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The Attack on Zeev Sternhell


The words “Jewish” and “terrorist” are not easily uttered together by Israelis. But just occasionally, such as last week when one of the country’s leading intellectuals was injured by a pipe bomb placed at the front door of his home, they find themselves with little choice.

The target of the attack was 73-year-old Zeev Sternhell, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem specialising in European fascism and a prominent supporter of the left-wing group Peace Now.

Shortly after the explosion, police found pamphlets nearby offering 1.1 million shekels ($300,000) to anyone assassinating a Peace Now leader. The movement’s most visible activity has been tracking and criticising the growth of the settlements in the West Bank.

Mr Sternhell, whose leg was injured in the blast, warned that this attack might mark the “collapse of democracy” in Israel. He has earned the enmity of the religious far-right by justifying the targeting of settlers by Palestinians in their resistance to occupation.

Earlier in the year the professor was awarded the Israel Prize for political science. The settlers’ own news agency, Arutz Sheva, ran a story at the time headlined “Israel Prize to go to Pro-Terror, Pro-Civil War Prof”.

The shock provoked in Israel by the bombing partly reflected the rarity of such attacks. Most Israelis regard the use of violence by Jews against other Jews as entirely illegitimate, which partly explains the kid-glove approach generally adopted by the security forces when dealing with the settlers.

There are a handful of precedents, however, for these kind of attacks. In 1983, Emil Grunzweig was killed when a right-winger hurled a hand grenade into a crowd of Peace Now activists marching against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. And 12 years later Israelis were left reeling when a religious settler, Yigal Amir, shot dead their prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

Violence directed at the Jewish Left typically peaks during periods when the religious far-right believes a deal with the Palestinians may be close at hand. Rabin paid the price for his signing of the Oslo accords. Equally, Mr Sternhell appears to be the address for settler grievances over the government’s ongoing talks with the Palestinians over a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Certainly, the mood among the religious settlers has grown darker since the disengagement from Gaza three years ago. A significant number subscribe to the belief that, in betraying what they perceive to be the Jewish people’s Biblical birthright to Palestinian territory, the government proved itself unworthy of their loyalty. Others believe that the settlers themselves failed a divine test in not facing down the government and army.

Either way, many far-right settlers are turning their backs on those secular laws that clash with their own convictions. One Israeli observer has noted that these settlers no longer see their chief loyalty to the state of Israel but to the Land of Israel, a land promised by God not politicians.

The pamphlet found near Mr Sternhell’s home, signed by a group called the “Army of Liberators”, read: “The State of Israel has become our enemy.”

The Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, have a Jewish department dedicated to tracking the activities of Jewish terrorists. Unlike the Shin Bet’s Arab department, however, it is small and underfunded. It has also proved largely ineffectual in dealing with the threat posed by the far-right.

Jewish extremists who attack Israeli soldiers or Palestinians in the occupied territories, openly incite against Palestinians or express unlawful views rarely face charges, even when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing.

The general lawlessness among the West Bank settlers has reached new peaks, underscored this month when settlers from Yitzhar went on what was widely described as a “pogrom” against Palestinians in the neighbouring village of Asira al Qabaliya. The settlers were caught on film firing live ammunition at the villagers, but the police have so far failed to issue indictments.

Also, often forgotten, the so-called Jewish underground has a history of targeting Palestinians inside Israel, including those with citizenship. A car bomb narrowly avoided seriously injuring the wife of Arab Knesset member Issam Makhoul in 2003. Two years later, in the run-up to the Gaza disengagement, a settler-soldier, Natan Zada, shot dead four passengers on a bus to the Israeli Arab city of Shafa’amr.

Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful, which seek to blow up the mosques of Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock in the Haram al-Sharif of Jerusalem’s Old City so that a third Jewish temple can be built in their place, also face little recourse from the Shin Bet.

By contrast, the Shin Bet’s Arab department runs an extensive network of Palestinian informers in the occupied territories and is reported by human rights groups to use torture to extract information from Palestinian detainees.

Inside Israel, the Arab department regularly investigates Israel’s own Palestinian citizens, especially the Islamic movements over their donations to charities in the occupied territories. It has also been hounding parties like the National Democratic Assembly of Azmi Bishara that demand equal rights.

Like Palestinians in the occupied territories, Palestinian citizens risk being locked up on secret evidence.

Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea noted last week that the Shin Bet’s inability to find and arrest Jewish terrorists stemmed from “deliberate policy” and “emotional obstacles” – his coy way of suggesting that many in the Shin Bet share at least some of the settlers’ values, even if they reject their methods.

Prof Sternhell made much the same point in a radio interview from his hospital bed when he noted that Yitzhak Shamir, when he was prime minister, had defined the Jewish underground as “excellent young men, real patriots”.

In this vacuum of law enforcement, the far-right regularly and openly engages in unlawful activities, often without serious threat of punishment. Many of its leaders, such as Noam Federman, Itamar Ben Gvir and Baruch Marzel, all based in Hebron, are believed to have close links to the outlawed Kach movement, which demands the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the region.

Mr Ben Gvir, who leads a group known as the Jewish National Front, denied that his faction was involved in the attack on Mr Sternhell but refused to condemn it.

Although the head of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, immediately branded the attack on Mr Sternhell as “a nationalist terror attack apparently perpetrated by Jews”, it is noticeable that no Israelis are demanding the demolition of the perpetrators’ homes.

That contrasts strongly with the response last week after a Palestinian youth drove a car at a group of Israeli soldiers near the Old City of Jerusalem. Israeli politicians called for the youth’s home to be destroyed and his family to be made homeless.

In the general outcry against the bomb attack last week, it was left to Prof Sternhell to remind Israelis that most Jewish terrorism was in fact directed not at people like himself but at Palestinians.

JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is

A version of this article originally appeared in The National ( published in Abu Dhabi.


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Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is

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