Hardline Jewish Settler Violence Against IDF Has Alienated Many Israelis
Interview with Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch Project of Peace Now, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
In early December, members of the Israeli Army, known as the Israel Defense Forces or IDF, forcibly removed a group of radical right-wing Israeli settlers from a building they were occupying in the West Bank city of Hebron, following violent attacks by the settlers on both the IDF and on Palestinian civilians. About 600 settlers, living under the protection of the Israeli army, reside in the middle of Hebron, a Palestinian city of 130,000. This is one incident among several that have recently caused some Middle East watchers to conclude that relations between Israelis and Palestinians are deteriorating even below their formerly abysmal level. This week, outgoing President Ehud Olmert described the settlers' treatment of Palestinians as a "pogrom," a word used historically to describe organized violence against Jews.
The situation is extremely volatile, as Israelis will soon be holding national elections, which the far-right Likud party candidate, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is favored to win. The U.S. -- Israel's strongest and most uncritical supporter -- will also inaugurate a new president in January.
Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch Project of Peace Now. She keeps track of developments among the 276,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and 180,000 living in Palestinian East Jerusalem. She explains what happened in the Hebron conflict and the possible ramifications.
HAGIT OFRAN: The situation is that a group of settlers broke into this building a year and a half ago by force, and only then did they ask a permit to go in. And when they were denied to have this permit, they started a list of petitions to all the courts they could in order to force the government to let them stay in this building. All of that failed, and two weeks ago, there was a decision by the Supreme Court saying that they should leave the house in three days and that the government has the right to evacuate them after those three days. Of course, they were not leaving, and it actually made many young settlers come to the place in order to protect it from evacuation, and when they had rumors where the IDF (was) about to evacuate them, they started to attack mainly the Palestinians around. And I think that the violence that took place by the settlers against the Palestinians and also against the security forces of Israel, made our minister of defense, Ehud Barak, decide to kick them out of the house because of the severe violence that took place. So it was counter-productive for the settlers to be so violent in terms of public opinion in Israel and the opinion of Ehud Barak. I believe if they weren’t so violent, he wouldn’t have touched them, because this is the way he is acting since he became a minister -- not to evacuate any settlers, to get to as many agreements with them and avoid any potential clash with the settlers.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Based on what you just said, it sounds like the aggressive removal of settlers in this case is more of an anomaly than the start of a new Israeli policy. Does it mean anything, do you think?
HAGIT OFRAN: I think it might have meaning. The IDF didn’t do anything until today. I think what made the change is the fact that the settlers started to attack the IDF itself. This is something really hard for the Israeli public because the army is everybody, and when there is a group fighting against the army, people say, why do I send my child to protect those horrible people that attack him? Because the soldier is there to protect the settlers, and now he’s being attacked. So, this is like a red line that has been crossed by the settlers in the last few months, and this has made, I think, a slight change in the IDF’s attitude toward the settlers. However, it’s very far away from law enforcement or taking care of all the violations going on in the West Bank.
BETWEEN THE LINES: There’s been continued settlement in the West Bank in recent years. Where does that stand now?
HAGIT OFRAN: Yes, unfortunately, despite all the political process that has been going on –(at) the Annapolis summit last year -- we see that construction is still going on almost everywhere in the West Bank. Some of it has gone on unofficially without any permits from the government, but without any reaction or any tries to enforce the law. And in some places, it is initiated by the government, especially in those places where the government thinks that in a future agreement it will be swapped by equivalent land to the Palestinians, that Israel might annex those settlements that are closer to the Green Line, that are most populated, and in return will give land from the lands of Israel to the Palestinian state-to-be. So they take it for granted that we can build in those places as if there was already an agreement, and we in Peace Now think that one of the biggest obstacles today, facing the Israeli chances to get to peace, is the settlement activity.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Opinion seems to be changing slowly in the U.S., away from uncritical support for the Israeli government to at least some skepticism about its role, especially regarding the occupation. How important do you think this change might be for the Israelis and Palestinians being able to reach some kind of resolution?
HAGIT OFRAN: It could be conducive to an agreement. The lack of criticism by the United States in the last, let’s say, at least eight years, made it possible for Israel to do the most horrible things for the Israeli interest. I always say if you’re a good friend of mine, don’t let me drive while I’m drunk. What the U.S. did, in general, was letting us drive while we’re drunk. We should have been more criticized in not letting us destroy our own partner -- the only side in the Palestinians' that we can build on -- in terms of building some kind of an agreement and stop the bloodshed. But in the past eight years we were in an enterprise to prove that all the Palestinians are the same, that they all want to kill us, and we destroyed our own partner, and I think it was pretty much supported by the last [U.S.] administration, and maybe the public opinion also in the United States.