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Philadelphia Enquirer: "Worldview: Pro-settlement attacks by Israeli militants endanger any hope of peace"

Hagit_on_Apartment_Steps320x265.jpgby Trudy Rubin, Inquirer Opinion Columnist

JERUSALEM - When Hagit Ofran woke up Tuesday - within days of the 16th anniversary of the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin - she found death threats spray-painted on her door.

(Ofran is pictured on her stairwell amidst the graffiti-ed death threats)

"You are dead. Ofran, Rabin is waiting for you," was the message scrawled in red against the white walls of her stairwell.

This was the latest of the so-called Price Tag attacks that Jewish militants have carried out against peace activists, Palestinians, and Israeli security forces. The attacks often follow any government move to dismantle Jewish settlements on the West Bank. They are meant to convince Israel's leaders that it's too costly to remove any more settlements - thus blocking any negotiated peace.

Ofran monitors the expansion of West Bank settlements for Peace Now - a group that seeks a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Peace Now's Jerusalem office received a bomb threat last week.) A calm, focused woman, who is the granddaughter of famed Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, she carries a camera and notebook to document new settlement construction.

When I asked why she does it, she replied swiftly: "I think it's crucial for the State of Israel and the future of the Jewish people that occupation must stop." The more the settlements expand, she said, the less likely any peace deal. "That's why I'm doing what I'm doing."

I drove with Ofran around the West Bank as she checked on illegal outposts, the 100 or so small settlements set up in violation of Israeli law. Small clusters of trailers scattered atop hillsides, with outbuildings and cellphone towers, they expand the grid of more than 120 official Jewish settlements that divide West Bank territory into cantons. This makes a contiguous Palestinian state less and less likely.

We drove on special highways built for settlers that were off-limits to Palestinians and that further divide the West Bank.

Israel pledged years ago, in several international agreements, to dismantle all illegal outposts built after March 2001. But despite the removal of a few trailers, none of the outposts has been demolished. And it's obvious why.

Young radical settlers are determined not to repeat their elders' acquiescence to the 2005 dismantlement of settlements in Gaza. In the infamous 2006 case of Amona outpost, where only nine dwellings were demolished, thousands of so-called Hilltop Youth clashed violently with police.

Ever since, Israeli authorities and security forces have been leery of the "Price Tag" of dismantling outposts (thus the name adopted by the militants). Radical youths bent on reprisals sometimes assault police, but more often they target innocent Palestinians, destroying vehicles, houses, schools, mosques, or olive trees in hundreds of episodes. These reprisals have spilled into Israel proper, defacing Israeli Arab mosques and cemeteries, and threatening Jewish activists. Last week was the second time in two months that Ofran's home has been hit.

The outgoing Israeli military commander on the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, said Price Tag attacks "amount to terrorism"; this earned him the vilification of settlers. Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrachi, chief of Israel's Central Command, warned that the Price Tag movement was getting out of control. Both generals blamed law enforcement officials for not stopping the militants. Police response has lacked any urgency, with only three indictments so far.

Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is clearly unwilling to confront the settlers. He has sought ways to "legalize" illegal settlements built on Palestinian land or to repeatedly delay their demolition. Several members of his coalition threatened to bolt if he followed court orders to take down outposts. "If this government agrees to demolish any houses," says Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha settler council, "this government will not be there."

As I traveled the West Bank, I saw settler banners hanging on fences that called for activists to "Stop the Expulsion" from Givat Assaf, an outpost with about 30 trailers on the ridge of a rocky hill. Last week, at the government's request, the court postponed its demolition for yet another six months.

The Israeli government's cave-in to settler pressure is counterproductive for them - and for the United States.

If the Israeli officials are so fearful of settler opposition that they can't remove a few dozen illegal outposts, it's hard to imagine them removing the tens of thousands of settlers that would be required by a peace treaty.

Moreover, the government's complacency about Price Tag attacks carries deep dangers for Israel. Instead of confronting Jewish terrorists, government supporters have demonized the peace groups they attack.

Israeli leaders would do better to heed the words of former Shin Bet (Israeli domestic intelligence) head Yuval Diskin, who warned in 2008 that settler attackers may yet "fire at police, at soldiers, at political leaders." Coddling terrorists will only make them bolder, with unpredictable results.

In this week of memorials to Rabin, I recalled a conversation I had in early 1995 with Ehud Sprinzak, who advised Rabin on terrorist groups. He said Rabin had wanted to dismantle a Jewish settlement in downtown Hebron, but Sprinzak had dissuaded the prime minister, fearing that radical settlers might kill him if he did so. We know how that story ended.

As I said goodbye to Ofran, I reflected on the terrible symmetry between Rabin's murder and the Price Tag actions. Rabin's assassin killed the Israeli leader most capable of negotiating a secure peace with the Palestinians. Price Tag tactics, and the government's capitulation, are killing any future chance of a negotiated peace.