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.
When the Hebrew University High School group arrived in Hebron on January 29, its bus was held up for an hour while police received assurances that the group would not meet with Breaking the Silence. The school was then permitted to conduct its tour without the organization — albeit with local resident Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leader of the far-right Jewish National Front, talking over the teacher leading the tour to give his own narrative, uninvited.
Breaking the Silence, an organization of army veterans set up to “demand accountability regarding Israel’s military actions in the Occupied Territories perpetrated by us and in our name,” has been running tours of Hebron — open to adults — since 2004.
The tours, which take place several times a week, are a sore point for settlers. “I think that Breaking the Silence is an illegitimate organization because it tries to weaken the links between the youth and the most important sites for the Jewish people,” Daniella Weiss, former mayor of the West Bank settlement Kedumim, told the Forward when asked about the group. “No nation in the world would permit such violence against the narrative of the nation.”
Sometimes this kind of distaste for Breaking the Silence has led to violent attacks against tours; sometimes settlers managed to persuade the state to stop tours for short stints. But since a 2009 high court hearing in which a judge affirmed the veterans group’s right to conduct tours, they have run regularly, and with little interruption from settlers.
The Hebrew University High School tour apparently reopened the wound for settlers. “They bring their tours and say what they say, but with an Education Ministry tour it’s a contradiction,” said David Wilder, spokesman for the Committee of the Jewish Community of Hebron. “There, you can’t have people speaking against the security forces and the state.”
It is unclear where the decision to ban Breaking the Silence from the school tour originated. Both the police and the Education Ministry declined to comment. Wilder believes it was at the behest of the ministry after his community complained; School principal Gilad Amir said he believed it was a decision taken by police independent of the ministry. Whichever it was, some activists and politicians say the decision reflects an institutional bias toward settlers and against the left.
Zahava Gal-On, a Knesset member from the dovish party Meretz, argued in an interview with the Forward that the government had a responsibility to guarantee freedom of expression for Breaking the Silence. The fact that it did not attests to a “gradual absorption of settler positions into the government narrative and through to the curriculum,” she said, adding, “The mask has been taken off.”
Sarit Michaeli, press officer for the human rights organization B’Tselem, claimed that the incident highlights a situation whereby settlers enjoy high-level connections in politics and significant influence on the actions of local police who live among them. “Ultimately, it’s not just about violence and the threat of violence, but also about political power,” she said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org