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In contrast to the attacks at the largely peaceful locales of Etzion and of Zion Square, Israelis have also become accustomed to violence in the rural West Bank — sometimes even when directed against Israelis. For example, an August 28 incident in which a settler was lightly injured by a Palestinian who attacked him with an ax at a Palestinian village in the Ramallah district received little attention in the Israeli media. According to Lehman-Wilzig, violence is seen as part and parcel of life in the “Wild West Bank,” and Israelis excuse settler acts as part of a cycle they didn’t start. “I think the Israeli public perceives attacks in the West Bank in terms of self-defense,” he said.
In the past four years, extremist settlers have significantly ramped up violence as part of the “price tag” tactic by which attacks are unleashed whenever either Palestinians or the Israeli authorities act counter to settler interests. Sometimes they target Israeli army bases, which generates widespread outrage in Israel, though usually they target Palestinian people or property, which does not — and most months, there are some settler attacks against Palestinians. According to Lehman-Wilzig, even this “price tag” culture does not undermine the belief that Israelis are defending themselves. “Even if it’s clear that settlers are not provoked in a particular incident, there’s an ongoing low-level conflict and [the public] sees it, in a way, as ‘tit for tat.’”
B’Tselem, an Israeli not-for-profit organization that documents human rights violations in the West Bank, finds that there are a few factors that make Israelis pay attention to settler attacks on Palestinians or Palestinian property. According to spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli, one such factor is clear video evidence, which challenges what she calls the basic mistrust that many Israelis have for Palestinian “stories.” Another factor is the target: Mosque attacks are widely seen as taboo, and back in 2004, when olive trees became a popular target for settler vandals, those too, elicited a strong reaction in Israel. Michaeli, however, said Israelis have become increasingly “desensitized” to tree vandalism.
The aftermath of the two recent high-profile attacks indicated that two other factors have the power to move Israelis: bystanding and youth.
The Zion Square attack took place in a public square but was not stopped by members of the public. According to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, two witnesses claim that a policemen was there but failed to step in — though Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld stated categorically to the Forward that no policeman was present.
And youngsters were responsible for both attacks. Rosenfeld told the Forward that a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old are under arrest for the Etzion Bloc attack. In connection with the Zion Square attack, indictments have been filed against eight teenagers, ages 13 to 17, and one age 19. One of the youths, a 15-year-old, defiantly told reporters outside a court hearing, “If it was up to me, I’d have murdered him.”
This factor prompted the education minister’s instruction for schools to focus on the incident, and Rivlin’s reaction. Rivlin condemns all violence, and has described settler price tag violence as a kind of “Jewish terrorism,” his spokesman, Chaim Neriah, told the Forward. But what made him act so decisively following the Zion Square attack and promoted him to visit the victim, NeriAh said, was the fact that it was “something that came from ‘regular’ kids.” This is what convinced Rivlin that “the problem is not just in a marginal group, but… in the population.”
Contact Nathan Jefffay at email@example.com