A settler rampage through a Palestinian town in the West Bank last weekend has raised fears in the Israeli defence establishment that right-wing activists are preparing a violent resistance to any future attempt by security forces to evacuate settlements.
Last Saturday, several dozen settlers from the far-right settlement of Yitzhar, some armed with automatic rifles, rampaged through the streets of the village of Assira Kubliyeh shooting and stoning homes and cars in response to the Palestinian stabbing of a nine-year-old boy.
Yitzhar is located on a hilltop overlooking the city of Nablus. Six Palestinians were injured in the ensuing rampage and the Jewish boy was evacuated to hospital with light wounds.
The riot was not the first act of violence in the West Bank in recent weeks. Last Wednesday, some 40 settlers attacked IDF reservists near Talmon, caused damage to the pipe system that carries water to their base, and called the soldiers "Nazis". Earlier that same day, soldiers clashed with settlers near Yitzhar after they began throwing rocks at passing Palestinian cars.
"There is complete lawlessness in the West Bank," Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai said during a Knesset hearing this week on the escalation in violence, calling on the IDF and the police to curb the phenomenon otherwise "it would be extremely difficult to stop the violence at a later stage".
The concern is that if current peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians culminate in a deal, it will require the evacuation of dozens of settlements, an operation that could be very difficult and costly.
"There is a very violent trend in the West Bank right now," a top IDF officer told the JC. "The settlers are flexing their muscles to scare us into thinking that it will be impossible to evacuate them if that day ever comes."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Saturday's violence a "pogrom" and vowed that the IDF would act against "those who take the law into their own hands and attack innocent people as was done over the weekend in the gravest manner".
According to police statistics, there has been an 11 per cent rise in settler violence in 2008. In addition, 82 indictments have been filed against settlers this year in comparison to 47 in 2007.
Yitzhar spokesman Yigal Amitay rejected Mr Olmert's criticism and accused Palestinians of burning Yitzhar fields seven times in three months.
"Broken glass and overturned flower pots do not constitute a pogrom particularly when this happens in response to the attempted murder of Jews," Mr Amitay told the JC in reference to the results of the settler rampage through Assira Kubliyeh.