Old Testament morality has returned to the Holy Land. The updated version however, comes with a twist: eye for eye retribution by Jews is exacted on Jews. Such frontier justice is how some West Bank settlers settle matters. It’s called the "price tag policy."
The specter of a comprehensive withdrawal of Israeli outposts in the West Bank has spooked many settlers. Pressure is growing. The US and EU have reiterated the illegality of the settlements and have pressed Israel to honor its commitments made in Annapolis to dismantle outposts erected after March 2001. In the face of such demands, some settlers are pushing back. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, settler violence against Israeli police and defense forces is increasing. In the first half of 2008, there were 222 violent incidents by settlers compared with a total of 291 in 2007. The new price tag policy has upped the ante by exacting retribution against both security forces and Palestinians for every settler outpost dismantled. In one suspected act of retribution, a left-wing academic an ardent critic of the settler movement, Ze'ev Sternhell, was injured when a pipe bomb exploded on the doorstep of his West Jerusalem home. The attack prompted Defense Minister Ehud Barak to ominously observe, “We are returning to a dark period."
The upsurge in violence has alarmed senior Israeli officials. Internal security chief Yuval Diskin is said to have purposefully raised the issue with the Israeli Cabinet on the 13th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a radical right-wing Jew. Diskin reportedly told ministers that evacuating settlements could spawn a large-scale conflict with settlers, explaining that there exists "high willingness among this public to use violence—not just stones, but live weapons—in order to prevent or halt a diplomatic process." Why, then, hasn’t the government moved with deliberate haste to address the threat?
Conflicts of interest within the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) may be one answer. Some allege that investments in settlements by IDF officers and personal connections between the military personnel and those living in the West Bank complicate matters, as a government-ordered evacuation by force of the settlements could undermine IDF morale. Whatever the reason—and there are undoubtedly many—a growing consensus is emerging within Israel that the West Bank settlements are untenable. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a longtime hawk, admitted as much in a recent interview with Israeli’s largest paper, Yedioth Ahronoth.
According to Olmert, the time has come to act on a final agreement with the Palestinians “before we enter an extremely dangerous situation.” Olmert’s Road to Damascus conversion has hardly softened his view of the Palestinians. On the contrary. He says they lack “courage, power, inner strength, will, and enthusiasm” and that “the blame rests first and foremost with them.” Still, his conclusion is stark: Israel must withdrawal from “nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories…without this, there will be no peace.”
Olmert, citing terrorist attacks in East Jerusalem, frames the conflict as between Jews and Palestinians. But the issue is broader. Militant settlers who exact retribution against the government as well as those who criticize them also threaten Israeli democracy, a point made by Ze'ev Sternhell, amongst others. From his hospital bed, Sternhell said that the attack against him and others like it demonstrates the “need to mobilize in [Democracy’s] defense with determination and decisiveness.” He’s absolutely right. That time has come.