Israeli Settlers: Never Shy About Taking the Law Into Their Own Hands

Israeli settlerCross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari of the far-right National Union party coalition has announced a call to action for Israeli settlers in the West Bank to march out and confront anticipated Palestinian demonstrations in the Occupied Territories this month, which he describes as delegitimizing provocations by “the Arabs” and Israel’s “far-left.” He has prepared an outline for his campaign titled “September: The Threat of an Opportunity – Changing the Rules of the Game.” This announcement follows a recent spate of “price taggings” reportedly committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, the IDF and Peace Now activists in the run-up to the controversial Palestinian bid for recognition as a state through the UN.

Although the IDF is providing both training and weapons to Israeli settlers (and the Israeli courts have effectively immunized settlers from prosecution if they shoot Palestinian “trespassers”), Ben-Ari anticipates a scenario where the security forces will be overwhelmed, and thus cut and run: “[I] doubt that the security forces can effectively protect every settlement, in the event that demonstrations break out simultaneously all across the region. In such cases, the result will be [a retreat] – resulting in the abandonment of Jewish territory, looting [by Palestinians], property damage, and worse.” Ben-Ari has said that the settlers who flock to his banner must make every effort not to give an inch in the face of the “enemy” — that is, both Palestinians and the Israeli government, which he accuses of being willing to let the West Bank to become a “terrorist state” rather than endure the “burden” of the settlements any longer.

Below is (my) English translation of Ben-Ari’s manifesto as reported on by Israeli news outlet Arutz 7:

The [Palestinians’] September demonstrations present an opportunity to tell everyone, whether they want to hear it or not, that Judea and Samaria are our home:

We’re here! This is the legacy of our forefathers!
We’re here to stay forever!
We’re here! For the people of Israel!

The security forces have amply demonstrated that going into the anticipated September protests [by the Palestinians], they do not share the settlers’ concerns. Undoubtedly, this is the result of a political consensus that views the settlements as a “burden.” Even though the security forces have the option of working with the settlers to protect their homes and property, there has been minimal preparation by the security forces to mobilize them.

This is the settlers’ chance to declare that they are here.

There are 330,000 settlers in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem)! Settlers’ [security] squads, security coordinators and patrol vehicles are permanently on alert. And settlers have knowledge of the area and know the weaknesses of the [Palestinian] enemy.

We believe that if the settlers do not act to defend the settlements, no one else will. Ehud Barak and Netanyahu desire the establishment of a terrorist state on Israeli soil; they will not defend the settlers.

The plan is to organize hundreds and even thousands of kids, children, women and old men (with the assistance of reinforcements) from the settlements and walk right up to the Palestinian demonstrators, waving Israeli flags as we march across Israeli territory.

These actions will repeat themselves across Israel; the settlers will face down the opposing forces. No more [Israeli] soldiers and border guards in front of groups of Arab women and children. But children with children, boys with boys and women with women – it will destroy the “effect of September” and this will change the equation on the ground forever.

[Snip]

The campaign staff will include representatives of all relevant bodies, mayors, community leaders, and residents’ committees . . . representatives of the hilltop youth, and the like. When this goes down it will run effectively, but we will struggle in some areas:

The headquarters unit will be headed by an operations officer and team coordinators. Staff will unite all the existing workforce . . . [and] will prepare an operational plan based on the independent agenda of the settlers, and [staff will] organize marches and mass rallies outside the villages but also will be responsible for sending a response force for each locality where the event takes place against the terrorists.

The logistics team will ensure the supply of equipment for the marchers and a regular supply of food and water. The equipment provided will include legal “self-protection equipment” which would allow activists to defend themselves and retaliate in case of assault.

Much of the enemy’s campaign is going to take place in the media. Arabs run the media campaign, and at the disposal of the Arabs and leftists are not only most of the media establishment, but also many skilled speakers. The communications team will be based primarily on the Forum speakers in the West Bank with the assistance of the observation unit.

Lawyers and jurists that will handle legal challenges arising from the defense minister should he try to argue that these actions will harm the residents of Judea and Samaria. If any settlers are arrested during the events, the legal team will come to their assistance.

The Arutz 7 reporting obliquely references the necessity of reaching out to foreign organizations to carry out this campaign. It is not clear what organizations Ben-Ari and his supporters have in mind, though the French Jewish Defense League (JDL) has announced that it is coordinating the dispatch of volunteer “guards” who have military training with five West Bank settlements. The JDL, and the banned far-right Israeli political party Kach/Kahane Chai, were both founded by ultra-nationalist Israeli politician Meir Kahane. The JDL itself is allowed to operate in the U.S. and the EU, where it has ties to the anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic British Defense League.

Ben-Ari seems to envision that the Palestinian effort at the UN — which Ramallah argues is a necessity in the face of the Israeli government’s refusal to return to peace talks — will eventually lead to the same sort of withdrawal the Israelis undertook in Sinai and Gaza. A collective warning from the Israeli intelligence community urging the government to reevaluate its recalcitrance over returning to peace talks with Ramallah suggests that a schism is growing among Israeli elites about how to respond to the Palestinian initiative at the UN.

The National Union holds that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is an integral part of Israel (referring to the Occupied Territories by the Biblical designation of “Judea and Samaria”). It has frequently butted heads with Netanyahu’s policies in the past — because they don’t go far enough (i.e., formally annexing Israeli’s post-1967 territorial gains). Given the likelihood of a pro-Palestinian vote from the UN General Assembly by the end of the month, and the growing number of prominent Israeli voices expressing opposition to the Tel Aviv’s response to the vote, Ben-Ari and the settlers seem determined to be resorting to the tried-and-true tactic of changing the “facts on the ground,” lest a resumption negotiations scale back their gains (and, in the event of a binding UN resolution, allow a host of lawsuits against the Israeli government, settlements and security forces in the West Bank to proceed).

NB: It is not entirely clear if the Hebrew text presented by Arutz 7 is Ben-Ari’s report itself, or a condensed version edited by Arutz 7, though other Israeli news outlets have quoted pieces of the Arutz 7 text below as Ben-Ari’s own words).

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.