When you hear an Israeli criticizing violence among settlers in the West Bank, it’s usually a peacenik or a human rights advocate. But in recent weeks, a number of prominent Jewish settlers themselves have spoken out against the hooliganism, perpetrated mainly by young extremists living in the occupied territories. Their record includes mosque burnings and other attacks on Palestinians and even assaults against Israelis whom they perceive as adversaries.
The trigger for the criticism appears to have been an incident earlier this month in which the tires of a settler leader were slashed, almost certainly by the same group and apparently in response to a compromise he helped forge with the government over the evacuation of some settlers from their homes in a settlement outpost known as Ulpana.
While violence against Palestinians is not a new phenomenon, the remarks suggest a growing awareness among settler leaders that these incidents could turn Israeli public opinion against their enterprise in the West Bank, a territory that most countries recognize as belonging to the Palestinians. Large numbers of Israelis recoil at such violence, according to polls.
They also point to a generational divide within the settler movement, with a younger cohort that appears to be more extreme than the founders and more willing to resort to violence, even against fellow Israelis.
“I think it’s time for us to do some soul searching on how the violence has become so common in our society,” said Danny Dayan, who heads the Yesha Council, the main settler leadership body in the West Bank.
“I think this violence represents a bigger threat to our continued presence here in Judea and Samaria than anything else,” he told The Daily Beast, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
To be sure, violence in the West Bank is being perpetrated by both Israelis and Palestinians. According to data collected by a U.N. agency in the West Bank known as OCHA (Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs), Palestinians killed eight settlers in 2011, up from five the previous year. By comparison, settlers killed three Palestinians last year.
While violence against Palestinians is not a new phenomenon, the remarks suggest a growing awareness among settler leaders that these incidents could turn Israeli public opinion against their enterprise.
But the attacks by settlers are more numerous and more widespread – and they appear to be growing. OCHA says the number of settler attacks resulting in Palestinian casualties and property damage, including the burning of olive trees and other crops, was up 32 percent in 2011, compared the previous year and 144 percent compared to 2009. These attacks include what settlers call “price tag” operations, essentially vigilantism against Palestinians in response to measures by the Israeli government aimed at curbing the excesses of the settlers.
In the latest incident, assailants set fire to a mosque in Jaba in the northern West Bank last week, and spray-painted the words “Ulpana War” in Hebrew on a wall in the village. The government recently evacuated some 30 families from Ulpana on orders from Israel’s High Court of Justice, which ruled their homes were built illegally on private Palestinian land. The families agreed to go quietly, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to build hundreds of new homes in other settlements across the West Bank.
While Israeli security forces tend to respond quickly and aggressively to Palestinian violence, less than 10 percent of the complaints regarding settler attacks ended in indictments, according to the OCHA data.
Dayan said the “price tag” operations were especially ugly. Earlier this week, he convened a few dozen settler leaders and rabbis in the West Bank to call out the extremists, whom he referred to as “bullies” and “hooligans.” But he also censured his fellow council members for not speaking out earlier.
“Our hands are not clean,” he said.
Dayan recalled having raised a proposal in the Yesha Council already years ago to condemn such attacks, only to be told that the body doesn’t issue denouncements when Palestinians are targeted. He said the violence undermined the settlement movement even more than efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama to force Israel to freeze settlement expansion.
Captured on video, Dayan’s remarks offered a rare glimpse of disunity among the settlers. At one point during his speech, a participant is heard saying off camera, “Danny, no need to get carried away.”
But other council members echoed his message.
Zeev Hever, the settler leader whose tires were slashed earlier this month, said the incident was a watershed moment.
"It is impossible to keep silent any longer. It is necessary to clear the air,” he told the group.
Hever has long been one of the settlement movement’s most influential powerbrokers, having engineered the community’s steady expansion for decades. Yet he described feeling hostility from younger settlers who view him as a sellout.
“I drive my car past the hitchhiking places … and I see the anger in people’s eyes and the hatred … and I drive by without stopping to avoid this difficult experience," he said, according to the video.
More hardline settlers criticized the public handwringing. Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the settlers in Hebron, said the evacuation of settlers from Gaza in 2005 and other traumas had caused deep disaffection among youths in the West Bank.
“These guys find themselves in a dead end and they feel nobody listens to them, nobody understands them and they find no way other than to do something provocative,” Arnon told The Daily Beast.
“I think the leadership should be more open to the different groups and try to understand them,” he said, emphasizing that he wasn’t condoning the violence.
Left-wing critics of the settler movement also dismissed Dayan and the others, saying that violence has been inherent to the settlement project from its beginnings, and that the movement’s leaders should not be surprised by the emergence of an extreme subculture.
Yet Pinchas Wallerstein, another prominent settler and former Yesha Council head, said the perpetrators of violence were a small minority. He said the extremists could easily be sidelined if only the majority of settlers spoke out against them.
“That’s the reason I stopped serving on the Yesha Council a few years ago,” he told The Daily Beast. “I said that the real problem is not the young people who do the violence but it’s the silence of the leaders.”
The violence is likely to continue but the silence, at least, is ebbing.