Are the settlers civilians?

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Although I have replied individually to a few comments to my recent post regarding the recent killing of four Israeli settlers, there was one issue repeatedly raised in several comments. To what extent should Jewish settlers in the West Bank be considered

Armed – Some have questioned whether the victims were armed, and suggested that if they were, they deserved their fate. This makes little sense to me. If they were armed, it seems it was purely for defensive purposes, as they were not engaged in any aggressive operation themselves. Considering what happened to them, their fears
were not imaginary. True, if they and their fellow settlers were not living this illegal, immoral lifestyle that was choking the lives of their fellow human beings, they would have no need for armed defense, but here, their possession of weapons to use defensively in the case of hostility does not make them kill-worthy. There’s no reason to believe that the Palestinian gunmen even knew whether they were armed.

In fact, I find a parallel in the Israeli claim that it has to strike at Iran or Hezbollah, etc. because those entities are arming themselves to defend against an Israeli strike.  I view this entire rationale as backwards.

Age – The occupation has continued for several decades now, and although settlement building is continuing and settler population increasing, there are now many who have been born and raised into adulthood without ever knowing another home. They have been taught since birth that they are entitled to live on this land, and that those of a different ancestry are interlopers who would be welcome in 22 other countries where similar people live, but instead insist on being a thorn in the side of the Jewish people, who desire only a tiny sliver of land. Needless to say, I abhor this ideology, but can we blame six-year-olds for believing what they’ve been told? What about when they turn 10, or 15 or 21? At some point, we can expect them to think for themselves and act appropriately (though it’s hard to see how outside influences will ever persuade them), but at what age do they change from being innocent children force-fed a supremacist ideology to something more killable? Is there a gray area, say 16 to 21, when they are on probation? Do we make allowances for those who are retarded or autistic? Several years ago, during the second intifada, it was revealed by Amira Hass that Israeli soldiers had standing orders not to shoot children, who were defined as those appearing to be 11 and under. Twelve-year old adults were fair game. Should Palestinians play the same game? Would raising the age boundary solve the problem?

They Were Settlers – The most important factor is clearly that these victims were settlers who chose to live beyond the “green line.” The entire world agrees that this area does not belong to Israel, and international law forbids Israel from allowing its citizens to settler there, a law that has been broken about a half-million times. But
settlers, while all illegal, are not monolithic. Some are ideological and insufferably racist and clearly get satisfaction out of depriving Palestinians of the ability to live in freedom and security. Others are induced by economic incentives to live in the OPT. There surely are many more complicated situations as well..

This was most probably all the gunmen knew about their victims – that they were settlers. Maybe they were indeed armed and fanatic members of the most racist strain of the settler movement. But they were anonymous settlers when killed. In my view, they were civilians, not engaged in any immediately threatening behavior, and therefore not subject to a death sentence.

Contrast this situation with the incident in Beita I wrote about a few months ago, where an armed Israeli settler guarding teenagers out for a deliberately provocative hike shot to death a Palestinian they encountered. The victim’s sister hit the murderer in the head with a rock, leading to a melee in which several others, including an Israeli girl, were killed by the gunman. If the sister had had a gun, my guess is she would have used it rather than the rock, and I would have found no fault with her for doing so. Interestingly, some Palestinian villagers protected and sheltered the Israeli youth from the completely understandable rage of other Palestinians. Wasn’t this heroic rather than foolish, even though these teens represented the worst strain and the bleak future of the militant Israeli settler movement?

I’m not a big fan of “slippery slope” arguments – they’re used far too often – but I think there is a good one to be made here. If we support or even excuse murder of settlers, what about Israeli Jewish citizens within the green line? There surely is something additionally nefarious about all settlers, but Jews who live within Israel proper enjoy special rights, privileges and status to them over their non-Jewish fellow citizens. Don’t they accept those goodies, mostly without any reservation at all? Aren’t some non-settler Jews more virulently racist than some settlers? Aren’t they all at least somewhat guilty for enjoying the benefits of a ethno-religious preference in violation of 21st century standards of egalitarianism?

Then there are the Americans, who watched with minimal protest while their government slaughtered hundreds of thousands or more the past decade, and continues to reserve the right to arrest (or even murder) anyone anywhere for any reason, and hold them for any length of time without any recourse. How long would it be before we’re all implicated as “alleged civilians” rather than actual civilians, before we are all ensnared in this sense of collective guilt for which the ultimate penalty may be paid, even where the crimes of the State are very real?

This entire discussion reminds me of a 1945 propaganda newsreel I once saw about the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings. There was footage, presumably genuine but who knows, of Japanese schoolgirls undergoing military training with bayonets, as the narrator solemnly intoned that such fierce resistance from the entire citizenry was what allied troops could have expected had they invaded rather than nuked Japan. The message was clear: even the children of Japan were not truly civilians to be mourned, but genuine military targets whose incineration was entirely justified.

My rejection of this notion of distinctions among civilians can get no better support than its obvious similarity to Alan Dershowitz’s ”continuum of civilianality”, one of his most morally reprehensible concepts, a remarkable distinction considering the voluminous competition. Dershowitz seeks to rationalize Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians by minimizing the number of people who qualify for civilianhood based on criteria that are not that different from those listed above. Palestinians under the age of four are certainly deemed genuine civilians, although their deaths are excusable because the Hamas baddies hoist them up with their left hand while firing rockets and rifles with their right. (About the only value in Dershowitz’s continuum is that it gave rise to this brilliantly witty evisceration of the doctrine.) Dershowitz goes to great lengths to make distinctions between different kinds of Palestinian civilians, but of course he would never apply his analysis to Israelis, all of whom are deemed pure-as-driven-snow civilians unless engaged in active combat. Shouldn’t we avoid engaging in a reciprocal double standard?

I am certainly not saying that force may not be used to compel settlers to comply with international law, or even a common international consensus on resolving the dispute. I have no doubt that a great deal of force eventually will be required, especially on the most intransigent settlers who would neither move nor accept any Palestinian jurisdiction (see Phil’s post about I.F. Stone). What I object to is indiscriminate lethal force decided upon in secret by people self-appointed to assume the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. I see no obligation to support such a travesty, or even to refrain from condemnation.

About David Samel

David Samel is an attorney in New York City.

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