Police on Monday issued a statement to reporters that has become common in recent years: An investigation has been opened into allegations that two Palestinian maintenance workers were assaulted on the job at a clinic in the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar by a pair of young settlers who doused them with pepper spray then fled the scene.
While this particular incident targeted Palestinians directly rather than their property — as has been more usual in the dozens of so-called price tag attacks so far in 2019 — the end result of the perpetrators evading arrest is something complainants have long become accustomed to.
A security official who spoke with The Times of Israel on Sunday insisted that the defense establishment was doing everything in its power to curb such violence and bring the perpetrators to justice. However, she also directed criticism for police and the Israeli justice system, which she claimed were making those efforts more difficult.
To be clear, the security official pointed out that 2019 saw a significant drop in the number of what was referred to as “violent incidents” perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians and security forces: from 378 in 2018 to 256. The number of “price tag” attacks, in which Israelis specifically entered Palestinian villages, vandalized property and sprayed Hebrew hate slogans, stayed flat, totaling 50 for the second consecutive year according to defense establishment figures.
Where the security official did recognize a change for the worse, however, was in the brazenness of the perpetrators. “Where before we might have seen a price tag attack in which the perpetrators vandalized 20 cars, now there are some incidents where 160 cars are vandalized,” she explained. “They’re not afraid. They stay in what theoretically is a hostile village for hours before leaving.”
The defense establishment has also recognized a spike in the degree of violent attacks, including a November incident in which perpetrators hurled rocks at an oncoming Palestinian taxi driver as well as various arson attacks targeting Palestinian cars and even a Border Police tent. “We consider these to be terror attacks in every sense of the word. The perpetrators don’t know if there is anyone inside when they set the fire,” the security official said.
The official pointed to recent developments surrounding the illegal Kumi Ori outpost neighborhood of Yitzhar as providing a “tailwind” for an increase in attacks on Palestinians and Israeli security forces in recent months.
The Israel Defense Forces declared the outpost a closed military zone in October after a number of young settlers living there were involved in a string of violent attacks on Palestinians and security forces. Among the residents most known to the Shin Bet security service is 21-year-old Neria Zarog, a “violent extremist” who has inspired attacks against Palestinians and Israeli forces alike, according to the security official.
In September, IDF Central Command Head Nadav Padan signed an administrative order barring Zarog from Kumi Ori and the northern West Bank. The father of three openly violated the directive, refusing to leave his home, but police didn’t arrest him until two months later. Zarog was held for several days as he refused to agree to the terms of his release, before eventually being let go unconditionally.
“He’s seen as a hero who made a mockery of the defense establishment,” the security official said.
On that issue, the official said, police deserved blame for taking so long to arrest Zarog. “The evidence we had against him expired by the time he was brought in,” she added, refusing to elaborate.
A police spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter.
The official also criticized the courts for their conduct with Zarog and other cases in which they charge defendants with minor crimes of vandalism and allow them to return home immediately.
Nonetheless, the security official asserted that there have been successes in the fight to combat Israeli extremism beyond the Green Line, but explained that specific information could not be shared with the public.
The official pointed out that there are more than several bodies that are responsible for preventing young settlers, mostly between the ages of 15 and 20, from ending up alone on West Bank hilltops where they are more prone to radicalization and violence.
“The line starts with their families, but continues to their schools, the local municipalities and the welfare system before it reaches the Shin Bet,” the official said, adding that security forces’ hands are tied when the government turns down their recommendations to raze the outposts from which much of the violence is emanating.
“But it’s a very complex issue for us because we’re talking about minors,” the official added.
Lior Amichai, whose Yesh Din organization documents settler violence, was less sympathetic of the position Israeli security forces have found themselves in.
Lamenting the infrequency of arrests and the even smaller conviction rate for violence against Palestinians, Amichai said that “by failing to enforce the law against these Israeli rioters, the Israeli authorities have themselves become collaborators and political actors that allow this phenomenon to thrive, flourish and continue.”