Over 400 Israeli activists from left-wing organizations showed up Feb. 4 in the Palestinian village of Burin in the West Bank. They came to demonstrate solidarity with the villagers and to help local farmers plant olive trees to replace the trees torn down in a violent attack two weeks earlier. The perpetrators of the assault were extremist settlers, all of them masked and armed with clubs and other lethal weapons. They were filmed attacking and beating up activists from Rabbis for Human Rights, in one case even setting fire to a vehicle belonging to one of their victims. Many of their victims required medical attention. One of them had his arm broken.
This time, the demonstrators from the left were joined by Knesset members Gaby Lasky and Mossi Raz of Meretz and Ahmad Tibi of the Arab Joint List. This time, dozens of soldiers and police from the Judea and Samaria district were on-site to secure the planting and to protect the participants from another attack by settler extremists.
The plantings and the show of solidarity with the residents and farmers of Burin was set against a backdrop of what has become known as "settler violence.” The term was first coined last December by Minister of Public Security Omer Bar Lev of the Labor party following a meeting with US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, who was visiting Israel at the time. It has since become a “hot potato” in Israeli politics. There have been sharp disputes within Israeli society in general and the Cabinet in particular over its validity, with the right trying to play down the extent of the issue. They claim that the cases in question are isolated incidents, or a very marginal phenomenon among isolated settlers. Under no circumstances, they insist, can it be compared to the scope of violence originating on the Palestinian side.
Evidence of how sensitive the issue is and how heated the debate over the term can get was evident in an argument that broke out Feb. 4 at the security Cabinet weekly meeting between Bar Lev, who is responsible for the police, and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi over the authority of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops stationed in the West Bank. Bar Lev demanded that they take action against settlers who attack Palestinians or Israelis in the West Bank. He argued that the area was the IDF’s responsibility and under its jurisdiction, while the police do not have enough manpower in the region. He stressed that the IDF has the authority of a police force when dealing with Israeli civilians in the West Bank and, as a result, have full authority to detain Israelis involved in acts of violence until the police arrive.
“That’s not true. There is no such thing,” Kochavi shot back. He went on to quote a 1998 policy paper by the attorney general at the time in order to get across his message to the Cabinet that it is preferred to have the Israeli police, and not the IDF, take action against Israelis in the West Bank. Bar Lev rejected his assertions, saying, “I’m not going to argue with you right now, but you’re just wrong. You are quoting partial and incorrect things.”
Surprisingly, Kochavi’s remarks seemingly contradict a statement made some two weeks ago by the head of the West Bank branch of the IDF attorney general's office, Col. Asam Hamed. Addressing the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, he said, “We expect IDF troops — and they have been notified of this when preparing to serve — to have authority and responsibility when dealing with acts of violence by Israelis against Palestinians or Israeli social activists, who show up in the area and are subjected to violence until the police arrive. This includes the authority to detain and arrest suspects if necessary.”
But it goes far beyond Cabinet meetings, too. A few days later, journalist Barak Ravid of Walla revealed that Bar Lev sent a letter of complaint to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, with copies sent to the prime minister, the members of the security Cabinet and the state attorney, asking to clarify to Kochavi and other relevant factors in the IDF that troops serving in the West Bank have the authority to detain and arrest people suspected of engaging in local acts of violence, and even to transport them to Israeli police stations.
Engaging in the debate, Gantz responded to Bar Lev saying that while the IDF takes responsibility and increases activity, the public security minister prefers focusing on looking for someone to blame. "Without entering into classified discussions [over possible solutions], I’d like to support the chief of staff and commander of the Central Command, who are acting as they should and in the right direction," he said.
Bolstering Bar Lev’s remarks was none other than former Deputy Chief of Staff and current Deputy Minister of the Economy Yair Golan. “The truth is very simple. IDF troops do not have the same authority as the police, but they do have the authority to detain any civilian, and they have the authority to utilize proportional force in order to detain anyone who violates the law, puts innocent bystanders at risk or interferes with security forces when fulfilling their mission.”
Meretz Knesset member Mossi Raz, who participated in the planting event in Burin, told Al-Monitor, “It was a very nice event, which showed that there are a lot of people who are fed up with violence by the settlers. Over 400 people showed up, including some who were attacked two weeks ago. We planted trees for several hours, while the purpose of our visit was to demonstrate solidarity with the local population and the activists, who were attacked.”
Responding to the debate over the authority of IDF troops, he said, “While it is always preferable to have the police deal with civilians, in the absence of police, it is only fitting that the soldiers should do that. At the time of the event, there were rumors that one of the activists was arrested by soldiers at the site, indicating that it is within the soldiers’ purview to arrest Israelis. Maybe the chief of staff believes that they are allowed to use their authority against rank-and-file Israelis but not against settlers.”