Israel leading campaign to de-legitimize West Bank Jews?

By Aaron Klein

JERUSALEM – Is the Israeli government leading a campaign to de-legitimize Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank – territory slated to become part of a Palestinian state if current negotiations are pushed through?

Just before Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, authorities blamed a series of extremist acts on the Jews of Gush Katif, the former Jewish communities of Gaza. The Israeli media and politicians here complained about “violent settlers,” but it turned out many of the acts in question actually were carried out by extremist elements with dubious connections to fringe Jewish organizations from outside Gaza, unconnected to and unsupported by Gush Katif or the larger settler movement.

A case in point was the extremism of protesters inside the Palm Beach Hotel, a rundown former Jewish beachside resort on the shores of Gaza that had been utilized as a staging ground for a group of rowdy protesters who came to Gush Katif to oppose Israel’s Gaza evacuation. The Jews inside the hotel staged several events provoking Israeli forces, and even were involved with some run-ins with local Arabs, although it seemed the Arabs had started the confrontations.

The Jewish residents of Gaza, mostly peaceful farmers who put up passive resistance to Israel’s evacuation, distanced themselves from the extremist hotel protesters. And yet the Israeli and international media did not distinguish Gaza’s Jews from the outside provocateurs at the hotel, which was one of several examples of extremism blamed on the tree-lined communities of Gush Katif and used against them to argue for their expulsion.

In 2005, Israel also used violence from fringe extremists to arrest without direct cause and put in administrative detention scores of settlers and nationalist leaders the government claimed may incite violence. The leaders were released without charges after the Gaza expulsion.

Now, amid intense Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in which Israel has made clear it will cede the vast majority of the West Bank, the same cycle seems to be repeating itself.

The news here the past few weeks has been filled with reports of “extremist” West Bank settlers engaged in violence against Palestinians and Israeli troops.

For the last few days, for example, media have been reporting on settlers accused of shooting to death an 18-year-old Palestinian shepherd. The reports were based on Palestinian claims, but ignored settler investigations which showed it was extremely unlikely a Jew was involved in the death.

The accusation was used by both pundits and Israeli politicians to petition for harsher punishments against “extremist settlers.” Finally, a police investigation yesterday determined the shepherd had not even been shot. Forensic experts found he was killed by shrapnel wounds after he picked up an unexploded shell that had detonated in his hands.

In another incident, last Thursday a pipe bomb exploded outside the house of an extreme leftist Israeli professor, Zeev Sternhell, who is a prominent proponent of expelling Jews from the West Bank. With little information on who was behind the blast, the media and politicians here immediately pointed to settler elements.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claimed there was a “direct link” between the attack on Sternhell and the assassination of former premier Yitzhak Rabin, whose death was blamed on a Jewish nationalist extremist in 1995 following the signing of the Oslo Accords, which offered the Palestinians strategic territory.

“An evil wind of extremism, of hatred, of malice, of violence, of lawlessness is blowing through certain sections of the Israeli public and threatens Israeli democracy,” Olmert said at the Knesset yesterday, in a clear reference to West Bank settlers.

Spelling it out even more clearly, Defense Minister Ehud Barak yesterday urged the Knesset to adopt a tougher stance on punishing West Bank settlers for “unruly” behavior.

Israel already has begun a system of “punishment.” Police here announced in direct response to the settler “violence” that Jews are being barred from visiting Joseph’s Tomb, site of the burial place of biblical patriarch Joseph. The tomb, located outside a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank, is the third holiest site in Judaism.

In recent days, settlers have been accused of attacks on Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed near settlements. Those attacks took place near two particular communities in which members of dubious, extremist fringe organizations reside, including the settlement of Yitzhar. The fringe groups inside Yitzhar are widely condemned by the vast majority of the West Bank’s Jewish communities and are not representative of the settlement movement.

That hasn’t stopped the media from using the Yitzhar attacks to typecast the settlement movement. A New York Times article this week, reporting from the fringe Yitzhar, is titled, “Radical Settlers Take on Israel,” as if Yitzhar represents the rest of the settler movement. The Times interviewed some of the most radical settlers in Yitzhar who are not respected in the wider settler community.

In an eerie flashback to the days of administrative detention just before Israel’s Gaza retreat, the Israeli court system recently upheld a ban on several West Bank Jews from returning to their homes, for fear they will incite violence.

Also, the Knesset in recent weeks has been debating a bill to compensate West Bank Jews who voluntarily leave their homes ahead of an Israeli withdrawal from the territory. A similar offer was made to the Jews of Gaza in 2005.

Israel recaptured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War. The territory, in which about 200,000 Jews live, is tied to Judaism throughout the Torah.

The book of Genesis says Abraham entered Israel at Shechem (Nablus) and received God’s promise of land for his offspring. He was later buried with the rest of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, except for Rachel, in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. Hebron was site of the first Jewish capital.

The nearby town of Beit El, anciently called Bethel meaning “house of God,” is where Scripture says the patriarch Jacob slept on a stone pillow and dreamed of angels ascending and descending a stairway to heaven. In that dream, God spoke directly to Jacob and reaffirmed the promise of territory.

And in Exodus, the holy tabernacle rested in Shiloh, believed to be the first area the ancient Israelites settled after fleeing Egypt.

To interview Aaron Klein, contact M. Sliwa Public Relations by e-mail, or call 973-272-2861 or