Tel Aviv — Some tragedies lead to nations pulling together. But in Israel, the March 11 terrorist attack that left five Israelis, including three children, dead in their home in the West Bank settlement of Itamar has led to bitter sectarian arguments.
In a controversy reminiscent of the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, when the Israeli left blamed the right for its incitement against Rabin, the right is furious with the left, charging it with causing incitement against settlers.
Though numerous dovish groups have issued condemnations of the attack, settler leaders on the right say the issue goes deeper. They are blaming the left for creating an atmosphere in which Palestinians consider their constituency fair game for attacks.
“There is a direct link between domestic incitement and the murder,” Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel, one of the largest settlements, told Israeli journalists in Itamar on March 12.
He called on the government to “probe all the bleeding hearts that delegitimize the residents living here,” saying: “Where are the human rights defenders? I demand to investigate the correlation between their statements and this heinous murder.”
Naftali Bennett, CEO of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the main settler umbrella organization, told the Forward that some leftist groups “constantly demonize Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.” Bennett argued: “If you constantly portray settlers as conquerors, murderers, olive tree choppers, and go on and on with this kind of dehumanization, it creates the kind of culture that led to this attack.”
Groups opposed to the settlements have criticized them for expropriating Palestinian land and taking a disproportionate share of the West Bank’s water rights. Like almost all countries in the world, they regard the settlements as illegal under international law. The groups have also condemned militant settlers for uprooting Palestinian-owned olive groves, and for violence against the Palestinians themselves.
But left wing groups say their narrative draws clear lines between these condemnations and justifying harm against settlers. “To us it’s very clear. Settlers, in spite of the illegality of settlements, are civilians and mustn’t be attacked under any circumstances,” said Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B’Tselem-The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. She added: “Human rights aren’t a prize for good behavior — they apply to people whatever they have done.”
But many settlers claim that this distinction doesn’t wash. They dismiss the numerous condemnations of the attack from left-wing groups as disingenuous. “Even if they say, ‘We are sorry,’ and, ‘The murder was a terrible thing,’ they don’t mean it,” Daniella Weiss, former mayor of Kedumim in the West Bank and an icon of hard-line settlers, told the Forward.
She reasoned that while “nobody wants to see this,” as far as these groups are concerned, “it doesn’t touch them deeply, because we, the settlers, have come to this territory in a wrong manner, and the fact that we are here is causing problems in the country, the region, the world, and we are being punished.”
Despite the right-left tension following the attack, the two ends of the political spectrum have found themselves coming to the same conclusion about who must bear a large part of the blame for the West Bank’s ripeness for violence: the government, as a result of its policies there.
“Let’s not be naive. Of course one has to relate to the attack in the context of the occupation,” said Dror Etkes, a renowned left-wing activist who has held senior positions in Peace Now and Yesh Din, and who today helps Palestinians sue Israel in land claims. “If not for the occupation, there would not be families there and there would not be kids there.” The occupation must be seen as “one of the conditions that creates this kind of behavior,” he added.
Former lawmaker Uri Avnery, who leads the Gush Shalom movement, said that “without settlements, there would have been peace decades ago,” preventing such attacks. He views the attack as part of a “vicious circle” in which,“like [in] any war, each side kills the other.”
Peace Now’s general secretary, Yariv Oppenheimer, said: “I think the only way to make sure that such actions are avoided is making a peace agreement and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will remove the motivation and [Palestinian terrorists’] claim of legitimacy.” All three activists stressed their condemnation of the attack.
As far as settlers are concerned, the message that the left draws from the attack defies logic. “People think that despair leads people to this. In fact, it’s the opposite,” Bennett argued. “It’s the hope of a Palestinian state in the Land of Israel, to wipe us out, [that] fuels terrorism.” In his analysis, attacks are part of Palestinian agitation for statehood and would not take place if Israel took the two-state solution off the table.
Some on the right point to an even more direct causal relationship between Israeli policy and the attack.
One of the Knesset’s most enthusiastic advocates for the settlements, Danny Danon of Likud, released a statement March 12, saying that the attack “is the result of Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s lax security policies in Judea and Samaria.”
Referring to Israel’s decision to scale back roadblocks in recent months and to its security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, which lately has been thriving, he argued: “It is the irresponsible removal of checkpoints and the abdication of our security needs to the Palestinian Authority that has led to a situation where an innocent family was brutally slaughtered in their own home. Barak should be concentrating on protecting the citizens of Israel and not pressuring Prime Minister Netanyahu into ill-advised ‘peace’ plans.”
As well as both sides blaming the government for an atmosphere in the West Bank that is conducive to violence, left and right have surprisingly found common ground on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the Itamar attack. As expected, left-wing groups have reacted angrily to his decision to approve 500 new units in the settlements — but so have settlers, albeit for opposite reasons.
“It is a feeble and weak response,” Bennett told the Forward.
He reasoned, “The notion that you need a family to be murdered in order to build for a few hundred families in your own country is a disgrace.”
Meanwhile reaction to aspects of Netanyahu’s response aimed at the international community is unlikely to have the desired effect, according to analysts.
Like many experts, Shlomo Brom, director of the Program on Israel-Palestinian Relations at the Institute for National Security Studies, believes that Netanyahu’s unusual step of releasing graphic photographs of the victims is part of an effort to use the attack to ease international pressure on him. That pressure has been building since last November, when Netanyahu rejected entreaties from the United States for a 90-day renewal of Israel’s freeze on West Bank settlement expansion as a gesture to draw the Palestinians back to peace talks over the territory’s fate. An April meeting of the international Quartet — a group consisting of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — to review progress toward peace is expected to produce renewed criticism of Israel.
In the view of Brom, a retired brigadier general, Netanyahu hopes that the attack will make the Quartet members more respectful of his security concerns, especially his desire to have Israeli troops stationed in the Jordan Valley. “He thinks that this [attack] will help his demand, but I doubt it will,” Brom said. “People in the international community are very aware of the security situation in the area, and see Netanyahu’s positions as very exaggerated.”