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​Takeaways From the Times Investigation of Israel’s Settler Violence and Impunity

For decades, most Israelis have viewed Palestinian terrorism as the country’s greatest security concern. But there is another threat that could be even more destabilizing for Israel’s future as a democracy: Jewish terrorism and violence, and the failure to enforce the law against it.

Our years-long investigation reveals how violent factions within the Israeli settler movement, protected and sometimes encouraged by the government, came to pose a grave threat to Palestinians in the occupied territories and to the State of Israel. -even. Gathering new documents, videos and more than 100 interviews, we discovered a government racked by an internal war – burying the reports it commissioned, neutralizing the investigations it ordered and silencing whistleblowers , some of whom were senior civil servants.

It is a brutal account, told in some cases for the first time by Israeli officials, of how the occupation came to threaten the integrity of the country’s democracy.

Officials told us that previously, settler criminal groups intent on pursuing a theocratic state were allowed for decades to operate with few restrictions. Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government came to power in 2022, elements of this faction have taken power, shaping the country’s policies, notably in the war in Gaza.

Violators have become the law.

Bezalel Smotrich, finance minister and Netanyahu government official overseeing the West Bank, was arrested in 2005 by the Shin Bet internal security service for planning roadblocks to stop the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He was released without charge. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israeli Minister of National Security, has been repeatedly convicted of supporting terrorist organizations and, in front of television cameras in 1995, he vaguely threatened the life of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated a few weeks later. late by an Israeli student.

All West Bank settlers are in theory subject to the same military law that applies to Palestinian residents. But in practice, they are treated according to the civil law of the State of Israel, which formally only applies to the territory within the state’s borders. This means that the Shin Bet could investigate two similar acts of terrorism in the West Bank – one committed by Jewish settlers and the other committed by Palestinians – and use entirely different investigative tools.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel controlled new territories in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. In 1979, he agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.Credit…The New York Times

The task of investigating Jewish terrorism falls to a division of the Shin Bet known as the Jewish Department. But it is dwarfed in size and prestige by the Arab Department, the division primarily responsible for combating Palestinian terrorism.

Jews involved in terrorist attacks against Arabs in recent decades have received substantial clemency, resulting in reduced prison sentences, anemic investigations and pardons. Most incidents of violence committed by settlers – burning of vehicles, destruction of olive groves – fall under the jurisdiction of the police, who tend to ignore them. When the Jewish Department investigates more serious terrorist threats, it is often stymied from the start, and even its successes have sometimes been undermined by judges and politicians sympathetic to the settler cause.

The two-tiered situation has only gotten worse over the past year. We looked at a sample of three dozen cases in the West Bank since October 7, which show how much the justice system has deteriorated. In cases ranging from cattle rustling to arson to violent assaults, no suspect has been charged with a crime; in one case, a settler shot a Palestinian in the stomach as an Israeli Defense Force soldier watched, but police only questioned the shooter for 20 minutes and never as a criminal suspect .

Ami Ayalon, the head of the Shin Bet in the late 1990s, told us that government leaders “signal to the Shin Bet that if a Jew is killed, it’s terrible. If an Arab is killed, it’s not good, but it’s not the end of the world.”

But Jews are also the target of ultranationalists. Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated after rabbis sentenced him to death for his support of the Oslo peace process.

In 1981, after a group of Jerusalem professors expressed concerns about possible collusion between settlers and authorities and “illegal private police activity” against Palestinians in the occupied territories, then-Attorney General Judith Karp Israel’s deputy for special duties, was invited to head a committee to study the issue. Their report documents case after case of intrusions, extortion, assaults and murders, even though the military authorities and police did nothing or carried out theoretical investigations that led to nothing. .

The interior minister at the time responded to their report with a reprimand. “I understood that he wanted us to abandon him,” Karp told us.

Another report twenty years later suffered the same fate. Talia Sasson, who was asked to write a legal opinion on “unauthorized outposts”, discovered that in just over three years the Ministry of Building and Housing had issued dozens of illegal contracts in West Bank. In some cases, the ministry even financed their construction.

Sasson and his Justice Department colleagues called the separate laws under which they saw the West Bank administered “completely crazy.”

The report had little impact, powerless in the face of the machinery in place to expand the colonies.

In the West Bank, a new generation of ultranationalists has taken an even more radical turn against the very notion of a democratic Israeli state. Their goal is to demolish Israeli institutions and establish “Jewish domination”: anoint a king, build a temple in place of the Jerusalem mosques sacred to Muslims around the world, impose religious rule on all Jews.

It was always clear, Lior Akerman, a former Shin Bet official, told us, “that these savage groups would move from intimidating Arabs to damaging property and trees and eventually murdering people.”

Last October, according to a classified document we saw, Major General Yehuda Fox, head of Israeli Central Command responsible for the West Bank, wrote a letter to his boss, the Israeli army chief of staff , saying the influx of troops Jewish terrorism and violence perpetrated in retaliation for the October 7 attacks “could set the West Bank on fire.”

Another document describes a meeting in March, during which Fox wrote that since Smotrich took office, efforts to crack down on illegal settlement construction have declined “to the point where they have disappeared.”

Gaza has refocused the world’s attention on Israel’s long inability to resolve the question of Palestinian autonomy. But it is in the West Bank, in the hands of emboldened settlers, some of whom are now in power, that the corrosive effects of the occupation on Palestinians and on the Israeli rule of law are most apparent.

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jack colman

With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class. After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim. Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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