Last Friday, a group of masked Israelis descended from the illegal outpost of Givat Ronen and attacked a group of Palestinians and Israelis with clubs and rocks in broad daylight outside the village of Burin, breaking limbs and setting a car on fire in one of the most brazen instances of recent extremist Jewish Israeli violence. The week before, a 78-year-old Palestinian man named Omar Assad died at 3 AM in the village of Jiljilya, facedown on the ground and alone in the courtyard of a house under construction. The first of these two incidents appears the more serious, and has been condemned by Israeli ministers such as Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz and even by the settler umbrella Yesha Council—though notedly as of this writing not by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett— and by American Jewish organizations, including Israel Policy Forum. The second, while prompting the State Department to request a clarification of the events in question as Assad was a U.S. citizen, has received notably less attention. Yet both stem from the same basic problem, and in some ways the second is more worrisome than the first. Assad’s death, away from the cameras and high-profile clashes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, illustrates the toxic nature of the mundane and daily reality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and how much harder it is to tackle than clear and demonstrable instances of extremism.
Extremist settler violence targeting Palestinians, Israeli activists, and even IDF soldiers is increasingly impossible to ignore. The sharp uptick is not only anecdotal but confirmed by IDF and Shin Bet statistics. There are many ingredients in this toxic brew: a zero-sum insistence that Judea and Samaria belong to Jews and Jews only, a culture of impunity stemming from the very notion of blithely establishing and living in outposts that are illegal under Israeli law, an embrace of misguided and radical notions of Jewish law that justify violence, and the failure of Israel’s law enforcement system to hold perpetrators of these attacks accountable in any meaningful way. Perhaps most of all, it stems from the core dilemma that sits at the heart of Israel’s control of the West Bank, which is that the government and the IDF have a mandate to protect the lives of Israeli citizens that often clashes with the responsibility for the lives of the millions of Palestinian non-citizens in the West Bank. The IDF is there to guard Israelis, not to keep the peace at all costs, and thus the structural conditions for extremist violence committed by Israelis are set.
Despite all of these factors contributing to the rise of extremist violence, the brazenness of some of these latest attacks and the brighter spotlight being shone on them are going to have some mitigating effect. It seems like a strange coincidence indeed that two days after the Burin attack, demolition notices were issued for buildings in Givat Ronen, the illegal outpost where the attackers swooped down from and that has existed since 1999. The pledges made by Gantz and others that they will deal with extremist settler violence going forward are going to be politically difficult to completely ignore, and I expect that there will be a round of investigations, arrests, and maybe even jail time for some of the perpetrators. The public nature of some of the ugliest behavior arising from Israel’s military occupation means that it cannot be completely ignored, which is what makes efforts to highlight the violence so important.
What is more difficult to address are the consequences of actions far away from the spotlight that are so routine and pervasive that they become commonplace. This brings us to Assad, who was stopped in the pre-dawn hours driving home in what Israeli authorities said was a routine check. After what was described as his “lack of cooperation and his behavior,” Assad was taken from his car to a nearby construction site, blindfolded and ziptied and left on the ground, where he had a heart attack and died. This is surely not a unique or unprecedented incident, but because Assad was an American citizen who spent decades living in Chicago and Milwaukee and whose children and grandchildren still live here, it attracted notice from the Biden administration and members of Congress.
The soldiers who stopped Assad and then decided to pull him out of his car and detain him would not have known that Assad had a history of heart problems. There is conflicting evidence about whether Assad was beaten or intentionally injured, but I’m certain that his death—which was from the heart attack—was accidental. But that is precisely why this incident should get even more attention than what happened in Burin. A 78-year-old man driving home from a card game with no history of arrests or violence was stopped in the middle of the night for no discernible reason at an ad hoc checkpoint operated by the IDF in Area A, territory where the IDF is not supposed to operate because the Palestinian Authority has security control. When he did something to aggravate the soldiers who were not even supposed to be there, he was taken from his car, restrained as a criminal, and left in an abandoned courtyard. None of this should be routine, but it is, and a similar pattern of events—absent the tragic result—plays out multiple times every day.
It is the inevitable consequence of 55 years of Israel’s military control of the West Bank, decades of having to figure out how to protect an Israeli civilian population of hundreds of thousands from a Palestinian population of millions that does not want them there, and the grinding cycle of implementing a system that makes it impossible to distinguish real threats from imagined ones. And there are indeed real threats, which in addition to this not being a one-sided conflict is what makes empty sloganeering about ending the occupation now fundamentally unserious. But by the same token, it is also fundamentally unserious to ignore the mundane and less high-profile ways in which Israel’s presence in the West Bank harms Palestinians, corrodes Israelis, and turns into a teleological process that sustains itself through its own internal logic rather than by necessity. The soldiers outside of Jiljilya were not facing an extraordinary situation and probably didn’t give more than a few seconds’ thought to what they were doing or see it as particularly malicious, even though the perspective from the outside looks very different and much worse. Tragedies such as Assad’s death are not purposeful but they are inevitable, and they are harder to prevent than attacks from radical hilltop youth because they require overhauling an entire system rather than focusing on a few well-known hotspots and criminals.
Israelis and their leaders have become inured to the situation in the West Bank and the costs it imposes on Palestinians and on themselves. The extreme has become mundane, but it is hard for Israelis to even realize it given how ordinary it has become. Israel should work to tackle the obvious and visible criminal incidents that take place, but it must also do the more difficult work of tackling the mindset that allows for things that are less visible to appear ordinary when they are not.