On Tuesday of last week, while Jews in Israel and across the world were celebrating Shemini Atzeret and marking the end of the fall season of Jewish holidays, about five dozen Israeli Jews celebrated in a decidedly untraditional way. They went to the Palestinian village of al-Mufaqara, which lies next to the two illegal Israeli outposts Avigayil and Havat Ma’on, where they killed a sheep, threw rocks through the windows of houses, smashed and overturned cars, punctured water tanks, and put a number of Palestinians in the hospital, including a three-year-old boy. According to Palestinian witnesses, IDF soldiers did not intervene to prevent the masked Israelis from carrying out their rampage, but did fire tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians who threw rocks at the assailants in return. Despite the fact that Har Hevron Regional Council head Yochai Damri insisted that the perpetrators were not locals but out-of-town guests, it turns out that those arrested were a mix of locals and Jerusalem residents (with the Jerusalemites later released for lack of evidence).
Damri’s contention that locals could not have been involved because settlers do not use violence—reminiscent of then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s infamous claim that there was no genocide in Darfur because it is impossible for Muslims to commit such an act—is also belied by a bevy of inconvenient facts. Not only is settler violence against Palestinians a consistent problem, it is one that is growing in leaps and bounds. In the first six months of 2021, there were 416 incidents of violence against Palestinians reported in the West Bank, compared to 507 in all of 2020 and 363 in all of 2019. Even if all of these reports cannot be corroborated and even if some of them are instances of settlers defending themselves from attacks instigated by Palestinians—which of course happen as well—the sheer numbers, Israeli and Palestinian eyewitness accounts, video footage, and evidence on the ground of destroyed farmland and olive groves are as much proof as anyone should need that there is indeed a serious problem that has to be addressed.
The rush in some quarters to say “yes, but…” is nearly as enraging as the attacks themselves. “Yes, but Palestinians carry out terrorist attacks on Israelis” is only a defense in a world in which anarchy reigns and there is no state that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force or power to enforce the rule of law, which is not a description that anyone would credibly employ when referring to Israel. “Yes, but settler attacks are always provoked” is a credulous claim in a world where self-taken video footage often seems to capture Israelis attacking Palestinians while not nearly as often capturing the reverse, and where the most extremist settlers proudly tout price tag attacks and insist that Palestinians have no right to the land. “Yes, but Palestinian illegal activity goes unpunished” is another head-scratching defense, not only because clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank end more often than not with Palestinians arrested and with Israelis walking away, but because the illegal activity that is referenced is building without permits and the charge is made by many Israelis who do the exact same thing in building or supporting illegal outposts.
When an episode such as the al-Mufaqara rampage happens, it is vital for Israeli Jews and American Jews to condemn it, to name it as terrorism—which is precisely what it is when masked men put people in the hospital and destroy property to send a political message—and not to make excuses, qualifications, or indulge in the often-inevitable “but the other side is worse.” Not only is this morally obtuse, there are at least two tangible reasons to be unanimous in our clarity and insistence that this is completely unacceptable.
For all of the attention paid last week to the progressives who voted in the House against additional Iron Dome funding and this week to Rand Paul for holding it up in the Senate, the threat to Israel’s standing in the U.S. does not come from the radicals or from the extremes. It comes from the large group of sensible people who occupy the vast bulk of the political bell curve and who are increasingly troubled by what they see taking place in the West Bank. Whether you think it is Americans’ business to be troubled about this is not the point; Americans, and even more particularly American Jews, are troubled about it, and there is plenty of unpleasant evidence that continues to fuel these feelings. Settlement activity, which is often pointed to as the root of the problem, is often abstract or hard to grasp in real-time. Masked settlers attacking Palestinian civilians, destroying their homes, and injuring children while IDF soldiers stand by is anything but abstract or hard to grasp. I am hard-pressed to think of a better way for the narrative of Israeli settler-colonial oppression to become dominant than to have this type of settler terrorism increase, go unpunished, and be justified or waved away. You have to be on the margins to view Israel defending itself from rockets aimed at its cities as reprehensible, but you also have to be on the margins to view Israelis’ attacks on Palestinians as aberrant or unworthy of condemnation. And the more they go on, the more they will become the abiding image for many of what Israel is.
Not unreservedly condemning settler terrorism and demanding that it be addressed also undercuts the dominant complaint from Israelis and American Jews about Palestinians, which is that they are resistant to dealing with terrorism, incitement, and delegitimization on their side. It is to the credit of Israeli leaders like Yair Lapid who referred to what happened as terror and called for the attackers to be brought to justice, though the silence from other quarters was disappointing, and you rarely see the same demonstration from Palestinian leaders in dealing with terrorism from their side. It is more important for each side to call out its own, which is both harder and more impactful than calling out the other side, and not overwhelmingly doing so mitigates the impact of pointing out the other side’s failings. For all of the justified outrage over Palestinian streets and schools named after terrorists and the glorification of prisoners who have attacked Israelis, there is an epidemic of Israeli terrorism that too few seem to notice or care about.
Settlers are not terrorists by dint of living in the West Bank, but neither are the ones who actually commit terrorist attacks cases of a few isolated bad apples. Attacks and violence committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians are widespread enough to be a problem that will not be addressed through arresting half a dozen people, and we should not pretend otherwise. Jews who care about Israel should be as concerned about what Israelis are doing to Palestinians as we are about what Palestinians are doing to Israelis.