Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Israel Became A Gangster State When Its Lawbreakers Became Its Lawmakers

NYTimes  |  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 for Israel’s future as a democracy: Jewish terrorism and violence, and the failure to enforce the law against it.

Our yearslong investigation reveals how violent factions within the Israeli settler movement, protected and sometimes abetted by the government, have come to pose a grave threat to Palestinians in the occupied territories and to the State of Israel itself. Piecing together new documents, videos and over 100 interviews, we found a government shaken by an internal war — burying reports it commissioned, neutering investigations it assigned and silencing whistle-blowers, some of them senior officials.
It is a blunt 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.

Lawbreakers Become Lawmakers
Officials told us that once fringe, sometimes criminal groups of settlers bent on pursuing a theocratic state have been allowed for decades to operate with few restraints. 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.

The lawbreakers have become the law.
Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister and the official in Netanyahu’s government with oversight over the West Bank, was arrested in 2005 by the Shin Bet domestic security service for plotting road blockages to halt the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He was released with no charges. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, had been convicted multiple times for supporting terrorist organizations and, in front of television cameras in 1995, vaguely threatened the life of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered weeks later by an Israeli student.

Settler Violence Protected, and Abetted
All West Bank settlers are in theory 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 territory within the state’s borders. This means that Shin Bet might probe two similar acts of terrorism in the West Bank — one committed by Jewish settlers and one committed by Palestinians — and use wholly different investigative tools.

After the Arab-​Israeli War of 1967, Israel controlled new territory in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. In 1979, it agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.

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

Jews involved in terror attacks against Arabs over the past decades have received substantial leniency, which has included reductions in prison time, anemic investigations and pardons. Most incidents of settler violence — torching vehicles, cutting down olive groves — 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 outset, and even its successes have sometimes been undermined by judges and politicians sympathetic to the settler cause.


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