Settler violence

October 29, 2002

IN AMERICA, Israel's running battle with suicide bombers and the resulting death toll usually dominate the news from the Jewish state. Who could not be transfixed by photos of the charred skeleton of a commuter bus or the bravery of young soldiers who sacrifice themselves to stop a terrorist? But these events, as horrific as they may be, can deflect attention from other events that undermine prospects for peace in the Mideast.

For two days last week, Israeli soldiers and police suffered indignation and humiliation at the hands of Jewish settlers as they tried to remove about 20 illegal outposts on West Bank hilltops.

The uniformed men and women came unarmed and with orders to show restraint. The settlers came ready for a fight on the advice of a leading settler rabbi who issued a religious ruling for soldiers and others to defy the outpost evacuation. At least a dozen police needed medical treatment.

Days later, liberal members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition Cabinet threatened to bolt the government unless the sizable subsidies given to settlers are redistributed to the needy in this tough economic climate. Mr. Sharon, however, stood his ground.

While politically motivated, the threat by the Labor Party ministers reflects the potency of the settler movement in the state's future and the state of the peace process.

The settlers, often portrayed as religious patriots, espouse a biblical claim to the West Bank territories populated by Palestinians. They have been and remain an obstacle to any peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict.

A recent Israeli poll showed that 78 percent of Israelis favored dismantling settlements as part of a peace agreement; a second survey of 500 conservative voters found that nearly half of those polled supported removing illegal outposts. But Israeli governments, conservative and liberal, routinely support the settlers in the face of U.S. and international condemnation.

In the recent clashes, the settlers repaid the present government's loyalty, however misplaced, with contempt for the rule of law and the soldiers who protect the vast network of fenced-in settler enclaves. Even Mr. Sharon, a staunch ally of the settlers, denounced the violence.

Israel can't afford this kind of internal strife when Palestinian militants are exploding cars alongside crowded public buses and dispatching suicide bombers to Israeli communities. A soldier's duty shouldn't be tested by his religious beliefs. And those who seek to do so compromise the well-being of the state and the future of its citizens.

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