Settlers carrying out vigilante tactics to avenge attacks

JERUSALEM — For months, Israeli settlers have been warning they have lost patience.

In recent weeks — faced with daily violent exchanges with Palestinians and with what they consider an insufficient response from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — some settlers have begun taking matters into their own hands.

Retaliating for continued Palestinian violence, militant settlers attacked Arab-owned shops, smashed the windows of Palestinian cars and set fire to Arab olive groves.

Over the weekend, settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron rampaged for hours, beating up Arabs, throwing stones at Palestinian houses, wrecking cars and burning gardens and fields.

The Committee for Security on the Roads — a settler group headquartered in the Hebron suburb of Kiryat Arba and associated with the outlawed Kach movement — took responsibility for the attacks.

Just the same, the violence appeared more spontaneous than organized.

On Sunday, dozens of settlers briefly occupied a house in the Arab market in Hebron, but left peacefully when ordered out by police.

The settlers said their weekend aggression came in reaction to the slayings of two settlers in the Hebron area last week by Palestinian militants.

Last Friday, Yehezkel Mualem, a member of Kiryat Arba's city council, was shot by Palestinian gunmen while protesting a previous terror attack in the same area. A 49-year-old father of four, Mualem was murdered at the very place where another Hebron-area resident, Mordechai Lapid, was murdered seven years ago.

A day earlier, at the entrance to Kiryat Arba, terrorists shot and mortally wounded David Cohen, 31, of Betar Illit, who later died in a local hospital.

In the past two weeks, two other Israelis — Yair Har-Sinai and Shai Cohen — were killed by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank. All the attacks came after the Palestinians ostensibly agreed to a cease-fire plan reached through American mediation. Judging by the conflict on the ground, the truce seems a concept rather than reality.

While the Hebron rampages appeared to be spontaneous outbursts by angry settlers, earlier incidents in the West Bank had some characteristics of organized vigilante operations planned by settler militias.

Last Friday, for example, shots were fired from a passing vehicle at houses in the Al-Aroub refugee camp on the Bethlehem-Hebron highway.

Earlier last week, unidentified gunmen wounded three Palestinians in a Palestinian taxi near Ramallah. A similar attack on a Palestinian truck took place last month in the Ramallah region.

No one was arrested for the attacks and no organization claimed responsibility. However, spokesmen for the settlers said they expected more to come.

"One cannot stop people from vengeance," said Noam Arnon, spokesman for Jewish settlers in Hebron.

Orit Struck, a Jewish activist whose son was wounded by a sniper several weeks ago, said the question was why "the private Jewish reaction" waited until now.

"We are facing a real crisis," she said.

"In principle, we are all law-abiding citizens," she said of the settlers. "But this is Russian roulette. One victim a day means 365 victims a year. Can anyone expect us to accept it?"

On Sunday, Army Radio reported that a leaflet being distributed in West Bank synagogues urges settlers to take revenge on Palestinians.

"Only a firm response to attacks will guarantee that Jewish blood will not be shed with abandon," the leaflet read.

For months — while friends and neighbors were shot on West Bank roads — the settlers bit their lips as Israeli leaders called for restraint.

Last week, Palestinian officials denied a report in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat issued a directive to "kill a Jewish settler every day." Ma'ariv cited information received by Israeli officials.

Whether or not Arafat ever issued such an order, Palestinian attacks have resulted in a political asset the settlers have not had for years — sympathy from the general Israeli public.

With Palestinian terrorists also targeting population centers within Israel proper, more Israelis have come to view the settlers as "present-day pioneers," in Sharon's words.

Even former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — a frequent target of settler ire — spoke last week of the state's "duty to protect its citizens, wherever they are."

As the Palestinian attacks on settlers continued, the settlers began to demonstrate against Sharon, their former hero. At the same time, they built their own outposts on the very West Bank roads where Arab gunmen were fixing their sights — with deadly accuracy — on Jewish drivers.

Some of those illegally built outposts were removed by the army, but more than 50 remain.

In addition, the settlers conducted their own armed patrols along main traffic arteries, wore bulletproof vests, bought armored vehicles and upgraded their command rooms in the settlements — which now look more and more like military headquarters.

It may have been only a matter of time before some settlers translated this new level of security into vigilante action against Palestinians.

With no end in sight to nearly 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence, the road to anarchy has become shorter.

Seven years ago, a resident of Kiryat Arba, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, decided to avenge the murder of friends at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. In February 1994 he opened fire at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Palestinian worshipers, before he himself was killed by an angry Arab mob.

In the eyes of the Israeli security establishment — not to mention almost all sectors of the public — Goldstein came to symbolize the worst-case scenario in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

In the eyes of some fellow settlers, however, he was a hero who may have forestalled a coming Arab attack.

Now, as settler deaths mount, is another Goldstein in the making?

The problem, settlers say, does not lie with the Palestinians, but with Sharon's policy of restraint in the face of Arab violence.

The Kiryat Arba local council issued a communiqué charging that last week's fatal shooting of David Cohen at the entrance to Kiryat Arba was the result of "the policy of weakness vis-à-vis terror."

Zvi Katzover, mayor of Kiryat Arba, charged that had the army placed roadblocks "in critical points," the deadly attack could have been prevented.

Settler leaders charge that Sharon is captive to the policy of his dovish foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and as a result the government will not provide the settlers with adequate security.

Settler leader Elyakim Haetzni said this week that Sharon does not dare stand up to Peres because Peres has given Sharon international legitimacy — particularly in light of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon for which Sharon, defense minister during the Lebanon War, was considered indirectly responsible.

"If the threat of Sabra and Shatila pushes you into the arms of Shimon Peres," Haetzni wrote Sharon in an open letter, "then you must draw the patriotic conclusions — resign and call for new elections."