Hebron and the Rule of Law


Published December 11, 2008, issue of December 19, 2008.
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Israel got a taste recently of what to expect from West Bank settlers in the event of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. On the morning of December 4, some 600 border police staged a surprise raid on a disputed house in Hebron to evict nine Jewish families living there illegally. Removed with the families were some 200 settlers from around the West Bank who had gathered to resist the eviction. Israel’s Supreme Court had ordered the building vacated months ago, pending a decision on who owned it. In November the court authorized the army to evict the squatters. The troops went in to enforce the law.

Settler activists responded to the raid by rampaging through the mostly Arab city, stoning and burning Arab homes, assaulting Arab bystanders — including families standing in their front yards — and attacking Israeli soldiers. Muslim graves were defaced. A mosque was spray-painted with vile anti-Muslim slurs. A settler was videotaped firing on a group of Palestinians and wounding two. Separate settler rampages took place elsewhere in the West Bank.

All told, 17 Palestinians were injured, according to Palestinian hospital officials quoted in Israeli and international media. Eyewitnesses in several places reported seeing Israeli police standing by and watching for up to an hour before dispersing the mob.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, addressing his Cabinet the following Sunday, called the rioting a “pogrom.” The word refers to the mob attacks on Jewish neighborhoods in Eastern Europe in past centuries, often with police complicity. His choice of words was telling. He was saying, in effect, that the Jewish rioters had sunk to the level of their people’s historic tormentors.

The implications are frightening. Is this what happens to a 2,000-year-old ethical tradition when it’s transplanted to sovereign soil? Can a moral system with such a profound influence on world culture break down in a mere six decades?

The riots are worrying for another reason: They force Israelis to confront the enormity of the task of dismantling settlements to clear the way for a Palestinian state. It is clear to virtually everyone that Israel can only win peace, if at all, by withdrawing from the West Bank and letting the Palestinians there govern themselves. At a minimum, that will require removing at least 60,000 settlers from about 100 settlements deep inside the Palestinian heartland.

And so the inevitable question arises: If this is what happens when 200 people are evacuated from a single house, what will it take to remove 60,000 people from 100 settlements?

Over the past 40 years Jerusalem has spent billions to settle its citizens in territories it captured in 1967. That in itself is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention as understood by every government in the world except Israel’s. From the outset, therefore, settlement building was at the very least a serious error in judgment. It allowed Israel’s enemies to brand it an outlaw, and it greatly complicated any effort to reach a compromise peace with the Palestinians. Israeli governments have understood those basic truths since at least 1993.

Since 2003 Israel has been formally committed, under an agreement between Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush, to stop settlement expansion and dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts, as a first step toward historic compromise. And yet Israel’s leaders have ignored their international commitments and disregarded their own best judgment. Not only haven’t they dismantled the illegal outposts; government agencies have continued to participate in the illegal activity, providing water, power and even roads to the outposts.

So far has the rule of law been eroded in Israel that some settler leaders actually claimed that the court-ordered eviction in Hebron was illegitimate — that is, that the government in Jerusalem has no right to enforce its own laws. Even the more moderate settler leaders, spokesmen for mainstream settler organizations, argued that the army should have held back and let the Hebron settlers complete a round of negotiations with the government over the terms of their departure. In other words, lawbreakers have a right to negotiate with authorities over the extent of their compliance with the law.

The government’s contradictory behavior only made a bad situation worse. That’s why so many of the most devout settlers were so angry when their government finally decided to enforce its laws in Hebron. They had come to believe they were exempt. They cannot be allowed to believe this any longer.

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