Why Israel is suddenly owning up to its terrorism

By calling Friday’s arson attack a terrorist act, the Israelis are hoping to avoid the full force of international law.

Ali Dawabsheh death symbolic funteral
This attack was unprovoked by the Palestinians and has shocked both the Israeli and Palestinian communities, writes Kuttab [AP]

After over a year of total silence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made two phone calls to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in as many weeks.

The first of the calls was one of protocol regarding the start of the Eid al-Fitr festivities but the other call, the more important of the two, was made after Israeli Jewish settlers burned a Palestinian toddler and his family alive.

The attack occurred in the village of Duma in the occupied West Bank. The toddler, 18-month-old Ali Dawabasheh, died in the incident, and his family was left seriously injured and mourning the loss of their youngest son.

This particular attack was unprovoked by the Palestinians and has shocked both the Israeli and Palestinian communities at large.

Instead of being an attack of retaliation, this case was prompted by an internal Israeli conflict, the context of which has escaped many.

Palestinian baby burned to death in settler attack

The Israeli army, after much hesitation, succumbed to clear orders from the Israeli High Court and destroyed two homes built illegally (according to Israeli law) on private Palestinian land near Ramallah.

Aim of the attack

The aim of the settler attack on Palestinians in the village of Duma was to embarrass the pro-settlement Israeli government even though it had simultaneously approved the building, “immediately”, of 804 new Jewish settlements in Beit Eli and in Jerusalem.

The settlers’ heinous attack, which probably came from the nearby Maleh Efraim settlement, is said to be part of a continuous wave of attacks on Palestinians by settlers that carry the name “price tag” – which refers to the price for Israeli government attempts to restrict Jewish settlement activities.

The perpetrators, who scrawled Hebrew graffiti meaning “revenge” and a Jewish Star of David, were protesting an event that happened in another settlement – namely the government destruction of a house built by Israeli settlers on private Palestinian lands near the settlement of Beit Eli.

The horrible death of the child and his family seems to have rattled Netanyahu who responded by calling the killing a “terrorist” act which supposedly set it apart from the what the UN has documented as 2,100 acts of violence against Palestinians, their religious institutions, their homes, and other Palestinian-owned properties, committed by Jewish settlers since 2006.

This attack has been defined as “terrorism” simply because Israel is petrified of the possibility that this incident could open up a “Pandora’s box” of questions regarding the legitimacy of the settlement enterprise and policy in its entirety.

Taking the heat off

Israel specifically made this choice to take some of the international heat off.

Recently, Abbas has decided to use Palestine’s newfound International Criminal Court membership to call for a formal investigation into war crimes committed by Israeli occupation forces.

At the opening of an emergency meeting in Ramallah, held by the Palestinian leadership on July 31, Abbas said that he had instructed his foreign minister to prepare a case against Israel for this war crime as part of the larger dossier about the entire settlement enterprise.

The senseless death of Ali Dawabasheh, and the maiming of his family, have refocused local, regional, and world attention on the Palestinian cause.


He said that since 2004, settlers had committed 11,000 attacks against Palestinians, and that all those cases were registered by Israel as acts committed by unknowns after superficial investigations for a few hours, and then the cases were closed.

The question of whether or not the occupying power carried out proper investigations of these crimes and had held the responsible parties accountable is crucial to the case against Israeli army officials.

International law, and specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention – relative to the protection of civilians in time of war, makes clear that an occupying power is not allowed to transfer its citizens into occupied areas.

An occupying army – and therefore its soldiers and commanders – are entrusted with protecting the civilian population. Therefore, any war crimes committed against the civilian population are ultimately the responsibility of the occupying officers.

Israel’s illegal policy 

Jewish settlement practises are clearly in violation of this convention and international law. This reality is further cemented by the International Court of Justice ruling in a case presented by Jordan in 2004.

The ruling ended Israeli-initiated legal discussions disputing the status of the West Bank as occupied territory and that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to it.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon formally condemned the attack and blasted what he referred to as “repeated acts of settler violence” and “Israel’s illegal settlements”.

The US Department of State has also condemned the attack going along with Netanyahu’s description that it was a “terrorist” act. Israelis from all political parties also condemned the attack.


By calling this particular act a “terrorist act”, and ignoring the larger crimes of the entire settlement enterprise, the Israelis are hoping to avoid the full force of international law and the downward spiral in international opinion such a trial would inspire.

The senseless death of Ali Dawbashe, and the maiming of his family, have refocused local, regional, and world attention on the Palestinian cause.

A simple phone call by Netanyahu to Abbas, and the description that this act and this act alone is a “terrorist” act, will not wash away the deeply rooted stains of this conflict.

The only way that this issue can be dealt with is through a clear and serious effort to end the decades-old military occupation and the illegal colonial settlement enterprise that it protects.

Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist, is a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.