Tel Aviv — A year ago, Israel’s Education Ministry launched a program to encourage schools to visit Jewish sites in the occupied West Bank town of Hebron, drawing fire from doves who charged the ministry with bringing politics into school trips. The doves’ effort to stop the program failed.
Having failed to beat them, a dovish group of army veterans sought recently to join them. But on January 28, the police informed the Hebrew University High School that members of the dovish organization Breaking the Silence would be barred from joining its students on their Hebron tour the next day.
Since the program’s inception, local right-wing settlers have routinely met with and briefed schools taking part in the program. But a statement provided to the Forward by the Israel Defense Forces claimed that Breaking the Silence was barred from accompanying the students on part of their tour because the relevant security clearance had not been arranged. Michael Sfard, an attorney for Breaking the Silence, offered a different account. He said that the police official who called his office with the decree said the rationale was a fear of settler violence. “The demons are dancing,” Sfard said the police told him.
Upon hearing that Breaking the Silence would be barred from meeting with them on the tour, Hebrew University High School officials, citing a desire for balance, canceled a planned meeting with settlers on the tour, as well.
For those backing the tour, the episode was but the latest confirmation of the ability of Jewish settlers to influence government decisions through violence or the threat of violence.
“The decision encourages violence,” Breaking the Silence co-founder Yehuda Shaul said. “It shows settlers that you can achieve with violence, or by creating a fear of violence, what you can’t achieve through legal battles.”
It was the Israeli paper Haaretz that broke the story about the school’s intention to invite Breaking the Silence to accompany its tour, which was scheduled for the following day. The Jewish community of Hebron quickly objected to the Education Ministry, and the police decision to bar the group promptly followed.
The ban came against a backdrop of settler dissatisfaction translating with increasing frequency into settler violence. A United Nations report released last November found that the monthly average of settler attacks resulting in Palestinian casualties and property damage increased by 40% in 2011 compared with 2010, and by more than 165% compared with 2009. Settlers have also recently become more willing to attack Jewish targets. In December, they vandalized an IDF base and attacked officers.
Many of the attacks are part of a tactic of hard-line settlers that is called “price tag,” the rationale being that if they attack Palestinians or the army whenever Israel harms their interests — for example, by demolishing an outpost — it creates a deterrent effect for such actions. Shaul views the ban as a “success” for this approach.
Dani Dayan, head of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, dismissed “price tag” as a tactic of “fringe elements” among the settlers. “We vehemently condemn all acts of violence against Palestinians, soldiers and private property,” he said.