“Terrorism by Any Other Name is Still Terrorism”: A Discussion on Israeli Settler Violence

On Tuesday June 24th 2014, a timely discussion on Israeli settler violence was hosted at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. Sponsored by the Carter Center - the prominent U.S.-based nongovernmental organization - the event was titled “Settlers’ Attacks: Roots and Responses” and featured two knowledgeable panelists to discuss the history and current trends of this violent phenomenon. These panelists were Mohammed Nazzal, the official in charge of the Settlement and Separation Wall File for the Palestinian Authority, and Salah Mohsen, Media Director for the Legal Center for the Arab Minority Rights in Israel (“Adalah”). The Carter Center’s Nathan Stock moderated the discussion. Approximately 25 guests attended the event, including NGO representatives, media figures, students, and Palestinian politicians.

photo credit: Flash90

Discussion panelists, from left to right: Salah Mohsen, Nathan Stock (moderator), Mohammed Nazzal Image by: Eric Blake

Reviewing the history of settler attacks against Palestinians

The discussion opened with presentations given by Mr. Nazzal and Mr. Mohsen, followed by a question and answer exchange with the audience. Their remarks chronicled the range of attacks perpetrated by Israeli settlers in the West Bank against Palestinian civilians, including property damage, expropriation of land, raids on communities and home invasions, and the infliction of injuries and fatalities. The panelists defined these attacks by Israeli civilian settlers, as well the Israeli military and police, as all expressions of the same fundamental phenomenon of “violent dispossession” of the Palestinian homeland. They reviewed the history and evolution of the tactics of this ongoing effort to dispossess Palestinians of their homeland, tracing the source of the current violence back to the ideological roots of Zionism. Special attention was given to the “Price Tag” attacks that are the most recent development in settler violence, although all forms of settler violence were described as variations on the same theme and serving the same ultimate goal of dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine.

“Colonies” rather than “Settlements”

From the perspective of the panelists and many of the Palestinians in the audience, Zionism has always been an intrinsically violent ideology. Theodore Herzl, the intellectual and political founder of Zionism, was cited as describing the effort to establish a Jewish state in Palestine as a colonizing enterprise to bring civilization to a backwards corner of the Orient. Historically, Western colonialism has always resulted in conflict between the foreign colonizers and the indigenous colonized, and violent force is always the ultimate means for the colonizers to exert dominance. If colonialism is fundamentally violent, and if Zionism is reliant on colonialism to accomplish its goals, then it follows that Zionism is fundamentally violent. In connection with this, the panelists and several guests favored using the terminology of “colonies” and “colonists” rather than the benign descriptions of “settlements” and “settlers” when referring to the illegal Israeli communities established in the West Bank. As the notion of colonialism and colonization has a strong negative connotation in the international community, the semantic distinction is considered significant by the Palestinians on the receiving end of settler violence.

The influence of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

Along with analyzing these secular ideological roots of settler violence, the panelists also described how much of the violence is religiously motivated by messianic or eschatological understandings of Zionism. They cited the growing number of settler Yeshivot (Jewish religious schools) that promote the religious views of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, (1865–1935) the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine and the founder of Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav Kook, and his disciples, who see the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Palestine, and implicitly the dispossession of the non-Jewish Palestinians living on that land, as a divinely-ordained enterprise. Thus the panelists argued that regardless of whether the violence was motivated by secular or religious ideology, or some combination of both, it was still fundamentally a racist ideology that viewed Palestinians as inferior intruders on territory that properly belonged to the Jewish people. They also emphasized that this ideology is not only on the fringe of Israeli society, as many Israelis strongly support the settlement enterprise and support Israeli annexation of the West Bank, for both secular and religious convictions. Several voices present charged members of the political leadership in Israel such as the pro-settlement politician Naftali Bennett with inciting further settler violence with inflammatory and racist remarks.

photo credit: Flash90

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, pictured in 1924 Image by: unknown, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Consequences for the perpetrators

Moving from an ideological critique to a more concrete analysis of Israeli settler violence, the panelists considered the systematic nature of the violence and how settlers are consistently able to conduct their attacks and avoid consequences for their actions. The panelists reviewed how some settlers conduct paramilitary training and political indoctrination to promote even more violent attacks. They revealed that many settlers are specifically taught how to avoid arrest and obstruct criminal investigations, although they also dismissed the efficacy of Israeli prosecution of settler violence. Among other harsh criticisms of Israeli policy in the West Bank, the charge was leveled that there is collaboration between settler vigilantes and the Israeli government or military in the perpetration of many attacks on Palestinians. At the least, both the panelists and the audience agreed that there was a harmful negligence of the Israeli authorities in responding to settler violence. Furthermore, the panelists also observed that even if a settler is prosecuted for a criminal act of violence, they are prosecuted under the civil law of Israel, while a Palestinian charged with violence against an Israeli would be subject to the prosecution of the Israeli military administration.

photo credit: Flash90

Armed Jewish settlers walk through the Palestinian city of Hebron with Israeli security forces in the background, July 2007 Image by: Mamoun Wazwaz, MaanImages

Even Israelis are the victims of settler violence

While decrying the abuses and cruelties perpetrated by settlers against Palestinians, the panelists were also sure to point out that Palestinians are not the only victims. Cases of anti-settlement Israeli activists being targeted by settler violence have occurred, and in some cases even Israeli military installations and personnel have been attacked by settlers. They also observed that Israeli-Palestinian violence does not only occur in the West Bank but within the recognized borders of Israel as well. The interesting case was brought up of a religious debate within the religious Zionist community over whether it was lawful to attack the Israeli military in the name of defending the settlement enterprise to reclaim the land of Israel. There was some musing about the cruel irony of Israeli pro-settlement radicals becoming a “double-edged sword” for the Israeli government, prompting a more active prosecution of settler attacks only after such attacks began to target fellow Israelis. However this reflection only led to further outrage over the fact that the targeting of Palestinians by settlers is still not treated with the same concern by Israeli authorities.

Defining and responding to settler violence

Indeed, the heart of the debate that occurred within this discussion was over questions of the moral equivalency of violence regardless of the perpetrator or the victim. Throughout the discussion, the panelists pointedly used the term “terrorism” and not merely “violence” when describing settler attacks on both Palestinians and anti-settlement Israelis. While some acts of violence are senseless and irrational acts of hatred, there is largely a calculated purpose in the minds of settlers engaging in hostilities towards their targets, which are not usually military or government entities but primarily civilians. That goal is to further the settlement enterprise by creating fear among its opponents and those who literally stand in their way; in the case of the Palestinians, this meaning their collective society as a whole. If settler violence is a means of creating of fear or terror among a civilian population to serve political ends, is that not the definition of terrorism? That apparently was the consensus of the panelists.

Beyond calling for the recognition of settler violence as a form of terrorism, the panelists concluded the evening’s discussion by calling for increased international and domestic political pressure to restrain settler violence as well as the abuses of authority by the Israeli security forces operating in the West Bank. Broader calls for the immediate ending of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory were also heard, which would include the cessation and withdrawal of the Israeli settlement enterprise. It is worth noting that throughout the discussion both the panelists and the audience pointedly referred to the Israeli Defense Forces as the “Israeli Occupation Forces” in another significant distinction of terminology. In the Palestinian context, settler violence is seen as one troubling facet of the larger violent dynamic of occupation.

Given the recent kidnappings and murders, a very relevant discussion

In the context of the recent kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frankel, followed by the revenge kidnapping and brutal murder of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem, a discussion on the cause and consequences on the Israeli settlement enterprise was very relevant. In the face of such atrocities, the least one can do is to call terrorism by its name, regardless of the perpetrator or the victim. To the credit of the Israeli government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently went on the record in response to these recent atrocities saying: “We don’t distinguish between [Palestinian] terror and [Jewish] terror” and furthermore “we cannot accept and we will oppose ‘price tag’ attacks.”1 Since the Israeli government and media were quick to decry the murder of the three teenagers as the work of extremist terrorists, it is only fair to respond to similar acts by Israeli settlers in the same terms. Hopefully this condemnatory rhetoric will be substantively reflected in Israeli policy towards settler violence in the future, although the historical record as described in this event’s discussion is not encouraging in this regard.

1reported by Haviv Rettig Gur, “No place in Israel for Abu Khdeir’s killers, Netanyahu says.” The Times of Israel, 6 July 2014