Gantz discusses settler violence with top brass, calls for soldiers to intervene

Move comes after rise in attacks by Israeli extremists against Palestinians, in which IDF troops are often seen standing idly by

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Masked men, allegedly Israeli settlers, wield clubs during what eyewitnesses and police called an attack on Palestinians seeking to harvest olives near Surif, on November 12, 2021. (Credit: Shai Kendler)
Masked men, allegedly Israeli settlers, wield clubs during what eyewitnesses and police called an attack on Palestinians seeking to harvest olives near Surif, on November 12, 2021. (Credit: Shai Kendler)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a high-level meeting with top representatives of the country’s security forces on Thursday night to discuss a recent increase in violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, calling for the military to intervene before someone was killed.

“This is a grave phenomenon in terms of morals and security, and it has diplomatic consequences,” Gantz said following the meeting.

Recent months have seen a noted rise in violent attacks by Israeli extremists against Palestinians compared to previous years, with 67 such assaults reported during this autumn’s olive harvest, compared to 42 last year, according to IDF figures reported by Army Radio this week. The annual olive harvest season often sees heightened tensions and increased violence by Israeli settlers. These attacks have often included vandalism to olive groves, burning or cutting down trees, but have often also seen rock-throwing, beating people with clubs and, occasionally, gunfire.

“What starts as a tree can end with bodily harm or — heaven forbid — loss of life. Hate crimes are the root from which terror grows and we need to root them out,” Gantz said after his meeting on Thursday.

Following an assessment from the security services, the defense minister called for greater action by the IDF, Shin Bet and Israel Police, the three security services directly responsible for preventing settler violence in the West Bank. According to the Haaretz newspaper, he explicitly called for IDF troops to immediately intervene in cases of settler violence.

In footage of many of these attacks, Israeli soldiers can be seen standing idly by as masked settlers throw rocks at or beat Palestinians. When asked about their inaction, the military generally says that troops eventually do respond to attacks, once reinforcements arrive at the scene.

An Israeli soldier stands by as Israeli settlers enter a Palestinian playground in Susiya, a Palestinian hamlet in the West Bank, on Saturday, November 6, 2021 (Credit: Guy Butuvia)

This was the case earlier this month, when a group of settlers from the South Hebron Hills entered a playground in the nearby Palestinian village of Susiya, kicking out children that had been playing there. In videos of the incident, soldiers could be seen standing guard outside the playground, keeping the Palestinians away as the settlers remained inside until police officers arrived and dispersed the crowd.

Historically, Israel has been ineffectual at curbing violence by Israelis against Palestinians, as the IDF soldiers who are often first to arrive on the scene are loath to enter into direct confrontation with Israeli civilians, particularly those living in West Bank settlements that the military is charged with defending. The Israel Police, who are explicitly tasked with law enforcement against Israeli civilians, are typically slower to arrive, often reaching the scene after clashes have already dispersed. The Israel Police’s West Bank division is also notoriously ineffectual, having been found to regularly fail to thoroughly investigate cases of Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with the heads of Israel’s security services and other top officers to discuss settler violence in his office in Tel Aviv on November 18, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

At the Thursday night meeting, Gantz called for the various organizations to improve their cooperation, to focus their efforts on well-known areas of friction, and to form specialized teams to deal with the issue of settler violence. Gantz delegated responsibility for the issue to Deputy Defense Minister Alon Shuster.

“The defense minister added that forces should be gathered for these missions and that legal work should be advanced in order to strengthen the hands of troops in the field,” his office said.

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