, "only a few dozen individuals took part in such activity, but today that number has grown into the hundreds. That's a very significant change. These hundreds are engaged in conspiratorial actions against Palestinians and against the security forces. It's a very grave phenomenon."

Particularly grave is the settlers' brazen campaign, which they dub "Operation Price Tag," to use violence, terror and vandalism to deter Israeli law enforcement agencies from stopping the expansion of settlement outposts and enforcing the law. The strategy is straightforward, as settlers told Israeli reporters in recent weeks: Each time police officers or IDF soldiers try to remove an illegal structure at an outpost, or to arrest a settler, there will be violent consequences, said the settlers, who spoke anonymously with reporters. Vigilantes known as the "hilltop youth," they explained, will reply with violent action against Palestinians and against law enforcement officers, with the aim of deterring the authorities from enforcing the law.

Law enforcement agencies are all but helpless when confronting the militant settlers. The IDF does not see policing Israelis as part of its mission statement. The Israeli police are severely understaffed in the West Bank. The Israeli police division charged with enforcing the law on the settlers totals 110 officers. That means 2,636 Israelis for every police officer in the West Bank, compared to 357 citizens for every police officer in Israel proper. Newly released information shows that the West Bank division of the Israeli police has only five patrol vehicles.

In August, according to Israeli press reports, representatives of the IDF, Israel Police, and the Shin Bet security service met to discuss the recent increase in the number of violent incidents involving settlers. At the meeting, police representatives reportedly accused the IDF of turning a blind eye to the phenomenon, while IDF representatives argued that the police officers, too, often avoid acting against Jews in the West Bank. Data presented at the meeting, according to Ha'aretz, indicates that there were 429 incidents of injury or damage caused by Jews in the West Bank to Palestinians and their property in the first half of this year, compared with 587 incidents in all of 2006 and 551 in 2007. The increase in violence was not matched by an increase in enforcement.

According to Gen. Shamni, "A hard core of several hundred activists among some 300,000 Jews" who live in the West Bank perpetrate these acts of violence. However, these vigilantes are often embraced by the settlers' leaders.

"The margins [in the settler community] are expanding because they are enjoying a tailwind and the backing of part of the leadership, both rabbinical and public, whether in explicit statements or tacitly," he said.

In Israel, the settlers' violence and the attack on Mr. Sternhell have been strongly condemned by politicians across the spectrum. The threat of domestic terrorism is being discussed in the media, in the Knesset, in think tanks, in coffee shops and on the street.

America's pro-Israel community is typically quick to react to developments in Israel, particularly to terrorism. American Jews passionately care about their brethren in Israel, about their safety and well-being. Why is it, then, that this form of terrorism is all but ignored by American Jewish organizations and community leaders? Why has there not been a comprehensive condemnation of the attack on Mr. Sternhell? Why have most American Jewish newspapers opted to look the other way?

American friends of Israel will do an important service to themselves and to Israel if they, too, connect the dots, if they recognize that Israel is threatened not only by external enemies, by Iranian missiles, Arab armies and Palestinian terrorists. Enemies within are becoming a severe threat to Israeli democracy. Anyone who cares about Israel must help the state of Israel fight all threats to its security and well-being, including domestic terrorism.

Ori Nir, formerly the West Bank correspondent of Israel's Ha'aretz daily, is the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, an American Jewish organization that promotes Israeli security through peace and supports the Israeli Peace Now movement.