(Updates with comment from settler spokeswoman in fourth paragraph.)
Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Israel took new steps to crack down on violence by Jewish-settlement activists after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said their actions against soldiers and security forces had “crossed all lines.”
The measures announced yesterday, including banning some offenders from their homes in the West Bank, trying them in military courts and bolstering use of the Shin Bet security service in investigating attacks by Jews, came after dozens of settlers stormed an army base this week and threw rocks at soldiers.
The settler community is one of the government’s main sources of political support. Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been suspended since last year over Netanyahu’s refusal to accede to demands by the Palestinian Authority, and pressure from the international community, to renew a 10-month freeze on construction in West Bank settlements.
“While there are some risks that part of Netanyahu’s core constituency will object” to the steps he is taking, “these are minimal as compared to a few months ago because most Israelis across the board have had enough of this unlawful and dangerous behavior,” said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “I think Netanyahu has been waiting for an opportunity to take action when the political costs would be very low.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the incidents “have the characteristics of homegrown terror.” President Shimon Peres called the actions at the army base “crazy” and met with settler leaders in a bid to get them to stop the violence.
During the past year a number of mosques were targeted in arson attacks, Palestinian homes and vehicles have been damaged and army bases have been broken into and vandalized by so-called hilltop youth, Jewish settlers who have set up West Bank outposts that haven’t been authorized by Israel. Some of their leaders have warned of a “price tag” policy in which any threatened evacuation by the government is met with acts of violence that have been directed primarily against Palestinians.
Two unauthorized structures in a West Bank settlement were demolished early today, an army spokeswoman said, speaking anonymously in accordance with regulation.
“Netanyahu wants to divide this territory into two nations and our young people are going to stop it,” Daniella Weiss, director of the Nachala movement that supports building new outposts, said in a telephone interview from her home in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim.
The violence surged to new levels two nights ago when some 50 hilltop youths vandalized a military base and injured its commanding officer, while elsewhere in the West Bank another group clashed with soldiers after crossing into a closed military zone along the border with Jordan.
Vandals then set fire yesterday to an abandoned mosque in Jerusalem and spray-painted it with graffiti. When police went to detain six suspects in a Jerusalem neighborhood in connection with the incident, they were confronted by an angry crowd of activists who stoned their vehicles.
“The stone thrown at the officer and the infiltration of the base are just the beginning and they represent the immensity of this conflict,” Weiss said. “It’s going to get bigger.”
Palestinian Authority Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud al-Habash said a West Bank mosque was burned early today and blamed Israel. An Israeli army spokeswoman said a complaint had been received and was being investigated.
“Netanyahu bears full responsibility for those who commit terror,” al-Habash said in an interview with Palestine TV. He added that gasoline was spilled on the floors of the mosque in the West Bank town of Bourqa and that anti-Palestinian graffiti was scribbled on the walls.
“I’m convinced we must take every step this requires, including the use of emergency regulations, restraining orders and administrative detention, and deal with them the same way we deal with criminal organizations and terrorist groups,” Barak told Army Radio on Dec. 13.
Netanyahu declined suggestions to officially designate activists taking part in the violence as terrorists, which would broaden possible legal measures against them. He also said “it is important to me to emphasize that this is a small group that does not represent the public that lives” in the West Bank, “who are loyal to the state and its laws and who condemn the rioting.”
One risk in cracking down on violence by settlers is a possible escalation in retaliatory actions against Palestinians that could inflame wider unrest in the West Bank.
“If Palestinians see that the army is acting as forcefully as it should against these extremists, that should help contain any friction from these incidents,” says Yehuda Ben-Meir, principal research fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “So far though, we haven’t seen the army take that action.”
Israel has constructed about 120 government-authorized settlements in the West Bank since the late 1960s. Another 100 outposts that never received Israeli government approval have been built during the past decade.
The United Nations says all settlements are illegal, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says they breach the Fourth Geneva Convention governing actions on occupied territory.
--With assistance from Fadwa Hodali in the West Bank and Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem. Editors: Heather Langan, Joe Sobczyk, Ben Holland, Louis Meixler.
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