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De-emphasized under Trump, report shows Biden taking settler violence more seriously

State Department publishes new administration’s first Country Reports on Terrorism, with section on West Bank Israeli violence far more detailed than it was during Trump years

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Illustrative photo: Masked Jewish settlers, background, and Palestinians, foreground, hurl stones during clashes in the West Bank, Friday, May 3, 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Illustrative photo: Masked Jewish settlers, background, and Palestinians, foreground, hurl stones during clashes in the West Bank, Friday, May 3, 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

An annual US State Department report on terrorism in different countries released on Thursday dedicated significantly more focus to settler violence than such reports did during the Trump administration.

The emphasis on West Bank settler violence in the Country Reports on Terrorism is consistent with the concern the Biden administration has repeatedly raised in conversations with Israeli government officials amid an ongoing spike in settler attacks on Palestinians and Israeli security officials.

The 2017 report was published several months after Trump took office when many of his appointees had yet to take on their posts in the State Department. Its mention of settler violence was relatively brief but highlighted so-called “price-tag” vandalism attacks that target Palestinians and their property. The attacks are often carried out by young Israelis claiming retaliation for violence against Jews or actions taken against the settler movement.

The 2017 report said: “Israelis, including settlers, committed acts of violence, including ‘price tag’ attacks in the West Bank in 2017.”

The one-paragraph section included figures on settler violence from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which Israeli officials have accused of bias against Israel.

It also included an assertion that settler violence, Israeli settlement construction and a lack of hope in achieving Palestinian statehood were among the causes of Palestinian violence. Some right-wing pundits at the time claimed the passage represented a justification for terrorism.

The three reports published during the remainder of the Trump administration placed less emphasis on the issue. Two of the three had only one sentence on settler violence and none included any figures on the phenomenon, from the UN or anywhere else.

US President Joe Biden listens to a reporter’s question after delivering remarks on the November jobs report, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Notably, the Trump administration’s first Country Reports on Terrorism was published under secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who took a more moderate position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than his successor, Mike Pompeo. It was also compiled largely before former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman took up his post in May 2017. The report was released two months after the arrival of Friedman, a longtime backer of the settlement movement.

In this year’s report, the section on settler violence has three long paragraphs and once again cited OCHA statistics, which had been common during the Obama administration. The Obama reports also included more detail than the reports during the Trump administration, but were not as detailed as the one put out on Thursday.

“Over the course of 2020, UN OCHA documented 771 incidents of settler violence that brought injury to 133 Palestinians and damaged 9,646 trees and 184 vehicles, mostly in the areas of Hebron, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Ramallah,” the report said.

It also cited news reports that said settlers had committed 42 acts of violence against Israeli law enforcement in 2020, compared to 29 such incidents the year before.

It also referenced the December 2020 death of 16-year-old settler Ahuvia Sandak, who was killed in a car crash while fleeing from police, allegedly after hurling stones at Palestinians. The report inaccurately referred to the stone-throwing as fact, even though the investigation into the matter is still ongoing.

Right-wing demonstrators hold placards showing Ahuvia Sandak as they protest against his death in a car crash during a police chase, near the Jerusalem offices of the Police Internal Investigations Department, January 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev caused a coalition dustup this week when he said he had discussed settler violence with a senior State Department official.

The government’s right-wing accused Barlev — a member of the center-left Labor party — of generalizing the actions of a few extremists to condemn an entire community.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday tacitly joined those criticizing Barlev.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told The Atlantic earlier this month that extremist violence is “a stain on Israel” in an interview released on Wednesday.

While no official figures have been released, the Shin Bet has reported a 50% rise in extremist Jewish attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank over the past year.

Pro-Palestinian rights groups say the assailants are rarely prosecuted, reporting that the vast majority of cases are closed without indictments.

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