Israelis awoke today to what most would consider to be very scary news. Hebrew University Professor and peace activist Ze’ev Sternhell received minor injuries after being the target of a pipe bomb attack. OK—maybe this rates not so high on the Israeli scariness scale, but it’s a warning sign to Israeli democracy—a serious one. Sternhell himself commented from the hospital that “if this act was not committed by a deranged person but by someone who represents a political view, then this is the beginning of the disintegration of democracy”—a sentiment he has echoed before. Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, is treating this as an act of political violence, inspired by the far-Rightist settler ideology. Fliers and pamphlets were found in nearby areas offering 1 million NIS (about $296,000) for the assassination of any Peace Now leader.
Professor Sternhell would be the first to recognize what an ironic target he makes: he is one of the world’s preeminent scholars on the origins and development of European Fascism. He certainly is no stranger to the threat any democracy, Israel’s included, can face by indulging domestic expressions of Fascism—and the settler right is providing plenty of them.
The Israeli police are now providing stepped up security around Israeli peace leaders, and Israeli TV tonight unearthed vile videos threatening the Secretary-General of the Peace Now movement, Yaariv Oppenheimer, a former colleague of mine. Israeli progressives—you know the kind of people, who believe in hard-headed diplomacy, security through peace, de-occupation—are used to being vilified and branded as traitors, even if a majority of the Israeli public supports their solutions to Israel’s problems.
And of course it would not be the first time that the thuggish political rhetoric of the radical right would be translated into criminal action. On U.S. Presidential Election Day, it will be the thirteenth anniversary of then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination at the hands of Yigal Amir. And years before that, in an often forgotten episode, Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig was killed during a peaceful protest march against the Lebanon War in 1983, the victim of a grenade attack hurled by a right-wing activist.
The particular danger now is the extent to which settler radicals are out of control, armed, and are going about their violent destructive business largely unimpeded by Israel’s law enforcement authorities. When some Israelis first crossed the old 1967 border, the Green Line, and became the settler movement, they also began to cross all kinds of red lines both of international and domestic Israeli law. Radical settler violence is now a sadly prevalent and well-documented phenomenon. Israeli academic Idith Zertal and Haaretz award-winning journalist Akiva Eldar have painstakingly documented what they describe as the land of the settlers and its struggle with the state of Israel, in their book Lords of the Land. Another thoughtful Israeli, Bernard Avishai, has described Israel as being comprised of essentially two separate states, with a democratic, Hebrew civil society defining the one, and a revolutionary, Jewish settler ideology marking the other (see, for example, his comments here).
Of course, the acts of extreme violence and lawlessness are a penchant of a minority of more radical settlers. In fact, the majority of Israelis living in the occupied territories are enjoying economic benefits rather than realizing deeply held ideological convictions. But the recent episodes point to a disturbing new trend. After the disengagement in Gaza, a radical wing of the settlers basically disengaged from Israel, viewing the state as the enemy and increasingly taking the law into its own hands. When the tiny outpost of Yad Yair was evacuated by the IDF earlier this week, settlers went on the rampage against Israel’s own military, wrecking the property of Israeli reservists at a local army base and physically attacking and breaking the hand of one soldier. Oh—and they frequently call the Israeli soldiers Nazis for good measure. This, in addition, to the ongoing harassment and violence meted out against the Palestinian civilian population. Rampaging settler outrages have become a frequent feature of the nightly Israeli news and constitute an embarrassingly large number of hits on YouTube (the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has launched an innovative response operation called “Shooting Back”, consisting of ‘arming’ local Palestinians with cameras in order to both document and deter).
While there has been widespread condemnation in Israel of the ongoing radical settler violence, and in particular of last night’s outrage, little action has been taken with the army that oversees the settlement areas—not wanting to get involved, and the police not making this a priority. The leader of the Meretz party in Israel, MK and former minister Haim Oron, struck a timely note of caution today when he urged people to focus not only on the few bad apples, but to also recognize the culture of incitement that has been cultivated in Israel’s political environment by large swathes of the ideological, settler right. So that’s the Happy New Year calling card from Israel’s radical right.
And where does the U.S. come into this? Well, in addition to ongoing American fecklessness in the face of Israeli settlement expansion, which of course does no favors to Israel itself, there is also the noteworthy private contribution of the right-wing in America, including John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, in directly funding settlement expansion and entrenchment. And then there are the usual suspects—Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moscowitz, chiming in with their own brand of helping Israel commit suicide. And who would have thunk it—these are some of the same people who are funding the distribution of the anti-Muslim hate film Obsession in swing states right now. Shana Tova!