Israel Must Crack Down on Violent Settlers Now

By Steve Breyman

The director of Israel’s domestic security agency—the Shin Bet—expressed his deep concern in a cabinet meeting on November 2 that Israeli leaders who seek peace with the Palestinians may be assassination targets for Jewish extremists.

Given the very strong support in the Israeli and other publics for a peace agreement with the Palestinians, the concern seems unbelievable. Yet as crazy as the warning sounds, the Israeli government must take it seriously. November 4 was the anniversary of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was gunned down by an Israeli settler angered by the Prime Minister’s meager concessions at the Oslo peace talks.

In a recent interview, Rabin’s killer—Yigal Amir—expressed no remorse for the assassination. The current caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to understand the increased threat posed by Israel’s lunatic fringe. "There is a group, that is not small, of wild people who behave in a way that threatens proper law and governance. . . . This is unacceptable and we cannot countenance it," Olmert said, according to a statement from his office. "Attacking soldiers and their commanders, attacking policemen and other security personnel and injuring them is unacceptable." Escalation to the use of firearms is not out of the question. Recall that a sizable number of the quarter million settlers have government-issued assault rifles with which to protect themselves.

Several policemen were injured the other day when they dismantled a settler “outpost” established illegally near the West Bank town of Hebron. Dozens of settlers verbally abused and assaulted the officers with stones. Hebron is an ancient city of tens of thousands of Palestinians with an especially virulent clique of four hundred settlers occupying several buildings at its very heart. The extremists have repeatedly attacked Palestinian schoolchildren, and farmers attempting to harvest their olive crop this season. In the rare instances when Israeli soldiers intervene, they too have been attacked by the colonists.

These “outposts” are illegal extensions of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank. Most are but a small cluster of mobile homes situated on hilltops close to Palestinian communities. Others have permanent structures and dozens of families. They are manned by the least stable, most trigger-happy settlers. The US-engineered “road map” to Middle Eastern peace obligated Israel to remove the one hundred some outposts. About half of them sprang up following completion of the road map.  Only a few have been removed, according to the Israeli group Peace Now.

At the November 2 cabinet meeting, the government finally decided to cease funding infrastructure projects like special settler-only roads that directly serve the outposts. The outpost extremists are likely to solicit even more funds from their overseas backers, mostly in the United States. It is not clear—especially given all the emphasis placed in recent years on restricting terrorist funding streams–how it is legal for these “donors” to underwrite activities illegal under Israeli and international law. 

Dismantling the outposts will send the right signal to the new Obama administration. Israel too will have a new government in the new year (elections in February). The two new governments ought to take some other recent words of Olmert’s to heart as well. At the end of September, following his resignation amist a corruption scandal that has tarred him, Olmert gave a wide-ranging interview to an Israeli newspaper, reported on by Ethan Bronner in the Times.

“What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me,” Olmert began. “The time has come to say these things.” “With them [those unwilling to trade land for peace], it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop,” said Olmert. “All these things are worthless.” “Who thinks seriously,” added the prime Minister, “that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel’s basic security?”

“We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians,” Olmert continued, “the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories. We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace.”

It’s virtually certain that Olmert would not have shared these views had he remained a viable politician. Such are the pressures of perceived loyalty and electability. But Olmert’s refreshing frankness injects new hope into a broken down peace process, parallel to the widespread hope engendered by the election of Barack Obama.  

The violence of extremist Israeli settlers threatens to crush this hope. Neither Olmert, his successor, nor Obama should let this happen.

-Dr. Steve Breyman teaches political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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