The Rise of Settler Terrorism

The West Bank’s Other Violent Extremists

Late this past June, a group of Israeli settlers in the West Bank defaced and burned a mosque in the small West Bank village of Jabaa. Graffiti sprayed by the vandals warned of a "war" over the planned evacuation, ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court, of a handful of houses illegally built on private Palestinian land near the Israeli settlement of Beit El. The torching of the mosque was the fourth such attack in 18 months and part of a wider trend of routine violence committed by radical settlers against innocent Palestinians, Israeli security personnel, and mainstream settler leaders -- all aimed at intimidating perceived enemies of the settlement project.

This violence has not always plagued the settler community. Although many paint all Israeli settlers as extremists, conflating them with the often-justified criticism of Israeli government policy in the West Bank, the vast majority of them oppose attacks against Palestinian civilians or the Israeli state. In the past, Israeli authorities and the settler leadership often worked together to prevent such assaults and keep radicalism at bay. Yet in recent years, the settler movement has experienced a profound breakdown in discipline, with extremists now beyond the reach of either Israeli law enforcement or the discipline of settler leaders.

West Bank story: a Jewish settler scuffles with Palestinians near the Israeli settlement of Halamish, January 2010 (Reuters / Ras Ratner)

Nothing justifies violence by extremists of any variety. But to be stopped, it must be understood. The rise in settler radicalism stems from several key factors: the growth of the settler population over the past generation, the diversification of religious and ideological strands among it, and the sense of betrayal felt by settlers following Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Israel, through the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and other security agencies, must now assert control over groups that no longer respect the state or the traditional settler leadership. Yet just as radical settlers pose an increasing threat, mainstream Israeli society has become more apathetic than ever about the fate of the Palestinians. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians remain deadlocked, and even their meaningful resumption, let alone success, seems unlikely in the near future. The Israeli government thus feels little political or diplomatic pressure to confront the extremists.

But with the peace process frozen, what happens under Israeli control matters more, not less. With Israel likely to govern parts of the West Bank for some time, it can no longer shirk its obligations -- to protect not only its own citizens but Palestinian civilians as well -- by claiming that a two-state solution is on the horizon and that the Palestinians will soon assume full responsibility over themselves. And if Israel wants to preserve the possibility of a negotiated peace, it must address this problem before it is too late. Whenever extremist settlers destroy Palestinian property or deface a mosque, they strengthen Palestinian radicals at the expense of moderates, undermining support for an agreement and delaying a possible accord. Meanwhile, each time Israeli leaders cave in to the demands of radical settlers, it vindicates their tactics and encourages ever more brazen behavior, deepening the government's paralysis. In other words, Israeli violence in the West Bank both undermines the ability of Israel to implement a potential deal with the Palestinians and raises questions about whether it can enforce its own laws at home.

Extremist settlers mimic the typical methods of terrorist groups across the globe.

Recently, Israeli leaders have begun to recognize the problem. Following extremist vandalism against the IDF and mainstream settler leaders over the past year, some Israeli generals and government ministers began to label radical settlers as terrorists. Now, the Israeli government should translate that bold rhetoric into decisive action. To begin with, it should officially designate the perpetrators of violence as terrorists and disrupt their activities more aggressively. Security agencies should then enforce Israeli law, prosecuting violent settlers as they would terrorists, Palestinian or Israeli. And to slow the tide of radicalism, Israeli leaders must denounce extremists and shun their representatives, placing particular pressure on religious leaders who incite violence. Meanwhile, the United States and other countries seeking to revive the peace talks must encourage Israel to take these steps before things worsen. Washington should itself consider designating violent radical settlers as terrorists and should push Israel to crack down on them. Settler extremism tarnishes Israel's name and imperils its future. Friends of Israel, the Israeli government, and even those who support the settlements in the West Bank should fight back against this dangerous phenomenon.


Radical Jewish activists have staged politically motivated attacks against Palestinians and pro-peace Israelis before. In the early 1980s, for example, one group, known as the Jewish Underground, carried out a series of bombings against Arab mayors and shot three Arab students in the West Bank. And in 1995, an Israeli law student, Yigal Amir, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, dealing a devastating blow to the peace process. Israeli authorities have investigated and prosecuted those involved in these operations, and they have disrupted other attacks before they could occur. Yet they have failed to stem less dramatic violence, such as arson and assault. According to UN investigations, in 2011, extremist settlers launched almost 300 attacks on Palestinian property, causing over 100 Palestinian casualties and destroying or damaging about 10,000 trees of Palestinian farmers. The UN has also reported that violent incidents against Palestinians have proliferated, rising from 200 attacks in 2009 to over 400 in 2011. The spike in assaults on Palestinians by settlers has come despite the fact that over the same period, Palestinian terrorism fell dramatically.

To be clear, arson and the destruction of trees do not belong in the same category as suicide bombings, and using the word "terrorism" to describe such vandalism risks moral equivalency. Yet "terrorism" is defined not only by the act itself but also by its purpose: to produce a psychological effect, terror, as a means of advancing a political agenda. This definition fits the aim of extremist settlers, who often scrawl the Hebrew words for "price tag" at the scene of the crime -- a message to their targets that they will exact a price for any act that they oppose. Such attacks target innocent Palestinians in response to and as a deterrent against Palestinian terrorism and target Palestinians, pro-peace Israelis, and Israeli soldiers alike for supposedly anti-settlement measures taken by the Israeli government. By seeking to frighten a rival population and intimidate a government, the extremists mimic the typical methods of terrorist groups across the globe.

The Israeli government does not support or condone settler violence, but it has failed to adequately combat it. Soldiers have been known to look on as violence occurs, and they sometimes do not aggressively seek the perpetrators after the fact. According to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, of 781 incidents of settler abuse monitored since 2005, Israeli authorities closed the cases on over 90 percent of them without indictment. And the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that the IDF is currently probing 15 cases, all of which took place between September 2000 and December 2011, of Israeli soldiers witnessing clashes between settlers and Palestinians and failing to intervene.

Israel's halfhearted response to settler violence is partly a result of the fundamental anomalies of military rule. Unlike East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, other territories that Israel conquered in the 1967 war, the West Bank was never annexed by Israel, and Israel applies civil law there only to Israeli citizens. Although the Israeli police have authority over criminal matters among settlers, the military governs most aspects of public life, from security to construction permits. The Palestinian Authority assumed sovereignty over parts of the West Bank following the Oslo accords, but Israel still controls "Area C," which includes all the settlements, four percent of the Palestinian population, and 60 percent of the total land. Within that territory, the IDF faces the extremely difficult task of safeguarding both Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli security forces may have helped drastically reduce Palestinian terrorism, but the military unsurprisingly remains wary of Hamas and other militant organizations and views the defense of Israeli citizens as its main task.

The IDF also faces little pressure from the Israeli public to protect the Palestinians under its rule. Although Israelis cared deeply about the peace process during the Oslo years, suicide bombings, the collapse of the negotiations in 2000, and the carnage of the second intifada that followed left them reeling, indignant, and wary of Palestinian intentions. In the eyes of most Israelis, Palestinian leaders not only failed to negotiate in good faith but also responded to Israeli good faith with a wave of terrorism. Although most Israelis support an agreement in principle and question the wisdom of the settlements, they blame the Palestinians for the continuation of the conflict and remain skeptical about the odds for a deal in the near future. With violence down and peace distant, Israelis have become indifferent to the situation in the West Bank and weary of the Palestinian issue in general, preferring to contain and, if possible, ignore the problem. With the peace camp all but dead and a conservative government in power, right-wing politicians exert a great deal of influence on Israeli policy, particularly regarding the settlements. In recent years, the extreme right wing has made inroads even into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's own party, the Likud, making any opposition to settlement activity a risk for more mainstream Likud politicians.

When it comes to confronting extremist settlers, then, the Israeli government is politically handicapped. Radical settlers understand why Israel has responded so tepidly to their actions and have sought to exploit this reluctance. And their violence has often successfully altered or deterred government actions that they opposed.


The rise in violence among extremist settlers stems from deep changes in the settler population, particularly its dramatic growth and shifting ideological composition. Israeli civilians began moving into the West Bank and Gaza shortly after the 1967 war, when Israel conquered both territories. Some Jews sought to return to Jewish villages destroyed by Arab armies in the war of 1948, and a few hoped to reestablish a Jewish presence near holy sites such as Hebron, which both Jewish and Muslim tradition hold is the burial place of the patriarch Abraham. The Israeli government also sought to create several small settlements for security reasons: to establish "facts on the ground" that might allow Israel to keep several strategic points in the West Bank as part of a peace accord and might even, some argued, help Israel defend itself against an Arab invasion. In the early 1980s, the settler community was still a relatively small, coherent, and disciplined society of about 24,000. Some settlers were secular, but others subscribed to the ideology of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), a religious-political movement that sought to fulfill what it viewed as a divine obligation to settle the complete Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), the territory Jews regard as having been promised to them by God, which includes the West Bank.

Trying to stop settler violence is a clear moral and political imperative.

Although Gush Emunim strongly opposed any government policy that curtailed the settlement project, it respected the primacy of the state. For example, in the early 1980s, when the Israeli government evacuated all settlements in the Sinai as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Gush Emunim protested but did not call on its members to take up arms (although several of its members went on to form the Jewish Underground anyway). For religious-nationalist settlers, the state remained an instrument of providence, carrying out God's mission by upholding Jewish sovereignty and protecting Jewish religious life in the Land of Israel. Adherents of Gush Emunim believed that salvation itself would emerge from the state and thus did not challenge its political authority. The IDF and settler leaders maintained close contact and coordination, with the military relying on the settler leadership to police its own while it focused on preventing Palestinian terrorism.

Since then, the settler movement has changed dramatically. In the past three decades, the number of settlers in the West Bank has grown more than tenfold, to some 300,000. Today, most live in large communities that function as suburbs of Jerusalem or greater Tel Aviv. The inhabitants of these settlements represent all walks of Israeli society, including secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not share the nationalist zeal of Gush Emunim. Many of these Israelis moved to the West Bank primarily for economic, rather than political, reasons: the settlements are subsidized by the government, so living in them is much more affordable than living in cities inside the Green Line. Most policymakers in Israel and the United States do not consider these particular settlements to be insurmountable obstacles to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In the past, Palestinian leaders have suggested that they might accept land swaps that would allow Israel to keep some of these settlement blocs in exchange for other territory, and many of these settlers would likely consider accepting compensation if they were told to leave their homes in the context of a peace agreement.

Yet over the last several years, the evolution of the settler community has also led to the growth of a small but significant fringe of young extremists, known as the "hilltop youth," who show little, if any, deference to the Israeli government or even to the settler leadership. No matter how strongly Gush Emunim opposed government policy, it always officially avoided vigilante violence. But these young radicals, who largely live in settlements deep in the West Bank and do not affiliate with traditional religious authorities, have embraced it. These settlers -- likely no more than a couple thousand, a small but dangerous minority within the broader community -- are the ones leading the "price tag" attacks against Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers. They have lost faith in the notion that the state, under its current leadership, is key to settling the Land of Israel. Instead, they see it as an obstacle to God's will.

Although the Israeli military has traditionally worked closely with the heads of the settlements to maintain security, this new generation of radicals scoffs at such cooperation, viewing the settler leadership as complicit in the government's crimes. As a result, the settler establishment has little control over the most problematic members of its community. Indeed, extremists have targeted some of the most central figures of the settler movement, including Ze'ev Hever, who heads the construction arm of the settlement enterprise. Hever, once a member of the Jewish Underground, is the person perhaps most responsible for the settlement expansion that has occurred in collaboration with the Israeli government. Yet this past June, extremists expressed their outrage at continued cooperation between the settler leadership and state authorities by slashing the tires of his car.

This new generation of extremists came out of the trauma of Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, known by the settlers as "the expulsion." In late 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, once a champion of the settler movement, announced that he planned to dismantle the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Sharon's transformation rocked the settlers. Feeling abandoned, many began to question the authority of the state. Whereas settler leaders could once portray previous actions against various outposts or individuals as tactical maneuvers, they understood that Sharon's "disengagement," as it became known in Israel, represented a fundamental break with their religious mission.

Even so, settler elders and their allies upheld the sanctity of the state and opted for largely nonviolent opposition. They embarked on a public relations campaign, portraying themselves as an oppressed minority and borrowing the color orange from the 2004 Ukrainian revolution to reinforce their image as a peaceful civil movement. Even as it became clear that the settlers' challenge to the disengagement would not succeed, most settler leaders called on Jews in Gaza to avoid violence against Israeli soldiers and refrained from urging soldiers, including settlers in military service, to disobey the evacuation orders. Opposition to the withdrawal, in other words, remained within the bounds of Israeli political discourse and preserved the settler movement's deference to the state.

As the disengagement approached, however, a segment of more radical settlers began speaking out against their leaders' acquiescence. Some rabbis even suggested that divine intervention would prevent the withdrawal at the last minute. But in the summer of 2005, Israel did pull all the settlers, some 8,600 people, out of Gaza and ended its military presence there. The Israeli military forcefully removed families from their homes, demolished villages, and transferred entire communities -- homes, synagogues, cemeteries, and schools -- to Israel proper. Neither the nonviolent resistance of the settler establishment nor divine intervention stayed the government's hand. Radical settlers saw the expulsion as a manifest failure of the old guard's approach. Not only was the state of Israel no longer a vehicle of redemption; it had actively rolled back the most important project of contemporary Jewish religious nationalism: settling the Land of Israel. The settlers felt doubly betrayed by the sense that the government failed to reintegrate them properly into Israel, devoting inadequate resources to their relocation and, in their eyes, essentially neglecting them after the withdrawal ended.

Faced with what the radical settlers saw as a choice between the state and the settlements, they picked the latter. To stave off another disengagement of any kind, they resolved to retaliate against any attempt by the Israeli government to crack down on the movement -- hence the birth of the "price tag" attacks. In this climate, the traditional leadership of the settler movement and the authority of the Israeli government are less relevant than ever.


Settler violence is undoubtedly working. It has made it more difficult for the IDF to govern the West Bank and fractured the settler movement, weakening the influence of the more moderate elements that would accept the legitimacy of the Israeli state even if it committed to another withdrawal. The "price tag" doctrine has thus raised the cost of even token settlement removals. The violence has conditioned Israeli politicians to worry that any pullout, whether as part of a peace agreement or as a unilateral measure, will lead to conflict. That puts the government in a bind. If it ignores the radicals, they will undermine its authority and any Palestinian goodwill that might result from a withdrawal. Confronting them, however, risks public spectacles of armed police dragging conservatively dressed young girls out of their homes, a political disaster for any Israeli government.

The first post-Gaza pullout, the dismantlement of the outpost of Amona in 2006, justified such fears among Israeli politicians. During the demolition of nine uninhabited homes built on land determined to belong to Palestinians, thousands of settlers confronted Israeli security personnel, occupying the homes and nearby areas and attacking the officers with rocks, bottles, and cinder blocks. The riot left 200 people injured, including 80 security officers and two Israeli members of the Knesset (Israel's parliament) who had come to support the settlers.

Although the mission technically succeeded, the violence surrounding it strengthened the perception that any withdrawal, no matter how small, risks opening up deep fissures within Israeli society. The incident left Israeli leaders wary of future evacuations and eager to retroactively legalize the remaining outposts in the West Bank. In fact, this past June, after the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to dismantle several outposts built on private Palestinian land, the Knesset debated a bill that would have circumvented the court and legalized several houses there, a move with profound legal ramifications. Only the direct intervention of Netanyahu killed the bill. In response, demonstrators in Jerusalem burned public property and extremists vandalized the mixed Arab-Jewish village of Neve Shalom, in Israel, with graffiti saying "Death to Arabs."

Besides undermining the rule of law and intimidating Israeli politicians, radical settlers have increasingly come to define the way that Palestinians see Israelis as a whole. After Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the two communities interacted regularly. Israelis shopped in the West Bank, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel. But the second intifada stopped Israelis from casually entering Palestinian areas, and in response to Palestinian terrorism, Israel enacted policies that made it harder for Palestinians to work inside the country, culminating in the construction of the security barrier. Today, essentially the only Israelis that Palestinians interact with are soldiers and settlers, whom they see as representative of all Israelis. This means that relations among settlers, Israeli soldiers, and Palestinian civilians are now more important than ever.

By making life miserable for their Palestinian neighbors, the radical settlers strengthen those they most fear: Palestinian terrorists. Hamas portrays itself as a resistance organization that defends the Palestinian people, and it uses the most extreme attacks on Palestinians, such as the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, to justify its own terrorism as self-defense. Of course, these claims are a sham: groups such as Hamas would try to kill Israelis in any event. But settler attacks do make Hamas' propaganda more credible among the Palestinian public.

Settler radicalism also discredits those Palestinians who oppose terrorism, such as President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Their inability to get Israel to stop its own citizens from attacking Palestinians makes them appear feeble and undermines the notion that they can negotiate a fair treaty with Israel. The situation recalls the bitterness Israelis felt when dealing with former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat as Palestinian suicide bombings continued: either he could stop the violence and chose not to or he was unable to end it, in which case there was little reason to talk. As settler violence increases, the Palestinians will begin to say the same about Israel's leadership.


With the peace process in a stalemate, Israel's control of the West Bank is not likely to end soon, and the government cannot ignore the persistent settler violence by claiming that the settlement issue will soon be resolved as part of a peace deal. Just as Palestinian officials must fight Palestinian terrorism, Israel must fight settler terrorism. Cracking down on radical settler violence would not give the Palestinians the political recognition they crave, nor would it lead to peace. But it would help legitimize moderate Palestinian leaders and make life better for ordinary Palestinians, both of which would keep alive the possibility of a negotiated peace. Stopping extremist violence in the West Bank may become even more important should the peace talks resume in earnest. If the Israeli government plans to withdraw from additional territory, settler terrorism may increase, exacting a considerable political price from the government and potentially derailing peace.

Over the last several months, Israeli officials have begun to take the problem of settler terrorism more seriously, at least rhetorically. Last year, the Israeli general in charge of the West Bank, Nitsan Alon, described the violence by radical settlers as "terrorism" and urged the IDF to "do much more to stop it." Even the chair of the Yesha Council, the forum that traditionally speaks for the settler community, recently denounced the "terrible and shameful phenomenon of masked Jews with slings and a stone in their hands" and forcefully reprimanded mainstream settlers for their silence on the matter. And following settler vandalism of an IDF base in the West Bank last year, the Israeli ministers of defense, legal affairs, and internal security discussed officially designating the "hilltop youth" as a terrorist organization. The government should do this, thereby facilitating a coordinated intelligence and law enforcement campaign against the violence. Israeli courts should no longer treat radicals as patriots who have strayed in their defense of Israel and should instead give them stiff sentences to keep them behind bars and to deter others from following their example. Meanwhile, mainstream rabbis should denounce their radical brethren and demonstrate how their views contradict centuries of religious tradition. When extremist rabbis incite violence, they must face prosecution.

In executing this crackdown, the government should also attempt to work with the traditional settler leadership. The timing may be right: having seen the violence committed against leaders such as Hever, settler officials realize that the radicals have seized the momentum and fear that "price tag" violence will tar the entire settlement project, setting back decades of efforts to win over more Israelis to their cause. Traditional leaders can ostracize the most extreme elements among the settler community and preach more forcefully against violence. And with the help of settler leaders, the government can gain vital intelligence on the radicals.

To avoid creating a new burst of extremism, Israel must also prepare to handle any future settlement withdrawals more smoothly. It should begin by encouraging settlers in remote areas to relocate to Israel proper regardless of the peace process or any forced withdrawal. Several Israeli figures, including Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's domestic intelligence service, have proposed a wide-ranging program meant to entice thousands of settlers to relocate to Israel of their own volition, but the proposal has thus far faced resistance from the settler establishment and the government. And when actually evacuating settlements, as Israel will have to do as part of any peace agreement, it should devote enough resources to properly compensate the settlers.

The United States also has a role to play. Washington has long hoped that issues related to settler violence would vanish after the implementation of a peace deal. In the absence of meaningful negotiations, however, it must prevent both parties from deepening tensions. By highlighting the problem of settler extremism, the United States can push Israel into responding to it more effectively. In addition, much like Israel, it should consider designating individuals involved in acts of violence against Palestinians as terrorists. Such a designation would allow U.S. authorities to prevent Americans from sending them funding and would be a way to support those Israelis seeking to combat the rise of extremism.

Almost everything related to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute involves complex tradeoffs and sorting through opposing and often equally legitimate claims. But trying to stop settler violence is a clear moral and political imperative. Israelis, who know the horrors of terrorism better than the citizens of any other democracy, should have a special understanding of the need to ensure that extremist violence does not ruin the lives of Palestinians and prevent Israel from making hard but necessary choices about its future. Whether the conflict continues indefinitely or the peace talks soon resume, Israel must confront its homegrown terrorism problem.