A field fire during clashes between Palestinians and Jewish settlers near the Palestinian village of Qusra, in the West Bank, June 22, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Flash90)
A field fire during clashes between Palestinians and Jewish settlers near the Palestinian village of Qusra, in the West Bank, June 22, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Flash90)

Israeli military decries settler ‘terrorism’ and vows to fight it with ‘all the means that are at our disposal’

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israel’s security agencies said they would use “all the means that are at our disposal” to combat violence by settlers in the wake of West Bank riots that left one Palestinian dead and dozens injured.

They pledged to use a tactic generally reserved for Palestinian terror suspects in order to stop the riots.

“These attacks contradict every moral and Jewish value; they constitute, in every way, nationalist terrorism, and we are obliged to fight them,” read the joint statement, released on Saturday by the Israel Defense Forces, Israel Police and Shin Bet security agency, which said they “are committed to continuing to operate with determination and using all the means that are at our disposal to maintain security and the law in Judea and Samaria,” the Israeli government’s tern for the West Bank.

The statement constitutes one of the Israeli military’s strongest condemnations of violence against Palestinian civilians, and was one of a few recent indications that the state intends to crack down on lawbreaking by settlers following Palestinian terror attacks. The White House has also condemned settler violence and urged Israel to hold the perpetrators accountable.

“I strongly condemn the violence perpetrated against residents of the village of Umm Safa, including the burning of houses and vehicles,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said. “This is not our way of life.” He said he had “given a clear directive to our troops to maintain order and stability, and to prevent acts of violence perpetrated by civilians in the area.”

Israel is responding to recent Palestinian terror attacks by advancing the construction of thousands of homes in West Bank settlements. But on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inveighed against settlement building that is not authorized by the Israeli government. He criticized “calls to grab land illegally, and actions of grabbing land illegally” the West Bank — a reference to comments by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, who urged settlers to “run to the hills.”

Israeli government data has shown that settler violence has increased in recent years, and it has drawn attention amid an escalation of violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem that has killed dozens of Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians this year. Following a Palestinian terror attack in February that killed two Israeli brothers, settlers rioted in the Palestinian West Bank village of Huwara, torching cars and buildings  and injuring dozens.

Similar riots erupted throughout the past week, including on Saturday, following a Palestinian terror attack on Tuesday at the Israeli settlement of Eli that killed four Israelis, including two children, and injured four. One Palestinian was killed and dozens have been injured in the riots. Earlier in the week, an Israeli military raid against suspected terrorists in the Palestinian city of Jenin killed six and injured more than 90, while eight Israeli soldiers were injured by Palestinian militants.

In its statement on Saturday, the Israeli security agencies said they would aim to stem settler violence by conducting increased arrests and by detaining suspects without charge, a tactic known as administrative detention that Israeli forces use against Palestinian terror suspects.

Far-right members of Netanyahu’s government shot back at the security forces’ statement. Ben-Gvir tweeted, “I’m against selective enforcement,” and wrote, “Our governance problem does not begin with settlers” in the West Bank.

Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich criticized “taking the law into ones own hands” in a tweet, but wrote, “The attempt to equate between murderous Arab terror and civilian actions in response — however severe they may be — is morally bankrupt and dangerous in practice.” He called administrative detentions of settlers “a draconian and undemocratic step.”

The statement by Israeli security agencies came a day after Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, called on his Israeli counterpart to hold settler rioters accountable for their actions.

This is not our way of life.

Sullivan’s comments came amid hopes that the Biden administration can salvage its efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, the 2020 normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries. This week, Morocco canceled a summit scheduled for next month to advance the Abraham Accords in light of the settlement announcement. The Biden administration is concerned that an all out Israeli-Palestinian conflagration would have far-reaching consequences, inhibiting its efforts to bring Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords, and to further isolate Iran, a shared regional adversary.

In a readout of Sullivan’s call with Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi late Friday night, the White House said Sullivan expressed “since condolences” for the terror attack in Eli, and pledged “unwavering support” for Israeli security.

“Sullivan also expressed deep concern over the recent extremist settler attacks against Palestinian civilians and the destruction of their property in the West Bank,” said the readout, a rare statement for such calls, which occur frequently between national security advisers.  “He reiterated the importance of holding accountable those responsible for such acts of violence.”

The White House readout said Sullivan “encouraged additional steps to restore calm and de-escalate tensions, and called on all parties to refrain from unilateral actions, including settlement activity, that further inflame tensions.”

Hanegbi did not release a corresponding statement.

Criticism has also come from American Jewish organizations. The Anti-Defamation League has condemned settler violence, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations , the main foreign policy umbrella for American Jewish groups, condemned Saturday’s violence, although it did not name the attackers as Israelis.

“We strongly condemn the violence perpetrated against residents of the village of Umm Safa, including the burning of houses and vehicles,” a statement said. “People must not take the law into their own hands.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.