Israeli society has been confronted recently by a troubling new trend: vigilante attacks by some settlers and their supporters against Palestinians in the occupied territories, Arab citizens of Israel and, increasingly, Israeli peace groups. These began as the settlers’ own form of retaliation — exacting a “price” for any Palestinian violence — but have devolved into a campaign of terror. Marauding bands of armed settlers have uprooted olive trees, burned mosques and schools, shot at cars, run over children.
Victims of a long and bitter legacy of persecution defined by pogroms, ghettos and genocide, Jews have historically been at the forefront of the fight for equality and justice for the disenfranchised. It is therefore a sad irony that settler thugs and their allies have been waging this growing campaign of violence against Palestinians.
Is not the simple Palestinian villager standing defiant and unarmed in the face of those who cut down his olive trees and burn his fields the victim in this tragedy?
Brave, young Jewish Americans, who traveled to the Deep South to fight and, in some cases, die for civil rights in our own country have left an enduring legacy. Their courage in the face of police brutality and racist mobs stands in stark contrast to the violent arrogance of some Jewish Israelis.
While these odious acts have been duly acknowledged and even condemned by the Israeli government and by mainstream society, they mostly go unresolved and unpunished.
The complex and fragmented political system of Israel is making it difficult to put an end to this sad chapter. Violent settlers, and their supporters in the bureaucracy and political establishment, have successfully counted on the continued inaction and even apathy of the state apparatus.
At the gala of the American Task Force on Palestine, held on October 19, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that “a much better job needs to be done by the Israeli government in order to hold those who are involved in these terrible actions accountable…. We see very little of that.”
Under international law and by any moral standard, Israel has the obligation to restrain its citizens from inflicting harm on people who live on land it controls. But its justice system barely takes note of these flagrant crimes and has created a general climate of impunity.
Trying to scare away the Palestinians from their land will not work. Israel and its supporters cannot simultaneously proclaim its high-minded opposition to a culture of hate while its own lawless citizens persistently feed the flame of hatred. All forms of incitement and violence, the mortal enemies of peace, must stop.
Those of us in the Palestinian community who have spoken publicly and clearly about our condemnation of terrorism directed against Israeli civilians, including settlers, are morally obligated to also condemn the acts of terror and vandalism by settlers against Palestinian civilians.
Lawless acts of settler terror strengthen extremist forces in Palestine and across the Arab and Muslim worlds. Israelis who oppose these acts of vandalism should stand by those who stand up to these hooligans to defend not only Jewish moral values, but also the strategic interests of their country.
Some Israeli leaders finally seem to be taking stock of the threat.
In the context of the anniversary of the assassination of the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli extremist, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin recently observed, “These villainous criminals, who harmed houses of prayer, fields, homes and property belonging to Palestinians, are Jewish, and this is ‘Jewish terrorism,’ that should be called nothing else.”
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar called it “a cancerous tumor” on Israeli society. For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly condemned an attack on a mosque in northern Israel, saying he was “outraged” by the arson and vandalism.
If Israel wants to avoid growing international criticism and to maintain stability on the ground, it must take swift and determined measures against this criminal behavior.
It should heed the warnings of two of its top military commanders, who have had to deal with this threat firsthand. The head of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command, Avi Mizrahi, and former West Bank division commander Nitzan Alon both call “price tag” violence terror and warn that it could spark a firestorm of reciprocal attacks.
With tensions already running high between all the parties, an outbreak of widespread violence in the occupied territories is the last thing anyone needs. Putting an end to “price tag” attacks is, therefore, urgently important not only for Israelis and Palestinians, but for the United States, as well. And on this issue, our values are precisely aligned with our interests.
Ziad Asali is the president of the American Task Force on Palestine.