Israel wrestles with settler challenge

An Israeli border policeman is evacuated after being injured near the disputed Hebron house occupied by right-wing settlers, Dec. 4, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

An Israeli border policeman is evacuated after being injured near the disputed Hebron house occupied by right-wing settlers, Dec. 4, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

A Muslim grave in Hebron defaced with a Star of David, Dec. 4, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

A Muslim grave in Hebron defaced with a Star of David, Dec. 4, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

SPECIAL REPORT: JEWISH EXTREMISTS

TEL AVIV (JTA) — When two top Israeli army commanders in the West Bank received threatening letters in early June, the suspects weren’t the army’s traditional enemies in the territory.

Instead, Israeli Jews angry about the army’s recent demolition of several illegal settlement outposts appeared to have sent the letters.

One compared the soldiers to Nazis, calling the officers "a gang of Jews with wretched souls, reminiscent of the Judenrat."

Another said, “We know where you live. We will get to both you and your family.”

The threats, along with the violence that has accompanied attempts to evacuate illegal settlement outposts, represent a growing concern for Israeli authorities.

Rampages by settlers against Palestinians, private property and Israeli security forces have brought into stark focus the problem Israel is likely to face as it moves to evacuate more illegal West Bank outposts and confront Jewish extremists. The challenge may become more acute in the months ahead due to new pressure from Washington to freeze Jewish settlement growth.

Though the radical settlers are small in number, cracking down on them has proven a difficult task for successive Israeli governments.

In recent years, the Israel Defense Forces’ demolitions of illegal outposts have been met at times with settler violence. More often than not, settlers have returned to rebuild their illegal outposts.

The conundrum for Israel is how to bring the lawlessness of radical settlers under control and end the cat-and-mouse game with settlers who return almost as soon as they’re evacuated by force.

Yizhar Beer, director of a watchdog group on extremism called Keshev, says the problem for authorities is that radical settlers use guerrilla tactics, spreading out and exhausting traditional forces.

"Being in many places necessitates facing off with them with a large amount of forces,” he said. “That’s very difficult.”

Some blame a lack of political will. Successive Israeli prime ministers have failed to follow through on promises to demolish illegal outposts, and a 2005 government report by former state prosecutor Talia Sasson found that some $18 million in government funds had been directed toward illegal settlement building between 1996 and 2004.

Sasson found that regional councils in the West Bank were able to use funds from the Ministry of Housing and Construction to pave roads, connect water lines and hook up the outposts to local electricity grids by misleadingly earmarking the funds as infrastructure for new neighborhoods within existing settlements.

Sasson held responsible the World Zionist Organization’s settlement division and government bodies, including the Defense Ministry, which has overall responsibility for Israel’s West Bank presence.

A 2006 report by Peace Now found that 40 percent of Jewish settlement territory was built on privately owned Palestinian land.

"When people see there is no enforcement of law,” Sasson said, “they can take land that is not theirs and establish new settlements without government approval and build houses on them, and no one does anything afterward. They can come and hit and shoot Palestinians, and they see no one does anything about it.”

Sasson’s report detailed how settlement supporters helped surreptitiously funnel government money into building outposts.

Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said things have changed recently on that issue.

“Today, where we can stop such actions we are doing our best to do so,” he said. “There was a lack of oversight in some places in the past, but in the past three years it has improved.”

Until recently, high-ranking police officials blamed a dearth of resources for the lack of law enforcement. But police now say they are better equipped: Last year the police established a headquarters in the West Bank for the first time, and there are more vehicles and personnel to effect rapid responses.

Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group that focuses on the West Bank, says one major problem of law enforcement is the rarity with which settlers who use violence against Palestinians or Israeli soldiers are prosecuted.

“Failing to stand firm and severely stem the growing stream of Jews and Israelis who have adopted violent modes of operation directed at innocents as a way to achieve political goals morally stains the State of Israel and constitutes a legal violation of the duties incumbent on us,” Michael Sfard, Yesh Din’s attorney, said in a letter sent in early June to the defense minister and top army officials.

Sfard blamed a lack of police resources for investigations.

There’s also a problem of intelligence gathering, say former officials of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency and Defense Ministry officials. Close knit, wary of outsiders and young — the perpetrators of violence often are teenagers — the radical settlers are difficult to infiltrate. Sometimes, when radical youths are arrested, they refuse even to give their national identification numbers to authorities.

“Theirs is an insular and inherently suspicious society,” Dror said. “Because they are driven by a fanatic ideology, it’s extremely difficult to convince members to pass on information.”

About 280,000 Jews live in the West Bank, many for reasons of convenience and economics rather than ideology. The largest settlements are filled with commuters to Israel, and the settlements offer the advantages of suburban life at a cost far cheaper than in Israel proper, thanks in large part to government subsidies.

The settlements are widely considered illegal under international law because they are built on land Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War. Though Israel never annexed the territory, aside from eastern Jerusalem, Israel maintains that settlements authorized by its government are legal.

Israel views the West Bank as unassigned territory left over from the British Mandatory period whose final status has yet to be determined. The outposts, which are built without government authorization, are considered illegal by the government.

Israelis who live in the West Bank are subject to Israeli law. West Bank Palestinians come under Israeli jurisdiction for criminal or security matters, and mostly are under Palestinian jurisdiction for civil matters.

Despite tough talk by Israeli politicians past and present, action against the outposts has been sporadic.

When the government decided to aggressively confront the outposts by enforcing a Supreme Court order to demolish the Amona outpost in February 2006, the confrontation between settlers and police turned violent. Afterward, settlers launched a public campaign decrying police violence, and the Knesset formed a special committee to investigate the event.

Since Amona, no wide-scale evacuation of a larger outpost has taken place.

"We are talking about people who can be violent, so it’s the job of the security service and intelligence community to make sure these people are watched closely and that they cannot take law into their own hands," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office.

Regev noted that the police and army presence in the West Bank has been increased and authorities more commonly issue temporary restraining orders barring those deemed dangerous from the West Bank.

"We cannot underestimate the threat posed by vigilante extremism,” Regev said. “We lost a prime minister to a bullet fired by an extremist Jew, and the threat has not subsided."

Most mainstream settler leaders take pains to distance themselves from radicalism. They say young violent settlers, known as hilltop youth, are beyond their control.

Pinchas Wallerstein, director of the Yesha Council settler umbrella group, said settler leaders are trying to be proactive about reining in the extremists by reaching out to young people, holding meetings and trying to draft a set of guidelines for behavior that would be endorsed by settler rabbis.

The message Yesha is trying to convey to youths, Wallerstein said, is that even though Israel carried out the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, “the State of Israel is important and we should try to fix mistakes from the inside and not become outsiders.”

He added, "Even though the state is not always right, breaking the rules is not going to change things."

Critics of Israel’s 42-year presence in the West Bank say the occupation has fostered a Wild West, anything-goes approach to the law, with the result apparent in land grabs and physical assaults on Palestinians by both soldiers and civilians. This, they say, makes a crackdown against Israeli lawbreakers in the territories a challenge.

"When a society gets used to lawlessness being the norm, the abnormal becomes the norm,” said Dror Etkes of Yesh Din. “It’s very hard to wake up from that and say let’s change things now.”

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Likud Party, headed the Knesset’s investigative committee on Amona’s evacuation.

"I think we are too liberal and we are ready to suffer what other democratic countries are not ready to tolerate,” he said.

“If in the United States someone threw a stone on a policeman, he would be put in jail," Steinitz said. "Those who are beating IDF soldiers are beating up on the Jewish state, and we cannot accept any violent anarchic approach from either right or left."

CORRECTION: The original version of this story should not have definitively described settlements as illegal under international law. The line in question now reads: "The settlements are widely considered illegal under international law because they are built on land Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War."

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