This piece also appears at TPM Cafe
A week of Israeli settler outrages against Palestinians and against Israel's own security forces reached a crescendo over the last 24 hours with settlers opening fire on Palestinian civilians and unleashing violent disturbances across the West Bank. Israel's Justice Minister, Daniel Friedman, has just called the events a "shocking pogrom", journalists have described how their presence saved Palestinian residents of a home near Kiryat Arba from a lynching, and IDF sources described how the right wing activists "want to spark a religious war that would inflame the entire region." The belated IDF action in upholding a court order to evict settlers from a home that they illegally occupied in Hebron, led by Defense Minister Barak, was at least effective, although the same cannot be said of the limp-wristed measures taken in the face of settler rampages against Palestinians, and of the general approach to settler lawlessness.
While the Israeli press is full of graphic descriptions of the settler outrages, there has been remarkably little coverage in the American mainstream media, and as Jeff Goldberg points out on his Atlantic blog, there was no mention at all in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization's daily news digest (Daily Alert)--not surprising given that it is put together by the right-wing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs led by Dore Gold. Settler extremism has become a strategic issue with implications for American policy, American private funding of settlements, and how to manage the security dynamic in the West Bank.
The litany of settler actions over this week makes for particularly bleak reading on a Friday night. On the walls of home and in mosques in the West Bank villages of Yatma, Sanjil, Turmus Ayya, and Isawiyya, graffiti has been scrawled reading "Mohammed the pig" and "Death to the Arabs", elsewhere cemeteries have been desecrated, Palestinian homes set on fire, olive trees uprooted, tires punctured, and yesterday two Palestinians were shot and seriously wounded by settler fire. Israeli security forces overseeing the evacuation of the Hebron house and sometimes trying to bring order were stoned and assaulted by settlers, along with the customary hurling of choice abuse, notably the word "Nazi". According to the Israeli Yedioth Ahronot newspaper, Ethiopian IDF soldiers "enjoyed" their own variation on the abuse theme, being told "niggers don't expel Jews".
All of this should not be described as madness. It was premeditated and there was a plan behind it that the Israeli establishment is calling a "price tag". In the immediate term, the settlers were hoping to prevent the evacuation of the Hebron house by setting off violence across the West Bank and by trying to provoke a Palestinian response that would in turn require the IDF to focus elsewhere and therefore be unable to carry out the Hebron mission. But the real goal was to send a signal that any future settler evacuation would carry a price far more bloody and devastating than the Gaza Disengagement of summer 2005--namely, to inflame the entire Occupied Territories, if not the region. The settlers (thus far at least) did not achieve that goal, but they have certainly caused great damage, and it would not be an exaggeration today to call settler extremism a potentially strategic destabilizing factor in the Middle East.
And yes I know, when I say settlers it is not all settlers, but let's not be naïve. Extremism is deeply entrenched in the settler movement. This does not apply to the economic settlers or what could be termed the "accidental settlers" close to the Green Line--their sin is one of indifference. But the settler movement has nurtured and produced this phenomenon of extremism, just read Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal's "Lords of the Land", or Gershom Gorenberg's book "The Accidental Empire". The most noticeable aspect of the settler presence this week were the youths, often barely in their teens, and who might be described as Israel's child soldiers, high on the teachings of fanatical religious leaders. As Ben Caspit writes in today's Ma'ariv:
The hilltop youth...are not errant weeds, we are talking about a well-ordered organization with a hierarchy, with rabbis, with separate incitement, with a combat doctrine and with weaponry...they have messianic insanity in their eyes...This monster has to be stopped now. Afterwards, it will be too late.
In fact, this was the tone in much of the Israeli press (and not just in Haaretz) and from much of the Israeli establishment. Senior sources in the Israeli Prime Minister's office were quoted as saying "these Jewish terrorists are as bad and dangerous as Arab terrorists." The American mainstream media, which tends to get very excited at Arab violence, had precious little to say either in the print or electronic media.
Beyond the shock and condemnation, the lurch by hard-line settlers toward a more extreme and confrontational approach has implications for Israeli and American policies. On the Israeli side, the state long ago ceased to uphold its own laws when it comes to the coddled settler community. That community now poses a direct threat to Israel's survival as a democracy with a Jewish character, in which the rule of law is upheld. And as this week proved, the hard-line settlers have become a clear and present danger to Israel--only drastic measures will suffice.
But I want to focus for a moment on the consequences for American policy, and in particular for a new Administration. The U.S. is on paper opposed to settlement expansion. The U.S. narrative, though, has shifted. Initially settlements were characterized by the U.S. as "illegal"--that description was dropped by the Reagan Administration and never returned to. Settlements became no more than "unhelpful" and later on an "obstacle to peace"--a language which the Bush Administration has occasionally used. What the U.S. has not done is to take a firm, consistent, and unrelenting position that Israel uphold its commitment to a settlement freeze--and without such U.S. action, the Israeli cost-benefit calculation on settlement expansion vs. freeze is always skewed in favor of the former.
This week, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Saban Center at Brookings released a report in the form of a book, entitled "Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President", including a chapter addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of its five key recommendations was for the U.S. to "press Israel to freeze settlement construction" (they also recommended bringing Hamas into the fold, but that's another story). The Report went on to suggest how this might be done: "Both public criticism of Israeli settlement policy as well as conditioning portions of aid to a settlement freeze can be effective in eliciting Israeli compliance." So that's Brookings and CFR--and it doesn't get much more establishment than them--linking U.S. aid to Israel to a settlement freeze. Interesting, methinks.
Many groups in the U.S. (including right-wing Christian Zionists) provide financial support to settlements and settler causes (see here and here), often to 501(c) 3s as tax-deductible, charitable contributions, and that is something into which an investigation is long overdue. Jewish groups in particular should be vocal in their opposition to settlements (see Bernard Avishai on J Street here at TPM). After the Shin Bet Chief spoke of certain settlers groups posing a security threat, my colleague Steve Clemons suggested on his blog that the U.S. investigate and place those in question on the Terror Watch List. U.S. efforts to support the Palestinian economy and ease the closure and checkpoints (for details see the U.N.'s OCHA website) are undermined most of all by the existence of settlements scattered throughout the West Bank, which are protected by the IDF, have their own access roads, whose residents demand freedom of movement, and whose existence largely dictates Israeli-imposed restrictions on Palestinian mobility.
American efforts at building up Palestinian security capacity are also compromised by the settler scourge. The Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) will be unable to stand by and watch for long as settler militants unleash their wrath on the Palestinian population--indeed their intention is to provoke a PSF response.
And finally of course, the greatest threat to the entire two-state solution is the settlements enterprise. In short, there is no credible peace policy unless one is willing to get hard-assed about settlements--and that is true for both Israel and the U.S.