In July, hours apart, a 16-year-old Israeli girl at a Jerusalem gay pride parade and an 18-month-old Palestinian boy — and, later, his father — died in attacks by Jewish extremists, sparking waves of protest and violence. “We’re at war,” wrote Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid political party. “He who burns a Palestinian baby declares war on the State of Israel. He who stabs young people at a Pride March declares war on the State of Israel.” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said, “To my great sorrow, until now it seems we have been lax in our treatment of the phenomena of Jewish terrorism. “
In the wake of these attacks, the Israeli government is being forced to reckon with a problem many say has not received the attention it deserves: one week after the West Bank arson attack in which a baby burned to death, nine suspected extremists were arrested. Moment spoke with Daniel Byman, director of research and a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, about the roots of Jewish terrorism and what can be done to address it.
What’s the most accurate label for what’s been in the news lately? Would you call it Jewish terrorism? Settler terrorism?
Both work, but they are different. I would call it terrorism. I think “settler” is more appropriate, but I think many of the individuals who are involved would not define it that way. They would see it as — not only would they not see it as terrorism, but they are doing so in the name of the Jewish religion. So in different ways, both labels apply. A lot depends, of course, on whether the perpetrators are settlers and/or are doing it for a settler-related cause.
Who are the targets?
[In the pride parade attack and in the deaths of Saad and Ali Dawabsheh], these are very different targets. One is about changes in Israeli society that they see as fundamentally and morally wrong. And [the advance of gay rights] is a common source of outrage of many religious conservatives around the world — although, thankfully, very, very few embrace violence.
The attack on the Palestinian family, though, is a little trickier, because part of the goal is intimidation of the Palestinian community in the West Bank, but a lot of the purpose is also to send messages to the Israeli government. They want to tell the government that if the government goes against their wishes, they will take it out on the Palestinian population. And this has been a doctrine they’ve embraced for many years. So there are multiple agendas working out in the attack on the Palestinian family.
For how long has settler/Jewish terrorism in Israel been an issue?
It depends what you want to call it, but though there are precedents even before the state’s creation, in its modern incarnation, it’s really linked to the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza after the ’67 war. But it didn’t really become a significant issue until we saw the kind of growth in the settler population and increased militancy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then we saw these radical groups begin to embrace violence, and so that’s when the problem in its modern, recognizable form really began.
Is the problem getting worse?
Yes. First of all, of course, the settler population has grown tremendously, so that’s part of it. Also, the militant elements within them have grown. And also, the violence of the Second Intifada had a radicalizing effect on some segments of the settler population.
How big a problem is this? How does it compare to Palestinian terrorism?
They’re different problems. Palestinian terrorism a decade ago was inflicting a massive death toll, and for Israeli Jews, it was a much more immediate, much bigger problem.
The difference, I would say, is that Jewish terrorism is a more indirect threat. But it calls into question the competence of the Israeli government. It also calls into question its reputation. It’s seen by many as the Israeli government having a double standard, where it’s very harsh on one form of terrorism and lenient on another.
How much is this bound up — or not — with Israeli government policy in the West Bank?
It can be very much bound up.
The nature of Jewish terrorism is often — the targets are Palestinian, in terms of the violence, but much of the goal is to influence government policy. But also, government policy shapes the counterterrorism response — how aggressive the Israeli government is is of course government policy, and it’s very different against Palestinian terrorism as compared to Jewish terrorism.
Just to be clear, you’re referring to it as Jewish terrorism, even though before you said maybe a more accurate label would be settler terrorism — or do you think they’re interchangeable?
Well, they’re different. The problem is some of the terrorists who do this are not settlers. So I would say a Jewish terrorist killed, for example, Yitzhak Rabin. He wasn’t a settler. And some of these are settlers. They mean different things. So Jewish terrorism is the broader term. So at times it’s appropriate to say settler terrorism and at times it’s appropriate to say Jewish.
Are the roots of this terrorism nationalistic or religious or both?
Both. This gets to, I think, the complexity of Jewish identity, which is — Judaism, of course, is a religion, but it’s also very much a national identity. The state of Israel is a state very much founded on the idea of Jewish nationhood.
Is this terrorism part of a grassroots movement, or are there leaders or rabbis inciting or organizing it?
A bit of both. There are certainly people who are inciting it, but it’s also something that has support from a small – again, I want to stress small, but nevertheless significant constituency.
What is the Israeli government doing to address it? What can it do better?
It’s starting to be more aggressive in going after the infrastructure that supports violence, so — trying to use intelligence tools and law enforcement tools to not just wait until after an attack, but try to identify the central perpetrators before an attack and arrest them. I would say in general, it needs to do this much more systematically, and also lower the bar for violence. There is a lot of low-level violence against Palestinians — for example, the destruction of olive trees that, let’s be clear, is not the same as taking a human life. But at the same time, when you tolerate that sort of low-level violence, it’s not surprising that individuals start to believe they have a certain degree of freedom, and that it rises to more and more violence. You want to nip this in the bud as much as possible.