Why won’t Israel prevent settler violence?

Removing settlers from illegally constructed housing inevitably leads to attacks against nearby Palestinian villages.

Israeli settlers clash with Palestinians
For Netanyahu, attempts to limit settler violence reportedly puts him 'at odds' with his voter base [EPA]

Washington, DC –
The recent drama in Israeli politics surrounding the fate of the Ulpana neighbourhood of the illegal Beit El settlement in the occupied West Bank includes a great degree of political theatre, but the climax of this particular play is yet to be seen.

Yes, a decision has been made to remove a very small number of houses from one settlement (and build 850 more in other areas), and the “evacuation” that will take place will likely be a contentious event. Still, it is the theatrics that follow the evacuation that I will be focused on – which might tell us everything we need to know about the Israeli government. At that moment, it will be Israeli settler violence that is at centre stage, along with the Israeli government’s non-response.

The evacuation of homes in Ulpana is more or less guaranteed to trigger settler violence.

For several years I have been studying Israeli settler violence against Palestinians and their property throughout the occupied territories. The upcoming moment of evacuation from Ulpana sets an all-too-familiar sequence of events into motion. Israeli settlers who sought to deter government actions that limit settler objectives, such as demolitions or evacuations, have maintained a “price tag” policy. This is the use of violence, overwhelmingly against Palestinians, to “exact a price” for any settlement homes from which occupants have been removed.

Over the course of studying settler violence and amassing a database of violent settler incidents, my colleagues and I have been able to study several trends and factors which lead to settler violence, including the nature of “price tag” attacks. We parsed Israeli government announcements from Israeli government actions; the former being announcements by state organs of decisions to evacuate settlement homes, for example, and the latter being the actual carrying out of those orders. It is important to note that actual dismantlement of settlements by the Israeli state are extremely rare, but nonetheless what we found was that Israeli government actions were the single positively correlated factor leading to settler violence.

In short, this means that the evacuation of homes in Ulpana is more or less guaranteed to trigger settler violence. So this then begs the question: what is the Israeli government going to do to protect Palestinian civilians, whom we know will be in harm’s way? In the past, the Israeli government has done next to nothing and, more often than not, looked the other way as settlers attacked Palestinian civilians.

Predicting settler violence

We found that more than 90 per cent of Palestinian villages which have seen repeated acts of settler violence are in areas under Israeli security jurisdiction. This means that there is no Palestinian Authority deterrent against violent settlers, and that Palestinian civilians in these areas are sitting ducks. This is the main reason why Israeli settler violence has been so prevalent – no one is stopping it or even attempting to. Israeli settlements generally have a wide and elaborate security perimeter, while Palestinian villages do not. This lopsided imbalance of deterrence, coupled with Israeli military complicity in settler attacks, has led to a growing number of settler attacks year after year.

If this violence was emanating from particular Palestinian villages against Israelis, you can bet the Israeli government would station soldiers around that village.

Unlike many problems which are hard to diagnose, we know a great deal about settler violence. We know, for example, what some triggers are (such as evacuations). We know which Palestinian villages are most vulnerable. We know which Israeli settlements are the most active and most dangerous. This means we can predict, with a more than fair degree of accuracy, where and when settler violence is likely to occur.

If this violence were emanating from particular Palestinian villages against Israelis, you can bet that the Israeli government would station soldiers around that village, put a wall up around it, block off the roads from it, and place checkpoints on roads connecting it to nearby settlements. Yet because the perpetrators of settler violence are Israelis, the state does nothing to proactively act on the information it has and does little to find and punish perpetrators.

Preventing settler violence is doubly costly for Netanyahu politically, however, and this might be the main reason why he hasn’t done more to stop this predictable problem. On a domestic level, limiting settlers in any way puts him at odds with much of his voter base – who believe in Israel’s right to continue colonising land from the “river to the sea”. On the international level, settler violence allows Netanyahu to convey just how tied his hands are on issues such as settlements and makes the argument to the international community that the removal of settlements would come at an unreasonable price.

Just as Israel’s failure to protect Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories continues to be as predictable as Israeli settler violence, people of conscience must find ways to hold Netanyahu and his government accountable.

Yousef Munayyer is a writer and political analyst based in Washington, DC. He is currently the executive director of the Palestine Centre in Washington, DC.