Caution: Settlers Ahead
"As a Jew, I was ashamed at the scenes of Jews opening fire at
innocent Arabs in Hebron. There is no other definition than the term
‘pogrom’ to describe what I have seen." This quote from Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert came just before I returned to Palestine two
weeks ago. In Syria and in Lebanon, I watched as Al Jazeera
correspondents reported live from Hebron, showing settlers burning
houses and soldiers standing by and watching.
One of my first stops upon return to Palestine was to the Salfit
region in the north, quite far from Hebron, to visit friends. I
wasn’t thinking about the settlers. I visited a friend whose house is
surrounded by the Wall, and asked how things were going. "They," she
pointed towards the settlement behind her house, "have attacked us
twice this week." In the middle of the night, the family had woken to
the sounds of stones hitting their house. This has happened before,
but not usually twice in one week. No settler has ever been punished
for throwing stones at their house, though they have broken windows
and water tanks.
I stayed in the area and woke up in the morning to the news that
settlers had attacked a nearby village, spray painting racial slogans
and stars of David on the village’s mosque. I have seen stars of
David painted by settlers before, mostly on the walls of Palestinian
shops and homes in Hebron, but I am still taken aback each time I see
it. Do they not remember Kristallnacht? Or do they specifically
Another friend told me she had been on a bus the week before that was stopped by Israeli soldiers. "You should turn around and go a
different way," said a soldier to the driver. "There are settlers up
ahead waiting to attack." So the bus turned around, went a different
way, and narrowly avoided a different attack by a group of settler
women gathered on the side of the road with stones.
Somehow this story is the most frustrating to me. When settlers
attack, Palestinians get punished / sent home / re-routed. It is as
though the settlers are a natural phenomenon. They could place a sign
in the road saying, "Caution: Settlers Ahead" and it would seem as
natural to the soldiers as a sign saying "Caution: Storm Conditions
Ahead" or "Caution: Road Curves Ahead." It is as though the condition
of settler attacks is unpreventable.
Of course, it is easier for a soldier to re-route a busload of unarmed
Palestinian people largely accustomed to occupation than to move a
group of armed settlers used to getting their way. But if the Israeli
government, with the 4th largest military in the world, wanted to
control a few (or a few thousand) extremist settlers, I am confident
that they could. This is not about a natural phenomenon, an
inevitable occurrence, an inability of the Israeli government to reign
in their population. It is a lack of will.
So when the prime minister of Israel says that he is personally
offended by the settler attacks, when he calls them pogroms, one
wonders why the Israeli soldiers largely stood by and watched, or even
accompanied the settlers on their attacks. One wonders why the
perpetrators are not in prison (unless they also attacked soldiers).
One wonders why the settlers have not been removed. And the answer is simple: These settlers serve the interests of the Israeli government.
I am not sure the government is always thrilled when the situation
gets out of control like this (and then reflects badly on Israel in
international media), but in general, having a small group of
right-wing extremists deflects attention from the root causes of the
problem, and deflects responsibility from the government.
Indeed, many Israelis view these settlers with disgust, and think, "If
only these people would move out of the West Bank, we would have
peace." The settler movement often retorts, "What is the difference
between land we came to control in 1948 and land we came to control in 1967?" Their conclusion (that Jews should fight for exclusive control
of all the land) is quite opposite from mine, but the analysis is the
And this is why there are three Israeli soldiers for every Israeli
settler in Hebron. Because if the settlers were to be removed, and
"peace" did not magically appear, then people might start to ask,
"Wait, is there another problem?" People might start to realize that
occupation is not defined solely by presence of settlers (Gaza is
experiencing the worst of occupation right now, though the settlers
left more than three years ago). People might start to realize that
there are Palestinians inside Israel who are treated less than
equally, to say the least. People might start to realize that half of
the Palestinian population has never set foot in any part of
Palestine, and that more than two thirds are not permitted to live in
their original villages. In other words, people might get to the core
of the issue.
The ideological settler movement is, in many ways, holding together
the fragile house of cards that is Israel. It has worked for a while,
but it will not work forever. In front of this house we can add one
more sign: "Caution: Collapse of Zionism Ahead."
P.S. While settlers are not jailed, these Israelis are: