In Depth

Do Israel's hardline settlers qualify as 'terrorists'?

The vandalism and violence perpetrated by Jewish extremists has gone too far, say moderate Israelis

venetia.jpg

THERE are a lot of very big issues that divide mainstream Israeli opinion. The occupation, foreign policy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, religion, the future of the state. Which makes it especially remarkable when you find something that the majority agree on.

For most moderate Israelis, the hardcore right-wing settler movement is a bad joke. Only for the ultra-religious does such a group of people serve any sort of constructive purpose.

For everyone else, the Jewish extremists who pitch up on hilltops in the West Bank and wage campaigns of violence and intimidation are seen as somewhere between a nuisance and a smear on the country's name.

Especially when it comes to the so-called "price tag attacks": those acts of violence and vandalism committed by settlers against Palestinians - and sometimes even Israeli security forces - in order to exact a price for some earlier action that, in their view, damaged the settler movement.

Last week, the issue heated up when Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said they would ask the Israeli cabinet to classify groups behind "price tag attacks" as terrorist organisations. This comes in the wake of Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon saying earlier this year that “the unacceptable trend known as ‘price tag’ is in my opinion terror in every sense of the word... It is a stain on Israel.”

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki also joined the chorus this week, writing a letter to world powers demanding the terrorist classification on the basis that militant settlers "practice terror... constantly against the Palestinian people, their land, holy places and property."

As ever, one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, so it is open to debate whether the settlers' actions can be classified as terrorism. This is an especially tricky debate in Israel, where terrorism is something the nation defines itself against. How could an Israeli be a terrorist?

Yet these settlers systematically abuse the Palestinian population by spray painting 'Death to Arabs' on homes, slashing tyres, defacing graves, and, most crucially, throwing stones - a politically charged act that is normally depicted as the first stage of terrorism when it is done by Arabs to Israeli soldiers.

Even Livni, who has had to be given diplomatic immunity for her visit this week to the UK so she won't be arrested over alleged war crimes during the 2008/09 bombardment of Gaza, has classed those behind price tag attacks as "an extremist ideological group based in certain settlements in Judea and Samaria that doesn't adhere to any authority".

According to the Israeli human rights organisation Peace Now, there has been a "clear escalation" in price tag attacks, with a total of 26 so far this year (last year there were 41). They have mainly been against Muslim Palestinians but Christians and a Druze dentist have also been targeted.

Israeli security forces have also suffered. During a demolishment last month of some illegal structures in the settlement of Yitzhar, deep in the West Bank near the Palestinian city of Nablus, dozens of settlers threw stones at Israeli soldiers and even dismantled a nearby military post set up to protect them.

For a country that reveres military might, where nearly all men and women are compelled to serve for three years and two years respectively, these incidents are the most offensive. Attacking Palestinians is one thing, but violence against the army is seen as tantamount to an assault on the heart of the country and on the nation's sons and daughters.

The problem is that, in one way or another, these hardcore ideologists are protected. They get security provided by the state and are treated preferentially by the Israeli justice system. There are also powerful right-wing figures within the Israeli government who would never allow any settler to be branded a terrorist. 

So, this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been busy pointing to the "real threat" to the country's security: people marching to commemorate what is known as the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic), the departure of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the creation of Israel in 1948.

"Those who marched with flags of the Palestinian Authority demanding that it not give up on the right of return," he said following a demonstration last week in northern Israel, "are a fifth column whose aim is the destruction of Israel."

But who, in the eyes of the world, are the real fifth columnists here: the peaceful demonstrators asking for what they want? Or the lawless, violent thugs taking what they want?

Venetia Rainey tweets at twitter.com/venetiarainey

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