How Israel legitimizes vigilante terror

Artwork inside the burned-out Dawabshe home blames the Israeli government for the firebombing, August 2015. (Photo: Dan Cohen)

Immediately after the firebombing of the occupied West Bank village of Duma that killed eighteen-month-old Ali Dawabshe and later his parents, Israeli politicians competed to see who could be more extreme in their denunciations. The further right their ideology, the more brutal their promises were.

Isaac Herzog, opposition leader and Zionist Union head, called for a full investigation.

“This is a terror attack. Israel deals harshly with terrorism, no matter who the perpetrators are,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Far-right Jewish Home party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called for the death penalty for Jewish terrorists.

But as Sa’ad and Reham Dawabshe, the young parents of baby Ali, succumbed to their wounds, the politicians who had been so vociferous were largely silent. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a statement, reiterating that Israeli forces would apprehend the killers. Herzog called the firebombing an act of terrorism. For all of the bluster, there was not a word when the Israeli government announced that the Dawabshe family is ineligible for financial compensation for terror attacks because they are not citizens of Israel.

In the most clear signal that the perpetrators will not be brought to justice, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told a group of Likud activists that security forces know the identity of the killers but would not prosecute them in order to not reveal intelligence sources.

Once again, the politicians who initially demanded crackdowns on Jewish terror were silent.

So what explains this gap between rhetoric and reality?

Veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar sees this as a tactic of colonialism. “This is not new. This is just one of many incidents that the government, police and army were aware of,” Eldar explained in a telephone interview with Mondoweiss. “The message is that you can get away with murder, literally.”

Eldar recalled asking the chief of police of the occupied territory why they do not pursue Jewish terrorists. “His answer when I asked him why don’t you do anything to stop them was, he answered me with a question. ‘Who gave them the permit to live here and to take the land? Who paved the roads? Who connected them to electricity and to water?’”

“The reality is that they [politicians] encourage them,” Eldar continued. “The notion is that they are the pioneers. They are the real Zionists. They are willing to give up the good life in order to fulfill the vision of Greater Israel and moving to the hilltops. You can’t fight the mosquitoes, you have to fight the swamp. Instead, Israel is one of the only western countries where the secular government is encouraging the fundamentalists.”

This pattern is seen repeatedly throughout Israeli history.

On Purim (the Jewish holiday that celebrates vanquishing the enemies in the Persian empire) in 1994, Brooklyn-born Israeli settler and army officer Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron wearing military gear during prayers. He waited until worshippers were knelt down in prayer, then opened fire with his military-issued weapon. He killed 29 men and boys and injured more than 100 before being overpowered and beaten to death. Dozens more Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military in the protests that followed.

A follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League and the banned Kach party, Goldstein’s actions were strongly condemned by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “I am shamed over the disgrace imposed upon us by a degenerate murderer,” he said. “You are not partners in the Zionist enterprise.”

But the actions of Rabin’s government proved otherwise. The Israeli government responded to this massacre by closing Palestinian shops on Shuhada street and partitioning the mosque between fanatical Israeli settlers and Palestinians – an arrangement that continues to this day and helped solidify Israeli control over the Palestinian city. Shortly after, Goldstein was buried in a public park in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba he lived in. Inscribed on his grave are the words, “He gave his soul for the sake of the people of Israel, The Torah, and the Land. His hands are clean and his heart good… He was assassinated for the Sanctity of God.”

Indeed, this tactic is rooted in pre-state Zionism.

On April 10, 1948, 132 fighters of the Irgun and Stern Gang, two pre-state Zionist militias, attacked the Jerusalem village of Deir Yassin. “The Jews ordered ordered all our family to line up against the wall and they started shooting us,” twelve-year-old Fahimi Zidan recalled in David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch. By the end of the massacre, 254 Palestinians had been killed and the village had been destroyed, sending shockwaves throughout the land and causing Palestinians to flee their homes.

While Zionist leaders sharply condemned the attack, the leadership formed an alliance with the Irgun, which would officially become the Israeli military several weeks later.

While the Duma firebombing will likely not have such enormous implications on the ground as the aftermath of the Ibrahimi Mosque and Deir Yassin massacres, the attack undoubtedly advances the goals of the Israel’s national ideology – controlling maximum Palestinian land with minimum Palestinian people. The message of the Duma attack becomes two-fold: it tells vigilante attackers that they can operate with total impunity, and reinforces the message to Palestinians that they will never have security under occupation, so they should either leave the lands or quietly accept their fate.