The events surrounding the eviction of Hebron’s “House of Contention” last month marked a new low in Israeli settler violence. Angry mobs ran riot throughout the city, enacting a “price-tag” policy of retribution on local Palestinians. Three men were shot at close range, cars and olive groves set alight and, in one reported incident, a group of settlers torched a home in which a large family cowered, as private security guards looked on. Of course, such nationalistic attacks would not be complete without the destruction of the enemies’ most sacred sites. Hence, Stars of David appeared on Muslim headstones, while “Mohammed is a pig” was blazoned across the wall of a local Mosque.
While pernicious, these attacks were not unusual in type. The recent distribution of video cameras by Israeli human rights group B’tselem to Palestinian residents of the West Bank has produced graphic evidence of what the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators described on Monday as “the growing threat of settler extremism”. In one particularly brutal video, a gang of four masked youths calmly beat an elderly shepherd and his wife with baseball bats. A quick YouTube search demonstrated that this was far from an isolated case.
What was less common, however, was the manner in which, when evicted, protestors in Hebron treated their compatriots in the Israeli Forces. Despite having been taken by surprise (which prevented them from employing the arsenal of homemade weapons that was discovered on the premises), settlers succeeded in assaulting officers, pelting them with stones and treating one unfortunate soldier to a face-full of acid.
Israeli officials were quick to condemn. An unnamed senior officer of the IDF’s Central Command was reported as saying that the Hebron riots “shame and disgrace us as Jews”. The Prime Minister labelled the attacks, “a pogrom”. Far from galvanising support for their cause, the settlers’ churlish tantrums resulted in ignominy.
Eager to limit the damage, settler leadership council Yesha played the good cop to the bad villains of the headlines. Yesha chairman Danny Dayan berated former Kedumim mayor Daniella Weiss for inciting the rioting youth, angling for her removal from Hebron, while ferocious firebrand Nadia Matar was another whose confrontational tactics incensed the leadership. Both veteran settlers, Matar and Weiss are role models among the new wave of angry settler youth, disenchanted with Yesha following the disengagement from Gaza.
Attempting to reassert its authority, an ostensibly outraged Yesha is now branding the rebels a rabble of extremists, far removed from the settlement movement at large. Such representations are understandable — but they are also untrue. The new wave of settler violence is not limited to a handful of extremists, nor to one or two hotspots and no one can claim to be surprised by its eruption. The youths who stone soldiers and beat Israeli policemen are direct ideological descendents of the Gush Emunim settlers who defied the army at Sebastia in 1975. The people who torch Palestinian property, beat shepherds and sabotage their agriculture are no bastard children, but the legitimate offspring of a pervasive, ultra-nationalistic ideology that pits Jews against Palestinians in an all out battle for holy land.
That the majority of settlers do not engage in violence is beside the point, as is the Yesha leadership’s eschewal of confrontation for negotiation. The new generation of settler youth, piloted by certain spitfires of the old, is the inevitable consequence of the maverick and rampantly nationalistic settlement enterprise, for which mainstream settler leaders are just as responsible as a Matar or a Weiss. No amount of posturing on the part of the Yesha leadership can hide that fact.
Dayan is right about one thing, though: the new wave of radical youth is doing untold damage to settlers’ support among the Israeli public. For proponents of a two-state solution, that’s a silver sliver in an otherwise cloudy sky.