“They are warning the terrorists that the army has entered the village”, the settler said to me. He was referring to the unusual amount of black kites flying on top of the roofs of the village we had just entered at full speed with our armored jeeps.
It was during the violent years of the second Intifada, and my reservist unit was ordered into the West Bank village to try to cut off the escape route of two terrorists who had opened fire on a civilian vehicle a few hours beforehand. The settler – the security officer of the settlement to whom the victim of this attack belonged – asked to tag along, and my officer concurred. After all, he knew the lay of the land expertly, and time was of the essence.
Stealing a glance at our passenger when his attention was focused elsewhere, I was amazed at how much at ease he looked. Perhaps it was because he was so much better equipped and armed than we were, or maybe it was because he knew every nook and cranny of the area. I could not help feeling that I was a stranger in a foreign land, and that he belonged here – an integral part of the landscape. Looking back now, more than a decade later, I realize that his manner was also a reflection of total ideological conviction. He believed, in body and soul, that he had every right to be in that place, at that point in time. When he turned around and looked me straight in the eyes, I immediately glanced away. We set up a road block on the road exiting the village. The two terrorists were arrested two hours later by a different unit.
Only in the West Bank would an armed civilian join a military operation. Only in the West Bank would a civilian be allowed to openly carry an M-16 rifle. For ironically, despite the fact that two people lay claim to this land, it is truly a no-man’s land. As soon as one passes the various checkpoints on the roads leading into the West Bank, which are now proper border crossings, a difference is felt – both physically and mentally. Normality, or the reality we Israelis have decided to call normal – takes a leave of absence. Welcome to Israel’s Wild West.
In the Israeli Wild West, law does not apply. I mean, how else can one explain the continued leniency shown by the Israeli judicial system towards the delinquents that have been harassing Palestinians over the past few years with acts of vandalism and physical assaults? Dubbed as “Price Tag” actions, these acts of violence are meant to exact a price from Palestinians, or from the army, for any action taken against their settlement enterprises. Yet the only price they seem to be exacting is from the entire settler population which is tainted, as a whole, as being extreme, violent and law breaking. While there are extremist elements within the settler movement who condone and even encourage these activities, the main-streamers condemn them (if only quietly). The onus, in this case, lies at the feet of Israeli decision makers who repeatedly show a reluctance to take the drastic decision that will put a stop to this chaos.
Two weeks ago, a group of settlers from Esh Kodesh (holy fire), an unauthorized Israeli settlement outpost just a few kilometers from the village I road blocked a decade ago, attempted to “punish” the Palestinians in the adjacent village of Qusra. Their attempt was foiled though by angry residents of the village, who captured the group, beat them up, and herded them into a semi-built house. Local Palestinian officials then protected the Israelis from the mob, until the army came to extract them. Some of the settlers managed to escape from the army’s hold, others were detained and released later. Less than a day after, two cars were set on fire and Hebrew graffiti reading “Price Tag” and “Esh Kodesh revenge” was sprayed on the walls of a West Bank village.
The way these extremists are being handled by the authorities is nothing short of a disgrace. The perpetrators of these acts of violence are mostly known. I simply cannot fathom why the culprits are not behind bars. Putting their criminal acts against the Palestinians aside, they continually defy police orders, risk the lives of soldiers, and tarnish Israel’s image in the world. It is only a matter of time before one of these actions results in a disaster that will blow up in everyone’s face.There is an entire unit in the Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Agency) dedicated to Jewish terrorism, and I’m finding it extremely hard to understand why the same organization that can assassinate arch-terrorists by planting explosives in their mobile phone cannot provide enough evidence to put these terrorists (and they are terrorists, let there be no doubt about it) in jail.
The lawlessness in the West Bank is a reflection of its status. Israel conquered the territory over fifty years ago, but has since not decided whether it wishes to annex the territory or give it back. Government after government has winked at illegal settler activity while paying lip service to the international community. The general settler population consists mostly of law abiding citizens that have been tragically misled by politicians in the past and present into believing they are protecting Israel’s interests by living where they live. The least these politicians can do now is make sure this population is not totally tarnished by the hands of these fanatics. All they have to do is apply the law.