August 15, 2012

Those Other West Bank Terrorists

Dan Byman and Natan Sachs have a great article in the new Foreign Affairs on the rise of settler terrorism in the West Bank. I suspect that some will argue Byman and Sachs are "brave" to tackle such a "controversial" issue, but reading the article last weekend, one of the things that struck me was how much the article makes sense in the context of Byman's other research. Byman has basically spent the past decade studying the threats posed by violent non-state actors to the state of Israel and then evaluating Israel's response to those threats. If Byman was to follow an honest definition of terrorism, it was only going to be a matter of time before he dealt with the violent Jewish extremists who have both terrorized the Palestinian population of the West Bank and posed a real challenge to the authority of the Israeli state. Regional specialists have been sounding the alarm about the changing character of the Israeli settler movement for quite some time, so again, it makes sense to see security studies specialists now paying attention to the issue.

Byman and Sachs have contributed a valuable service by sketching out the way in which the settler movement has changed, why it has resorted to violence (spoiler: it's working!), and why both the Israeli and U.S. governments should be more concerned than they are. A few ironies that struck me while reading the report:

1. This will be awkward for all parties involved, but Palestinians are the new Israelis:

The situation recalls the bitterness Israelis felt when dealing with former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat as Palestinian suicide bombings continued: either he could stop the violence and chose not to or he was unable to end it, in which case there was little reason to talk. As settler violence increases, the Palestinians will begin to say the same about Israel's leadership.

2. The recommendations Byman and Sachs put forward often echo the recommendations so often put forward regarding Islamist terrorism. Specifically...

...mainstream rabbis should denounce their radical brethren and demonstrate how their views contradict centuries of religious tradition. When extremist rabbis incite violence, they must face prosecution.

Now where have we heard something remarkably similar to that before!

I had never visited Israel or the Palestinian territories prior to 2006 but have been four times since. I am a very amateur student, then, of both Israeli society as well as the debates on Israel and the U.S. relationship with Israel that take place here in the United States. (I am better versed in the theological debates within my own faith tradition regarding the state of Israel, but theology is not a subject I wish to blog on anytime soon!) I have to tell you, though, that I have never once heard anyone from any of the Jewish organizations that support the U.S.-Israeli relationship condone settler violence or speak about it with anything other than condemnation. So I do not think the problem is with the often maligned American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the American Jewish Congress or any other similar group. I wonder, though, what many evangelical Christian groups like John Hagee's Christians United for Israel think about settler violence -- if they think about it at all. And I wonder also if those groups will be an obstacle to some of the recommendations Byman and Sachs make regarding cracking down on funding for extremist groups in the settlements. Because sadly, we American Christians have a history of turning a blind eye toward terrorism when we approve of the ends.