Defense Ministry officer slams IDF for not taking settler violence seriously

Civil Administration official says projects in Yitzhar should be conditioned on cessation of attacks by area residents, drawing angry responses from right wing

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

Masked Israeli settlers from Yitzhar and soldiers watch after Palestinian fields were set on fire in the village of Asira al-Qiblyia on June 2, 2010. (Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)
Masked Israeli settlers from Yitzhar and soldiers watch after Palestinian fields were set on fire in the village of Asira al-Qiblyia on June 2, 2010. (Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)

A Defense Ministry official recently slammed the Israeli military for what she deemed to be its lackadaisical approach in dealing with violence carried out by residents of the Yitzhar settlement and the surrounding outposts in the northern West Bank, according to a report Wednesday.

In a letter to Civil Administration head Achvat Ben Hoor sent in September, the official —  identified by The Times of Israel as senior Civil Administration officer Idit Zargarian — said the army should not continue to treat the hardline settlement as if it were a normal residential community.

“We cannot continue treating Yitzhar with a double standard: promoting civilian issues, examining unique requests from residents, and finding creative solutions to their problems alongside the continued violation of the rule of law by the residents,” she wrote in the letter, which was published by the Kan public broadcaster.

The Civil Administration, a body within the Defense Ministry, governs daily affairs in Israel-controlled Area C of the West Bank.

Yitzhar has become known among officials in the defense establishment as a hotbed for settler violence largely due to the illegal outposts that ultra-nationalist activists, often referred to as hilltop youth, have established over the years. The Shin Bet believes at least a portion of Yitzhar residents have been responsible for carrying out dozens of price-tag attacks — hate crimes targeting Palestinians ostensibly in retaliation for Palestinian violence or government policies perceived as hostile to the settler movement. Settlers have also clashed with police  attempting to dismantle outposts or carry out arrests.

It is “inconceivable that the most senior IDF officials seek and assist in the development of the settlement, while blatantly ignoring the actions of (Yitzhar) residents and the residents of the surrounding outposts, which have included attacks on security forces,” Zargarian wrote.

Zargarian penned her letter in response to a list of requests made by Yitzhar leaders to security officials for various building projects to be advanced in the settlement.

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.

The Civil Administration officer argued that such projects should be conditioned on a cessation of violence from residents of the settlement, south of Nablus.

A Border Police officer after she was hit in the head by a stone thrown by Israeli settlers at an outpost adjacent to the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar on July 17, 2018. (Israel Police)

The letter stated that roughly 30 incidents of violence against Palestinians and Israeli security forces have been carried out by the area settlers in recent months.

Among them, the assault of a shepherd from the nearby village of Einabus along with the theft of his flock and the slaughtering of ten sheep last February; the hurling of stones at Border Police, which resulted in the injury of one officer in July; and the stabbing of Palestinian farmer in Einabus by a mob of Israelis from the Yitzhar area in March.

Zargarian criticized IDF Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan in particular for what she viewed to be his willingness to fully accommodate the Yitzhar residents requests, despite the aforementioned incidents.

The letter drew massive outcry from settler leaders as well as their right-wing allies in the government.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan called for the firing of the Civil Administration official, who he claimed was “acting like a politician.” He said the contents of the letter were false and that Yitzhar leaders have worked over recent years to move the settlement “in a positive direction.”

“This community is the salt of the earth,” Dagan said.

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich called for the closing of the Civil Administration entirely.

“This document reflects a political agenda that is hostile to communities and residents of Judea and Samaria, which unfortunately has been spreading in this unnecessary body,” Smotrich said in a statement.

Far-right activist Elkana Pikar (L) sits with Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich in the former’s home in the Yitzhar settlement on May 16, 2017. (Courtesy: We are all Elkana Pikar HQ)

The right-wing lawmaker argued that settlers “who are equal citizens” have been receiving inferior service compared to those in Israel proper due to their forced reliance on the Civil Administration.

Responding to the publication of Zangarian’s letter, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), under which the Civil Administration falls, released a statement calling it “an internal document whose purpose was to reflect the current situation along with the security and civil sensitivities that exists in this particular area.”

“The Civil Administration is responsible for maintaining security stability in the Judea and Samaria region while promoting the quality of life in the area,” the statement read.

COGAT head Kamil Abu Rukun stood by Zangarian, releasing a statement referring to her as “an excellent officer who did her work faithfully and wanted to shed light on a situation that jeopardizes the continued stability of the area.”

One of five sheep belonging to a Palestinian shepherd allegedly slaughtered by Israeli settlers from Yitzhar. (Courtesy: Rabbis for Human Rights)

The IDF said in response to the report that it is “responsible for the security of all residents of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) — Jews and Palestinians alike — and acts day and night to enable them to maintain their security and daily routines.”

“Security forces distinguish between lawbreakers involved in nationalistic crimes, against whom action must be taken, and those residents simply living in the area,” the army’s said.

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