Israel’s culpability in settler violence

Curbing settler violence would necessitate the full and total dismantling of the Israeli colonial project.

Left-wing protesters protest arson attack in the West Bank in Tel Aviv
The state treats settlers preferentially over Palestinians in every facet of life, writes Nashashibi [Reuters]

The Israeli government has shed crocodile tears over Friday’s killing by settlers of Palestinian toddler Ali Saad Dawabsheh.

Much media attention was given to Israeli officials’ description of the attack as terrorism, which must be fought “regardless of which side it comes from”. That is exactly what the government wanted – its reaction was a PR ploy to portray Israel as the good guy, one that fights terrorism and is a victim of it.

This shameless, self-serving response is an insult to Dawabsheh and his family, and a shrewd effort to deflect attention away from the state’s fundamental culpability in rampant settler violence against Palestinians.

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The government’s response attempts to hide three basic truths. Firstly, Dawabsheh’s murder is not an isolated incident.

Settler violence against Palestinians – be it against them, their homes, their livelihoods, or their infrastructure – is relentless. According to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), there were 369 attacks this year up to July 27, averaging more than 12 each week.

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Secondly, Israel fosters a sense of superiority and impunity that make such attacks inevitable.

Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem said Dawabsheh’s killing was “only a matter of time […] due to the authorities’ policy to avoid enforcing the law on Israelis who harm Palestinians and their property. This policy creates impunity for hate crimes […] In light of this, the clock is ticking in the countdown to the next arson attack, and the one after”.

Symbolic punishments

According to a report in May by Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din: “The probability that a complaint submitted to the Israel police by a Palestinian will lead to an effective investigation, that results in the location of a suspect, and followed by indictment, trial and conviction is just 1.9 percent.”

Punishments are largely symbolic, a slap on the wrist. On the other hand, a new law gives Palestinians up to 20 years in jail for throwing a stone.

An example may be made of Dawabsheh’s killers if they are caught, but this will be the exception rather than the rule – a result of the international limelight rather than a sincere desire to tackle settler violence.

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The scale of the problem has been evident for years, yet it has been allowed to fester.

According to an October 2013 UN report: “[…] Since 2009 the number of settler-related incidents resulting in casualties has more than doubled, and the number of casualties caused by settlers has increased by 30 percent; while the number of settler-related incidents resulting in property damage has more than tripled, and the number of trees destroyed or damaged has increased almost four-fold.”

The report added: “From January to August 2013, compared to the same period in 2012, the number of casualties caused by Israeli security forces increased more than four-fold, as security forces intervene in settler attacks or resulting clashes between settlers and Palestinians to disperse Palestinians, rather than to protect them from attacks by settlers.”

Settlement expansion

Israel provides myriad incentives for its citizens to live in the occupied territories, with regular announcements of settlement expansion (most recently last week). 

This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of settlers residing in armed, strategically located colonies that are spread like tentacles to lord over the Palestinians and suffocate the possibility of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state.

[…] It is nonsensical to believe that Israel will do what is necessary, legal and just, or that its allies that have influence will wield it.


Israel’s colonial project goes against numerous UN Security Council resolutions, and is a clear violation of international law.

The Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The occupying power shall not […] transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

The state treats settlers preferentially over Palestinians in every facet of life. Israel and its allies are in deep denial that this constitutes apartheid, something black South Africans immediately recognise.

The third basic truth that the government’s reaction to Dawabsheh’s killing seeks to conceal is that settlers take their cue from Israel’s military, the self-proclaimed “most moral army in the world”.

In every war it has undertaken, the vast majority of casualties has been civilian – since it possesses some of the world’s most advanced precision weaponry, this is no accident.

Deliberately targeting civilians

Testimonies by Israeli soldiers reveal a strategy of deliberately targeting civilian areas, and of orders to shoot first and ask questions later (if at all).

Little wonder, then, that there are countless reports by respected human rights organisations of Israeli war crimes and wanton disregard for civilian life.

Why would settlers behave any differently when this is the example their military sets, and when members of their present government harbour openly racist views towards their occupied subjects?

A curbing of settler violence would necessitate the dismantling of the colonial project, something no Israeli government has been willing to consider.


The present administration, widely considered the most extremist in the country’s history, is particularly overt in its support for settlers.

As such, it is nonsensical to believe that Israel will do what is necessary, legal and just, or that its allies that have influence will wield it.

The most we have seen – and can expect – from the international community are words, which mean nothing without punitive measures.

That is why grassroots efforts – such as the increasingly effective Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – must be further supported and galvanised to push for an end to Israel’s impunity, its allies’ complicity, and the international community’s inaction.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. 

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