Settler terrorism: An American problem

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Writing to the Huffington Post has proven to be much easier for me than explaining to my Virginia-born, 12-year-old daughter why a group of youths near the West Bank city of Nablus were throwing stones at the Israeli army last month as we found ourselves stuck in traffic due to the crossfire. I had to tell her that the protests were because Israeli settlers living nearby had attacked the home of a Palestinian family, setting it on fire as they slept and burning 18-month-old toddler Ali Dawabsheh to death. Last week my task became harder as I had to explain to my daughter that the toddler’s mother also died after a month of fighting serious burns in the hospital, just as his father did several weeks ago.

A 28-year-old math teacher, Riham Dawabsheh was asleep with her family when the settlers attacked. Burns covered over 90 percent of her body. She died without knowing what happened to her husband and toddler, who died before her. Her students hung a big sign in their school saying, “We’re waiting for you to return to us Ms. Dawabsheh.” Today her students are disappointed–and most of them are in tears–realizing that their beloved teacher will in fact never come back. Her four-year-old son, severely burned and now orphaned, continues to cling to life in a hospital.

Palestinians are not strangers to settler terrorism. In fact, the number of settler attacks against Palestinians rose by about 150 percent every year between 2008 and 2012. Settler terrorism has intensified not only in volume but also in the nature and viciousness of its attacks. For example, in 2014 Israeli settlers kidnapped 16-year-old Palestinian Jerusalemite Mohammad Abu Khdair–and burned him alive.

In full control of the territory where the Dawabsheh family lived, the Israeli army has not indicted or tried anyone in relation to the attack. On September 11, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon revealed the official position of the Israeli government on settler terrorism by publicly admitting that “security officials know the perpetrators … but have delayed prosecuting for fear of betraying sources and lack of evidence.” This failure to hold the settlers accountable sheds additional light on how the Israeli government is responsible for creating a culture of impunity that has been a major cause of settler terrorism.

Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reported that it contacted Israeli police regarding 352 cases of settler-perpetrated violence between 2000 and 2011 and found that while investigations were opened 71 percent of the time, only 11 percent of those investigations resulted in an indictment. B’Tselem has also documented Israel’s application of a “dual system of law” that grants settlers significant leniency, thereby allowing them to continue their attacks. It should also be mentioned that the culture of the settlement movement remains a major cause of inciting terrorism and harboring terrorists. The culture is organically linked to the nature of the settlement project in Palestine that has been initiated and supported by every Israeli government for decades.

The U.S. government must translate its official position of considering Israeli settlements illegal into action. In addition to the moral and humanitarian factors raised by incidents such as the fire-bombing of the Dawabsheh family, settler terrorism negatively impacts American interests. Specifically, it damages the United States’ image globally and undermines its credibility as a trusted mediator in the Middle East. Because Washington has repeatedly thwarted U.N. Security Council proposals to stop the settlement project in Palestine, the United States is viewed as being “guilty by association.” Furthermore, the continued expansion of Israeli settlements is in fact perpetuating the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, thus thwarting American efforts to resolve it and stabilize the Middle East.

Beyond the politics, however, the United States should be directly involved since there is a large number of Americans living in Israeli settlements. A recent study by Oxford University, published by Haaretz, estimates that there are roughly 60,000 American Jews living in the West Bank settlements. The New York Times published an important article this month on “Israeli Terrorists, Born in the U.S.A,” that sheds light on the involvement of American citizens in settler terrorism, including the heinous Dawabsheh incident. According to the article, “several of the alleged instigators, currently being detained indefinitely, are not native-born Israelis–they have American roots.” American Jews have certainly attacked Palestinians in the past. Baruch Goldstein, the physician that killed 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 in the 1994 Hebron massacre, was born and raised in Brooklyn. Since the official U.S. position on settlements is that they are illegal, the U.S. government should not continue to turn a blind eye to its citizens taking part in their existence, their expansion, and, even worse, their perpetration of terrorism.

By the same token, there are thousands of American citizens living in the occupied Palestinian territories who are subject to arbitrary arrest, deportation, and other forms of humiliation by the Israeli army, in addition to settler terrorism. My American-Palestinian daughter’s safety was at risk when we were caught up in the cross fire outside Nablus. She has had her share of tear gas, getting stuck at checkpoints, and being exposed to the Israeli army’s live and rubber bullets.

Washington should not pretend that the conflict and settlements are foreign issues. Its own citizens are being affected on both sides. Israel has shown it cannot be trusted to effectively handle settler terrorism and the United States should not leave the fate of its citizens in the hands of a foreign government. The United States should stop merely talking when it comes to the entire settlement project and immediately take action. Recognizing that the settlements are both illegal and a serious impediment to peace, the European Union has decided to place labels on Israeli goods made in settlements and is considering additional measures. If Washington is serious about countering terrorism, protecting its citizens, and resolving this conflict, it should quickly follow suit.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.