Can’t or won’t? IDF fails to prevent settler attacks, and that’s unlikely to change

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There is a saying in the Israeli military: “It’s not that you can’t, it’s that you won’t.” This has apparently been the case during a recent string of attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank, with the Israel Defense Forces largely failing to prevent the rampages and riots.

In recent years, there have been numerous documented cases of IDF soldiers standing by as settlers attacked Palestinians. In other cases, such as in recent days, IDF soldiers have not been present at all, only arriving after the fact and then clashing with the local Palestinian population.

Soldiers are legally permitted — even required in some cases — to intervene to prevent violent attacks, regardless of nationality. The military generally prefers for police to deal with the attacks and settler arrests, but police forces are stretched extremely thin in the West Bank.

The IDF has admitted to having “failed” in stopping the latest settler riots, and in a joint statement Saturday night, military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said they would divert more forces to combat what they branded “nationalist terrorism in the full sense of the term.”

In the wake of a deadly shooting attack near the settlement of Eli on Tuesday, hundreds of settlers rampaged for several days inside Palestinian towns and villages, setting fire to homes, cars, and opening fire in some cases. One Palestinian was killed Wednesday in unclear circumstances.

The IDF has said troops and Border Police officers have been dispatched to the scenes to defuse the “violent frictions” between settlers and Palestinians, but Palestinians complain that riot control measures are only used against them rather than against the Israeli assailants.

Palestinians walk past a burnt car, which was set on fire by Israeli settlers the day before, in Turmus Ayya near the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 22, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

An army general in reserves, formerly in charge of Israeli forces in the West Bank, told The Times of Israel that the reason for the army’s failure to prevent the settler attacks was mainly a lack of motivation, rather than a potential issue of limited personnel.

“The IDF’s problem isn’t that it can’t, it’s that it doesn’t want to deal with it,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said he was “disappointed” by the army’s inadequate response to the settler attacks.

There are soldiers serving in the West Bank who themselves live in nearby settlements, which according to military officials makes it even more difficult for troops to deal with violent settlers. Some soldiers are friends with the settlers carrying out attacks, and at times, off-duty soldiers participate in the attacks as well, complicating matters further.

Dvir Kariv, who served as an agent in the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division from 1994 to 2012, argues that soldiers who both live and serve in the West Bank should still be able to deal with violent settlers.

“The army has clear procedures, and soldiers carry those out. Generally speaking, the army has tight control over its soldiers, and they do what they are told,” he said in a call with The Times of Israel.

He said there have been rare cases of IDF soldiers who, while off duty, actively participated in attacks on Palestinians, such as this week, and other cases where soldiers serving in the West Bank briefed settler extremists on military activities in order to enable attacks on Palestinians to be carried out.

A screenshot from video of settlers firing at the West Bank village of Umm Safa on June 24, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

IDF officers, meanwhile, are believed to be concerned about their army careers and do not want to be the ones to change the unspoken policy of not using the same rules of engagement against Israeli assailants as used against Palestinians.

The senior officer said the settler attacks “need to be defined as terror, and the open-fire procedures need to be updated,” but noted that it would be near-impossible for that to happen. “The soldiers aren’t built for this.”

The lack of motivation within the IDF to deal with settler violence also affects the response time in reaching Palestinian towns that are under attack.

In the West Bank, the IDF is preoccupied with thwarting Palestinian terror and guarding Israeli settlements. IDF troops are generally not stationed outside Palestinian towns and villages to protect them from violent Israelis.

Once a group of settlers enters a town, as seen in recent days, it often takes some time for Israeli forces to arrive. By then, settlers usually flee, and troops end up clashing with the local Palestinian population instead.

The army does not lack intelligence on planned settler attacks on Palestinians, former military and Shin Bet officials said, but they noted the issue of spontaneous and large-scale rioting.

“Four Israelis were murdered, there were funerals, people were in a fit of anger, and when people are in a fit, they respond with anger. It’s not about whether the Shin Bet has information or not. Hundreds of people leaving their homes [to carry out an attack] isn’t intelligence information, it’s the general atmosphere,” Kariv said.

Border Police officers stop Israeli settlers from entering the Palestinian West Bank town of Turmus Ayya,, June 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Kariv said the main solution to preventing the settler attacks in the first place is if community leaders and officials condemn such incidents and call for calm, lowering the heightened tensions following a deadly Palestinian attack on Israelis.

“If [Finance Minister] Betzalel Smotrich or [National Security Minister] Itamar Ben Gvir would have said immediately after the funerals or after the murders, not to take the law into one’s hands… it would have calmed the atmosphere,” he said. “But in practice, not only did they not condemn, they endorsed it.”

In a veiled reference to the right-wing lawmakers, the joint statement by the defense chiefs also noted: “We also call on the leaders in the settlements, educators and public leaders, to publicly denounce these acts of violence, and to join the fight against them.”

The IDF said Sunday it was deploying additional forces to the West Bank to foil any further potential settler attacks on Palestinians.

But some are cautiously pessimistic about the deployment, saying it would be unlikely to have the desired effect.

Kariv said the attacks on Palestinians would stop only stop after far-right coalition members begin to condemn the violent settlers, “or someone dies.”

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