It was an appalling display of barbarism: on July 19 Jewish settlers ambushed the al-Itmeizi family and murdered three of them, including a 10-week-old baby girl, Diya. Four other family members were wounded.
The crime took place on the road between the villages of Idna and Tarkumiya, about 12 kilometres from al-Khalil (Hebron). The settlers waited in a Subaru car with Israeli license plates for the van carrying the Itmeizis home from a wedding, stopped it and pumped bullets into its passengers in cold blood. An eyewitness, Akram al-Itmeizi, said: “One settler stepped up to the car and started shooting and then drove away.” The Subaru passed sped away and passed unhindered through a nearby Israeli army checkpoint before heading off towards Kiryat Gat.
The self-styled “Committee for Road Safety,” offshoot of the Kach movement, a racist Jewish group founded by Rabbi Meir Kahana, claimed responsibility for the murders. The “Committee” has also claimed responsibility for other attacks in the West Bank during the past few months. This group is known to have been active during the first intifada, conducting ‘patrols’ in al-Khalil and surrounding villages, harassing Palestinians and committing vandalism. Earlier this year the group claimed responsibility for puncturing the tyres of 40 Palestinian cars, beating up at least four Palestinians, and blowing up a Palestinian shop in al-Khalil. Israel’s internal intelligence agency, Shin Bet, has recently admitted knowledge of the activities of Jewish terrorist cells. A few days before the murder of the Itmeizis, Shin Bet chief Avi Ditcher told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that his agency is aware of organized Jewish terrorist activity in the West Bank.
The Yesha Council of Settlers in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip, the settlers’ main organisation, responded with typical hypocrisy. “If it was Israelis who committed this attack, the settlers’ council can only condemn in the strongest terms this immoral and illegal act which can only endanger the work accomplished by developing settlements,” it said. The words “the work accomplished by developing settlements” mean the settlers’ increasing efforts to usurp Palestinian lands.
Jewish settlers have been involved in thousands of atrocities against Palestinians in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip over the years. These are usually carried out with such glee and cruelty that their perpetrators’ names become a hissing and a by-word throughout the West Bank and Ghazzah. These days rarely a week passes without pogroms against Palestinians by settlers with the complicity of the Israeli security forces. Angry settlers have rampaged through Palestinian villages and towns, often protected by Israeli troops, shooting and throwing rocks at Palestinian homes and people. They smash shops, destroy cars, and damage property and crops. The attacks also often turn deadly: in numerous instances Palestinian civilians have been shot dead.
Ariel Sharon also issued a statement condemning the attack, saying that Israel condemns “all forms of violence and terrorism no matter who carries them out.” Sharon’s statement is a mockery, coming as it does from the man responsible for such atrocities as the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut in 1982, and the Qibyah massacre of 1953, and who is currently involved in a policy of deliberately shelling civilians. But no amount of hypocritical condemnation and feigned indignation can mask Israeli officials’ complicity in settler violence against Palestinians. The settlers are armed and trained by the Israeli army, after all.
Settler violence has its roots in a political system that reduces Palestinians to the status of subhumans. The Israeli authorities’ response to violence perpetrated by settlers against Palestinians has always been soft. For instance, out of 48 cases in which Israeli Jews killed Palestinians during the first intifada, 27 were closed even before charges were filed. The picture seems to have become even bleaker since. A report published in March by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, lists 199 cases of manslaughter and murder of Palestinians by Jewish Israelis. Of these only six resulted in convictions for murder.
Even in the rare cases when perpetrators are identified and apprehended, the judiciary metes out ridiculous sentences. One settler was convicted of “negligent homicide” and sentenced to “time served,” that is the few days he had already spent in custody, for bludgeoning a child to death with his rifle butt. A few years ago another court fined a settler one agora (an Israeli penny) for killing a Palestinian. In one recent case two settlers, arrested for the killing of Farid Nasasrah, an olive harvester, were released four days later on the grounds of “insufficient evidence” and on the pretext that “the Palestinian authority is not cooperating in the murder investigation.”
The sentences of almost all Israelis convicted of violent crimes against Palestinians are soon reduced; the convicts are released after serving a minute fraction of their time. An Israeli who massacred seven Palestinian civilians on their way to work on the morning of May 20, 1990, received a sentence of a few months after pleading temporary insanity. He served only 15 days of his term. Attacks involving less serious crimes such as violence or damage to property are usually not even investigated, let alone ‘punished’.
The settlers’ violence reveals one trait in the character of Zionist colonialism: a commitment to dogmas of denial of the “Other” and to a “culture of aggression.” Settler violence even finds religious justification in calls for vigilante actions and unrestrained vengeance by rabbis and spiritual masters. The tomb of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in February 1994, has become a pilgrimage site. A rabbi has also published a pamphlet honouring his inhuman act.
The recent escalation of settler violence against the Palestinians goes in tandem with their calls on Sharon to crush the Palestinian Authority and reoccupy the areas under its control. Talk of a massive assault has increased since Sharon came to power. The Yesha Council issued a statement on July 12 asking Sharon to “order the army to é distance Arafat from the region and dismantle the Palestinian Authority, the largest terrorist organization in the world.” The Israeli military has reportedly prepared plans for such attacks.
In fact, the possibility of such a move has come to dominate public and media discourse in Israel. A number of scenarios are currently under discussion. One involves a blitz by Israeli troops against PA-controlled areas to arrest members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other activists, and then move out and leave the Arafat regime intact. In another scenario Israeli troops will obliterate the PA infrastructure, detain and disarm Arafat’s security apparatus, and cause the flight of the PA leadership. The Israelis will also capture and kill thousands of members of militant groups on a “wanted list” that has recently been drawn up. Sharon could use a martyrdom-seeking operation as a pretext for this assault.
Signs of an impending Israeli invasion of PA-controlled areas are appearing with ominous frequency. One recent sign is the Israeli army’s announcement on July 21 that it has opened bureaux in nine cities around the world to bring reservists abroad back to Israel in case they are called up for military service. These offices are in Amsterdam, Bangkok, Bombay, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, New York and Paris.
A few days earlier Israel moved reinforcements into the West Bank. Sharon’s insistence that the movements were intended to strengthen Israel’s defensive position seems to be the usual Israeli smokescreen. Israel has already built road-links to the West Bank, splitting the area into eight zones. It has also cut off fuel supplies to the Ghazzah Strip, a measure apparently intended to reduce Palestinian mobility. The Hadassah chain of hospitals has also been stocking up with medical supplies and improving its readiness.
Sharon’s invasion plan is said to involve a military operation lasting one month. The offensive envisaged by the pugnacious prime minister, the architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (1982), is inspired by the Zionist obsession with blitzkriegs. In 1982 the Zionists had little difficulty in routing Arafat’s demoralized troops in Beirut. But the Israeli invasion of Lebanon helped pave the way for the emergence of Hizbullah, whose relentless struggle turned the tables on Israel. Now, any Israeli military adventure in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip will be challenged by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose commitment to resistance is akin to Hizbullah’s. The Arab “scene” has been reawakened by the demonstration of the utility of resistance and jihad. This changed environment will probably circumscribe Israel’s ability to control the outcome of any military adventure, and possibly turn it into a complete rout for Zionism and its institutions.