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Legitimated Vigilantism as Settler Colonial Policy


George Bisharat is The Honorable Raymond L. Sullivan Professor of Law at UC Hastings Law School.

This post is part of the Law and Settler Colonialism in Palestine Symposium.

One hot June afternoon in 1982, when Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was a mere fifteen years old, I was sitting with a colleague and fellow human rights researcher on a rock wall surrounding an olive orchard, listening to Abu Munif, its Palestinian owner, describe an encounter with neighboring Jewish Israeli settlers. Six weeks before, the settlers had entered Abu Munif’s land near the Palestinian village of Silwad under cover of darkness and cut down twenty ancient olive trees and uprooted a greater number of grape vines, dealing a devastating blow to Abu Munif’s modest fortunes.

Several days later the settlers reappeared, armed with automatic weapons and a bulldozer, and began carving out what appeared to be a roadbed leading across Abu Munif’s property to the settlement. When Abu Munif and his teenage son tried to intervene, they were each attacked and beaten.

Complaints to the Israeli military authorities, who in those days directly ruled all parts of the West Bank, led to a temporary halt to the roadbuilding. But none of the settlers had been arrested–not for the damage to Abu Munif’s trees, vines, and land, and not for the assaults on Abu Munif and his son.

Members of the religious nationalist Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) had established a settlement named Ofra near Silwad in 1975. They started by camping in an abandoned army post but had been gradually seizing and building on farmland belonging to Silwad’s Palestinian residents. The settlers acted pursuant to no Israeli law nor authority, only to their belief that Jews were entitled by divine right to settle anywhere in the putative seat of the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Judea and Samaria. Apparently included in this divine entitlement was a right to violently repress any Palestinian who got in their way.

Abu Munif dangled a document in Hebrew before us that he had received the day before we arrived. None of us read Hebrew, but the police officer who had served the document had declared that it was an expropriation order from the Israeli military governor of the region (shortly after 1967 Israel established military governments in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, giving military governors unilateral executive and legislative powers over the two regions). 

We later discovered that the officer was right, so, in the end, the settlers gained their access road through Abu Munif’s orchard. I had, by then, returned to the United States and never learned of the specific legal pretext for the expropriation, but the military governor could choose from a buffet of options under pre-existing law (for example, eminent domain) or under his own military orders (closing areas for military use), against which Palestinian landowners had little effective legal recourse.

Nearly forty years and some 135 “illegal outposts” later, by the count of the Israeli organization Peace Now, it is clear that unauthorized seizures of Palestinian land by settlers, often advanced by campaigns of vandalism of Palestinian crops, dog attacks on Palestinians’ livestock, and armed attacks on Palestinian farmers, have been a feature, not a bug, of Israeli settler colonialism. 

Israel has retroactively legalized some of the outposts by redesignating them “neighborhoods” of officially authorized adjacent settlements, and a committee appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012 recommended that all outposts be treated similarly. Until that step is taken, however, the majority of outposts continue to receive Israeli security protection, connection to public utilities and other infrastructure, but still lack ultimate legal ordination.

Unauthorized Israeli outposts in the West Bank now exceed the 132 settlements officially sponsored by the Israeli state. By international standards, all Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate international law and may constitute war crimes under the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, whether authorized by Israeli officials or not.

The Pattern of Legitimated Vigilantism

The main features of Abu Munif’s encounter with the settlers of Ofra were visible in the lead up to Israel’s recent bombardment of the Gaza Strip: armed and organized religious nationalist Israeli Jews displacing Palestinians from their homes and properties, whether in East Jerusalem, Jaffa, or al-Lidd; private violence against Palestinians protesting their displacement; and official Israeli tolerance of, if not complicity in, settler vigilantism.  

The campaign to displace Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah quarter in East Jerusalem has been advanced over more than a decade by settler groups, apparently funded by private capital from abroad, including the United States. Thus, the social media world was treated to the spectacle of Israeli American settler Jacob Fauci blithely explaining to Palestinian Muna al-Kurd as he tries to take over her house in Sheikh Jarrah “If I don’t steal it, someone else is going to steal it.” Never mind whether stealing is legal or not under Israeli law.

As tensions mounted over an impending Israeli Supreme Court judgement regarding settler claims to Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, Israeli police employed typically heavy-handed tactics against Palestinian protesters. Contemporaneously, members of Lehava, the right-wing Israeli anti-miscegenation group, apparently provoked by young Palestinians having slapped a Haredi man and posting it to TikTok, rampaged through East Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs!” 105 Palestinians were injured, 22 of them sufficiently to be hospitalized. Deputy Vice Mayor Aryeh King screamed threats at protesting Palestinians, further demonstrating official encouragement of private violence against them.

A similar dynamic has been playing out within “mixed” towns and cities across Israel, led in recent years by Jewish religious nationalist youths of the Torah Nucleus movement. Some of the Palestinian neighborhoods in “mixed” Israeli cities, such as Haifa, are inhabited by those who managed to escape expulsion in 1948 to remain in their homes.  Others, such as al-Lidd, primarily house Palestinians who were internally displaced from their lands in 1948 and were relocated to marginal neighborhoods by Israeli military authorities.

Far from models of co-existence, areas of Palestinian concentration within Israel are disproportionately poor and underserved by government services, the targets of urban planning that aims to expand space for Jewish settlement and diminish space for Palestinian habitation. Tensions over efforts to Judaize Palestinian spaces within Israel have flared in the past, notably in the first Land Day in 1976, when Palestinians demonstrated against governmental seizures of land in the Galilee, meeting lethal violence at the hands of Israeli police. 

Private violence against Palestinians by Jewish settlers broke out in Akka in 2008, after a young Palestinian man inadvertently drove through a Jewish neighborhood blasting his car stereo on Yom Kippur, provoking an attack by Jewish residents that sparked further rioting.

In Ramle, al-Lidd, Akka, Haifa, and in towns stretching from the Naqab Desert in the south to the Lebanese border, Torah Nucleus settlers in the last fifteen years have been establishing yeshivas, synagogues, and residences with the explicit aim of breaking up areas of Palestinian Arab concentration and strengthening their Jewish character. This is the new horizon for the settler movement, apparently satisfied that it has secured Israel’s permanent control over the West Bank.

These religious nationalist neighborhoods and institutions were precisely the targets of Palestinian vandalism when intercommunal violence broke out in al-Lidd in May, soon spreading to other parts of the country. As in East Jerusalem, Israeli police officials seemed to welcome private Jewish violence against Palestinians, protesting the arrest of two Jewish suspects in the deadly shooting of Palestinian Moussa Hassouna. Prominent Jewish Israeli media commentators such as Yinon Magal also incited lethal violence against Palestinians. Right wing Israeli groups mobilized supporters from all over Israel via social media to converge in hot spots prepared for violence.

The Purpose of Legitimated Vigilantism

Is private violence simply an epiphenomenon in a settler colonial society like Israel – or does it, together with official indulgence of it, perhaps serve a more systemic function? This question must be considered in light of the two foundational challenges faced by every settler colonial society in history: 1) land acquisition sufficient for settlement, only feasible through violence; and 2) because the colonized never yielded willingly to displacement, repression of indigenous resistance.

Some indications are offered in the experiences of other settler colonies, such as Australia and the United States, and perhaps today the Amazon region of Brazil. Speaking of the United States, the late anthropologist Patrick Wolfe observed “Rather than something separate from or running counter to the colonial state, the murderous activities of the frontier rabble constitute its principal means of expansion.” 

Whether principal or not, as we have seen, religious nationalist settlers with their illegal West Bank outposts have more than doubled the number of Israeli settlements in that region overall. As Wolfe further noted, “the rabble” is unconstrained by legalities, and thus can prosecute colonial expansion in places and in ways that are more difficult for the state. 

A similar rationale may underlie Israel’s official tolerance of private violence in the repression of Palestinian resistance to displacement. In the recent violent outbreaks in al-Lidd, Israeli Public Security Minister Amir Ohana stated: “Law-abiding citizens carrying weapons are a force multiplier for the authorities for the immediate neutralization of threat and danger” (in Israel, private gun ownership is tightly regulated, and permits are rarely granted to Palestinians).

However, it may not only be the sheer numbers that settler vigilantes add to public security forces. As the family of Emmit Till or the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre would likely attest, there is a specific terror inflicted by mob violence, which can far exceed in sheer ferocity the mediated violence of officers of the law. 

From this angle the unleashing of settler mobs against Palestinians resembles a domestic version of Israel’s “Dahiya doctrine,” by which it sought to intimidate external Arab publics through overwhelming and literally crushing violence – but in a manner that affords the state some measure of deniability. Palestinians under various modes of Israeli domination are clearly on notice. But as the unprecedented mobilization of Palestinians worldwide this May has demonstrated, their agency and resistance will endure.