Is the Israeli government leading a campaign to delegitimize 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 were actually carried out by extremist elements with dubious connections to fringe Jewish organizations outside Gaza, unconnected to and unsupported by Gush Katif or the larger settler movement.
In 2005, Israel also used violence from fringe extremists as an excuse 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 in Israel the past few weeks has been filled with reports of “extremist” West Bank settlers engaged in violence against Palestinians and Israeli troops.
In one example, the media reported on settlers accused of shooting to death an 18-year-old Palestinian shepherd. The reports were based on Palestinian claims and ignored settler investigations which deemed it extremely unlikely that a Jew was involved. The accusation, however, was used by both pundits and Israeli politicians to petition for harsher punishments against “extremist settlers.”
Finally, a police investigation determined that the shepherd had not even been shot. Forensic experts concluded that an unexploded shell, which he had picked up, detonated in his hands. Shrapnel wounds killed him.
In another incident, a pipe bomb recently 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.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and then Sternhell himself urged the Knesset and security forces to adopt a tougher stance on punishing West Bank settlers for “unruly” behavior.
Israel has already begun a system of “punishment.” In direct response to the settler “violence,” police here announced that Jews are being barred from visiting Joseph’s Tomb, where the biblical patriarch Joseph lies buried.
In recent days, settlers have also been accused of attacking Israeli soldiers stationed near settlements. One of those attacks took place near Yitzhar where members of extreme nationalist organizations reside. These 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.
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, fearing they would incite violence.
Hamas Takeover in the Works?
Security forces associated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah organization are on alert for a possible Hamas takeover of the West Bank, a pan-Arab newspaper reported.
The London-based daily al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted Fatah security sources as stating that Hamas may assassinate Fatah officials as part of a larger plan to take over the West Bank just as it seized control of the Gaza Strip in a violent coup last summer. It also quoted unnamed Hamas members in the West Bank as saying a West Bank takeover is in the works.
This column last week conducted an exclusive interview with Mahmoud Al-Zahar, the Hamas chief in Gaza, who said Hamas is the rightful representative of the Palestinian people and should control the entire West Bank just as it rules the Gaza Strip.
The Hamas chief’s comments came amid fears in Israel’s intelligence community that Hamas may eventually attempt to take over the strategic West Bank, particularly if Israel withdraws from the territory.
Aaron Klein is Jerusalem bureau chief for WorldNetDaily.com. He appears throughout the week on leading U.S. radio programs and is the author of the book “Schmoozing with Terrorists.”