For the first time, the US State Department has included violence by Jewish settlers on a list of "terrorist incidents". Given that America is hardly known for criticising attacks on Palestinian individuals or property, this has been reported as a significant move, and indicates concern that settler violence is acting as a major obstacle to peace.
The Country Reports on Terrorism 2011 said: "Attacks by extremist Israeli settlers against Palestinian residents, property and places of worship in the West Bank continued." It listed several incidents, including an attack on a Jerusalem mosque, which was torched and sprayed with graffiti such as, "A good Arab is a dead Arab", and the desecration of four Muslim graves in Ma'man Allah Cemetery, also in Jerusalem. In addition to attacks on 10 mosques in the occupied West Bank and one in an Israeli-Arab town, the list included attacks on Israeli military personnel and a base.
The timing of this announcement is particularly prescient. Last week, a Palestinian taxi near Bethlehem was firebombed. Six people were injured, including four-year-old twins. The attack has been blamed on settlers, with military sources confirming that "Israeli civilians were responsible". The State Department in Washington condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms", urging Israel to bring the perpetrators to justice and for "all parties to avoid any actions that could lead to an escalation of violence". Israeli politicians condemned the attack too; Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a "very serious incident", while the minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Ya'alon, described it as "a terrorist attack". But at the time of writing this article, no arrests had been made.
And that is the key point about classifying these attacks as "terrorist incidents". It may be gratifying to hear extremist settler violence being condemned in these terms – particularly when Israeli violence tends to be framed as a response to Palestinian violence – but will it make any difference in practice? At the moment, it does not look like it will. This may be the first time the US has included Israeli settlers on its list of terrorist incidents, but Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned of the dangers of "home-grown terrorism" from settlers back in December 2011. He was referring to attacks on soldiers by radical settlers, rather than attacks on Palestinians, but the point remains that little punitive action has been taken against the perpetrators in the interim period.
The UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs reported last year that attacks by settlers causing casualties or damage increased by 144 per cent between 2009 and 2011. The report said:
"Violence by Israeli settlers undermines the physical security and livelihoods of Palestinians living under Israel's prolonged military occupation. This violence includes physical assaults, harassment, takeover of and damage to private property, obstructed access to grazing and agricultural land, and attacks on livestock and agricultural land, among others."
Last year, three Palestinians were killed by settlers and 183 injured, and around 10,000 trees were damaged or destroyed. Such attacks on property usually reach their peak during the autumn olive harvesting season. And those statistics do not show the daily harassment doled out by settlers to their Palestinian neighbours. Perhaps most dishearteningly, more than 90 per cent of complaints filed with Israeli police were closed without charges being brought.
Friday's firebombing was followed by a separate incident in Jerusalem, in which a 17 year old Palestinian boy, Jamal Julani, was beaten severely by dozens of Jewish teenagers. According to witnesses, the youths (not believed to be settlers) were looking for Arabs to attack. Julani remains in intensive care, and several arrests have been made. Ya'alon linked the incident to the firebombing, condemning "the hate crimes committed over the weekend" and adding that "these are terrorist attacks". There is that word again, but will it make a difference, in terms of harsher sentencing or serious action to show that a culture of violence against the Arab minority will not be tolerated? On the basis of past experience, it seems unlikely.
The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has collected a substantial body of video evidence which shows Israeli security forces failing to take action to stop settler violence, even when they are present at the scene of the crime. There can be no doubt that the knowledge that laws will not be properly enforced encourages violence against Arabs, as Sarit Michaeli of B'Tselem told the Guardian: "The Israelis have been calling settler violence 'terrorism' for a while now, but that in itself is not a guarantee that they will fulfil their obligations [as the occupying power] to protect Palestinians."
Unless the Israeli authorities begin to implement their own laws and take action against settlers, this violence will continue with impunity. Given that this contingent of violent, radical settlers shows little deference even to the Israeli army or state, it is surely in the country's own interest to clampdown on the attacks. It is a moral aberration that it has not already done so. Until words are translated into action, it is irrelevant whether the US and Israel classify settler violence as terrorism or not.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.