​Findings from the Times investigation into settler violence and impunity in Israel

For decades, most Israelis have considered Palestinian terrorism the country’s biggest security concern. But there is another threat that may be even more destabilizing to Israel’s future as a democracy: Jewish terrorism and violence, and the lack of law enforcement against them.

Our years-long investigation reveals how violent factions within the Israeli settler movement, protected and sometimes instigated by the government, have come to represent a serious threat to the Palestinians in the occupied territories and to the State of Israel itself. Assembling new documents, videos, and more than 100 interviews, we find a government shaken by an internal war: burying reports it commissioned, neutralizing investigations it assigned, and silencing whistleblowers, some of them senior officials.

It is a compelling account, told in some cases for the first time by Israeli officials, of how the occupation came to threaten the integrity of the country’s democracy.

Officials told us that once marginal and sometimes criminal settler groups bent on pursuing a theocratic state have been allowed to operate for decades with few restrictions. Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government came to power in 2022, elements of that faction have taken power, driving the country’s policies, including in the war in Gaza.

Lawbreakers have become the law.

Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Minister and an official in Netanyahu’s government charged with overseeing the West Bank, was arrested in 2005 by the Shin Bet internal security service for planning road blockades to stop the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He was released without charge. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, had been convicted several times of supporting terrorists. organizations and, in front of television cameras in 1995, vaguely threatened the life of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated weeks later by an Israeli student.

In theory, all West Bank settlers are subject to the same military law that applies to Palestinian residents. But in practice, they are treated according to the civil law of the State of Israel, which formally applies only to the territory within the state’s borders. This means that Shin Bet You could investigate two similar terrorist acts in the West Bank (one committed by Jewish settlers and one committed by Palestinians) and use completely different investigative tools.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel controlled new territories in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. In 1979 he agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.Credit…The New York Times

The task of investigating Jewish terrorism falls to a division of the Shin Bet commonly known as the Jewish Department. But it is dwarfed in both size and prestige by the Arab Department, the division primarily charged with combating Palestinian terrorism.

Jews involved in terrorist attacks against Arabs over the past few decades have received substantial leniency, including prison sentence reductions, anemic investigations, and pardons. Most incidents of settler violence (vehicle burning, olive grove cutting) fall under the jurisdiction of the police, who tend to ignore them. When the Jewish Department investigates more serious terrorist threats, it is often stymied from the start, and even its successes have sometimes been undermined by judges and politicians sympathetic to the settlers’ cause.

The situation between two levels has only gotten worse over the past year. We examine a sample of three dozen cases that have occurred in the West Bank since October 7 that show how much the legal system has deteriorated. In cases ranging from livestock theft to arson and violent assault, no suspect was charged with any crime; In one case, a settler shot a Palestinian in the stomach while an Israel Defense Forces soldier looked on, but the police questioned the shooter for only 20 minutes and never as a suspect in a crime.

Ami Ayalon, director of the Shin Bet in the late 1990s, told us that government leaders “instruct the Shin Bet that if they kill a Jew, that is terrible. “If they kill an Arab, that is not good, but it is not the end of the world.”

But Jews have also been targets of ultranationalists. Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated after rabbis handed down what amounted to a death sentence for his support of the Oslo peace process.

In 1981, after a group of teachers in Jerusalem expressed concern about possible collusion between settlers and authorities and illegal “private police activity” against Palestinians in the occupied territories, Judith Karp, then attorney general, was asked Israel’s deputy for special tasks, to lead a committee to investigate the topic. Their report found case after case of break-ins, extortion, assault and murder, even when military authorities and police did nothing or conducted fictitious investigations that led nowhere.

The then Minister of the Interior responded to his report with a reprimand. “I understood that he wanted us to leave him,” Karp told us.

Another report, two decades later, suffered a similar fate. Talia Sasson, who was asked to write a legal opinion on “unauthorized outposts,” found that in a span of just over three years, the Ministry of Construction and Housing had issued dozens of illegal contracts in the West Bank. In some cases, the ministry even paid for their construction.

Sasson and his Justice Ministry colleagues described as “completely insane” the separate laws under which they saw the West Bank being administered.

The report had little impact, powerless against the existing machinery to expand settlements.

In the West Bank, a new generation of ultranationalists has taken an even more radical turn against the very notion of a democratic Israeli state. Their goal is to overthrow Israel’s institutions and establish a “Jewish government”: anoint a king, build a temple in place of the Jerusalem mosques sacred to Muslims around the world, impose a religious regime on all Jews.

It was always clear, Lior Akerman, a former Shin Bet official, told us, “that these savage groups would go from intimidating Arabs to damaging property and trees and eventually murdering people.”

Last October, according to a classified document we saw, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox, head of Israel’s Central Command responsible for the West Bank, wrote a letter to his boss, Israel’s military chief of staff, saying that the rise of terrorism and violence Jews carried out in revenge for the October 7 attacks “could set the West Bank on fire.”

Another document describes a meeting in March, when Fox wrote that since Smotrich took office, the effort to crack down on illegal settlement construction has diminished “to the point of having disappeared.”

Gaza has refocused the world’s attention on Israel’s long-standing inability to address the issue of Palestinian autonomy. But it is in the West Bank, in the hands of emboldened settlers, some of whom are now in power, where the corrosive effects of the occupation on both Palestinians and Israel’s rule of law are most evident.

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