Condemnations of “hilltop youth” ring hollow

Masked Israeli settlers, guarded by soldiers, watch a Palestinian agricultural field burn after it was set on fire, June 2010.

Wagdi Eshtayah APA images

Israel’s military brass is complaining that its activities in the West Bank are too often aimed toward the benefit of settlers rather than “security considerations,” as though the army and settlement movement’s interests weren’t one and the same.

In a story published recently by the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, anonymous military officials suggest with incredulity that not only do settler leaders look the other way, they even endorse the violent behavior of so-called “hilltop youth.”

The complaints come after a streak of settler attacks on Palestinian villagers and international activists assisting with their olive harvest.

Settler attacks

This violence is hardly new. The Palestinian olive harvest has become closely associated with settler attacks. This year’s harvest has been no different, with settlers assaulting farmers and vandalizing and setting fire to their trees.

Nearly half of all cultivated land in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is planted with olive trees, and the olive oil industry constitutes 25 percent of the territories’ agricultural income. Settlers who wish to push Palestinians from their land vandalize olive trees and prevent farmers from collecting their fruit.

Settlers who attack Palestinians are very rarely punished for it. Instead of preventing violence, soldiers “serve as an armed escort, or even join in the attacks,” as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem explains.

“Investigations, if even opened, are usually closed with no action taken against perpetrators as part of an undeclared policy of leniency,” B’Tselem adds.

“The long-term effect of this violence is the dispossession of Palestinians from increasing parts of the West Bank, making it easier for Israel to take over land and resources.”

Israel’s establishment is unable to look the other way when soldiers are on the receiving end of settler violence. On Saturday, a group of 30 settlers threw stones at soldiers, injuring one lightly, and punctured the tires of their jeeps.

Palestinians accused of throwing stones at soldiers face lengthy prison sentences and are even shot at and killed on suspicion of stone-throwing. None of the rampaging settlers were arrested after stoning soldiers last weekend.

“Without compromise”

The army’s chief of staff issued a statement saying it was “unconscionable” that soldiers “should be attacked by those whom they defend.”

Amir Peretz, leader of Israel’s Labor party, said that settler “terror” against soldiers should be “nipped in the bud, without compromise.”

Peretz’s party reportedly organized a demonstration in support of the army and against “Jewish terror” outside the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on Monday.

The false implication is that settler vigilantism is undermining rather than directly serving Israel’s interests.

During his recent campaign for reelection Israel’s prime minister declared his intention to “apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea,” areas of the West Bank under full military control.

Who can believe Benjamin Netanyahu when he says “there will be no tolerance toward the lawbreakers who raise a hand against our soldiers,” when those lawbreakers are implementing the policy of the state?

When they attack Palestinians trying to harvest their olives and set fire to their fields, the hilltop youth are well aware of the frontline role they play in the conquest of the land. When their uniformed counterparts try to restrain their violence, it is no surprise that these settlers would lash out.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.