Majdi Mohammed / AP

West Bank attack puts Israel’s settlement policy in the spotlight

Analysis: The murder of baby Ali Saad Dawabsha highlights the occupation’s impunity for settler violence

Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum have condemned Friday’s fire-bomb attack on a Palestinian village by masked Israeli settlers that killed 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsha and left his parents and 4-year-old brother critically injured.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and spokesmen for the police and army all described the incident, in the West Bank village of Duma, as a terrorist attack and insisted that the perpetrators are not representative of Israeli society. The chorus of condemnation was joined by far-right pro-settler legislators from the Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu parties — politicians who have in recent memory expressed rabidly anti-Palestinian opinions or offered at most token condemnation tempered by “yes but” justification of so-called price tag attacks. 

“Price tag” is the term used by settler activists for attacks on Palestinians, ostensibly undertaken in retaliation for Israeli government actions opposed by the settler movement. There were clashes earlier in the week between settler activists and Israeli security forces dismantling homes deemed illegal under Israeli law. (All Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem violate international law, according to the U.N. Security Council, even those permitted by Israeli law.)

Many of the politicians who have demanded the arrest and trial of the perpetrators of the Duma attack are nonetheless committed to a vision of permanent Israeli settlement of the occupied territories. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett has publicly advocated annexing the West Bank and re-establishing a military occupation in Gaza. He has said that when he was in the army, he “personally killed many Arabs” and saw “no problem” with that. His No. 2, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, during last summer’s Gaza war referred to Palestinian children as “little snakes.”

Only the left-wing parties — the left-Zionist Meretz and the non-Zionist Joint List — linked Friday’s attack to Israel’s settlement policies. On her Facebook page, Meretz leader Zehava Galon wrote that the Duma murder was “written on the wall,” pointing out that right-wing politicians have long declined to issue strong condemnations of previous price tag attacks on Palestinian churches and mosques. She urged the arrest of not only the perpetrators but also the rabbis she said were responsible for inciting them and legitimizing such attacks.

Dov Khenin of Hadash, an Arab-Jewish socialist party that is part of the Joint List coalition, asked on his Facebook page, “How long will we continue to accept a reality in which these types of attacks are routine?” Like Galon, he drew a direct connection between Friday’s attack and a culture that he said tolerates hatred of the other. “It’s not enough to express horror [at this attack],” he wrote. “The right-wing parties in the government cannot stop at condemnation, thus washing their hands clean. Rather than accept the empty condemnations of the right, we must fight for real change. In the face of racism and hatred, we need an opposition movement that is broad and united … It’s urgent. It’s fateful. And it’s in our hands.”

The culture of settler impunity to which Galon and Khenin refer is one that human rights activists have challenged for years — in vain. The entire system of governance in the West Bank is designed to protect Jewish settlers and leave Palestinians vulnerable. The settlements have security systems and armed guards, while Palestinian villagers are not only physically unprotected but also forbidden to own weapons. A Palestinian who defends his property is liable to be arrested by soldiers and detained for weeks or months in a military prison.

Several years ago, I visited a Palestinian village in Area B of the West Bank, where some of the local men decided to sleep in their family olive groves after settlers torched several of their trees. Settlers carrying jerrycans of kerosene returned, saw the village men waiting for them and attacked them. The Palestinians fought back, using their fists. To prove they were unarmed, they showed us photos of the altercation. When soldiers arrived, they arrested the Palestinians and sent the settlers home. Since then, the Israeli army has carried out several nighttime raids on the village, banging on the doors of private homes at 3 or 4 a.m. and searching the premises. Jewish settlements suspected of harboring perpetrators of price tag attacks might receive a visit from the civilian police, but a warrant would be needed to search a house or to carry out an arrest.

While Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Israeli military law, under which many are routinely imprisoned on the basis of flimsy evidence, Israeli settlers in the same territory are subject to Israeli civil law and the protections it offers. Although Palestinian Authority security forces refrain from protecting Palestinians from Israeli settlers or soldiers, the Israeli military is not viewed as a protector for Palestinians even when settlers are breaking Israeli law.

Stories abound like the one involving Palestinian villagers being arrested for trying to protect their olive trees from settler vandalism. Despite frequent inquiries, I have yet to find any Israeli soldiers whose unit has been ordered to protect Palestinians from violent settlers. Their orders are to protect Jews. In interviews, some soldiers acknowledge discomfort with those orders, but they do not feel they are in a position to question — let alone defy — them.

Incidents of settler violence are reported by the Israeli media as the actions of extremists, implying that the perpetrators are deviants. Mainstream Israeli society does not embrace the worldview and actions of the violent settlers, and the army has been known to turn them away from military enlistment centers. But, despite being disgusted by the gratuitous violence of some settlers, mainstream Israeli society is not comfortable with Palestinians. Polls show that a majority of Israelis do not see Palestinians as potential neighbors with whom they are prepared to share their streets or apartment buildings. And their failure to connect the ever-expanding settlement enterprise with the violence being visited on the Palestinians has cultivated the climate of impunity now under international scrutiny. 

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter