Seven months ago, during the early morning hours of May 30, Jewish settlers visiting Joseph's Tomb in Nablus in the Palestinian West Bank engaged in a shoving match with IDF soldiers deployed to protect them. Within minutes, the confrontation escalated; several soldiers were punched by Jewish worshippers and rocks rained down on the soldiers from settlers atop the tomb. A YouTube video of the incident was later circulated on the internet at the request of the IDF. The Nablus incident was among the first in a growing series of confrontations between settlers and the Israeli military -- and it sent shock waves through the Israeli military establishment. Brig. General Yoav Mordechai called the settlers "irresponsible lawbreakers" and pointed out that the IDF in the West Bank was deployed to protect settlers from "terrorists." His message was clear: the settler confrontation had placed the lives of his soldiers at risk.
Mordechai's statement must have brought wry smiles to Palestinian villagers near Nablus, whose olive groves have been burned and mosques desecrated by the same settlers who attacked the IDF detachment. But the Joseph's Tomb incident was only the beginning: throughout July and August, settlers from Yitzhar -- a hotbed of settler extremism -- forced a series of confrontations with the IDF until, in August, a stone-throwing incident pitting settlers against Palestinians threatened to get out of control, with the IDF pushing Palestinians away from the settlers in order to protect them from the violence -- and not the other way around. "It was an amazing scene," a Palestinian organizer who witnessed the incident said during a recent trip to Washington. "At one point, one of the IDF commanders turned to me and said, ‘why don't you do us a favor and just shoot these people?'"
The settler-on-IDF confrontations have increased over the last weeks, sending ripples of concern through the Israeli establishment. While no senior Israeli elected official has yet to suggest that the program of settlement expansion needs to be rethought, the viewpoint is the subject of sotto voce reflections throughout the Jewish state. After all, the unstated goal of the national settlement enterprise is to put obstacles in the way of Palestinian national claims -- not to seed a nascent and nasty internal conflict. Now, and particularly if the confrontations continue (or escalate), Israeli officials will have to ask themselves whether it is wise to continue a program that is providing the equivalent of a Palestinian fifth column. It's not as if the Palestinians haven't noticed. Asked about the recent settler-IDF dust-ups near Nablus, a serving Palestinian legislator waves away a question about whether or not Abu Mazen and company will return to the peace talks: "What we ought to do is sit back and watch," he says, "while Israel starts to unravel."
"I don't want to exaggerate, but it's time to call this what it is," a veteran IDF officer noted in a recent telephone conversation on the Nablus incident. "It might be news in America, but it's no secret in Israel. This is a very real crisis. What we have here is the birth of a state within a state. The birth of a kind of Jewish Hezbollah." This former officer went on to speculate that "what is emerging in the West Bank" is "a three-state solution: Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and, standing between them, a radical settler state." Yehuda Shaul, an organizer of Breaking The Silence -- a group of IDF soldiers committed to publicizing the reality of being an Israeli soldier in the West Bank -- is unwilling to go that far, though he confirms that the series of escalations between settlers and the IDF has roiled the Israeli military. "The IDF is in the West Bank to control tens of thousands of Palestinians," he notes, "but they're having the most trouble controlling the settlers. It's quite an irony."
Shaul, who served for 14 months as a sergeant of the Hebron Brigade during the Second Intifada, points out that the IDF is deployed in the West Bank "to protect the settlers, not the Palestinians. If the settlers attack the Palestinians that's not our problem." He adds, "that would be the job of the police." But, while noting the difference, Shaul sent along a YouTube video of IDF soldiers arguing with Israeli police officers over settler violence in Hebron. The IDF officer is requesting the police commander arrest a settler who has stolen farm implements from a Palestinian farmer. "You're a police officer," the young commander says, "you're a police officer. I can't touch them." The police officer cocks his head -- arrest a settler? He shrugs and looks away, taking no action. The IDF commander offers a last plea: "Listen we have to live with these people [the Palestinians] afterwards," the IDF commander says. When the police officer still refuses, the IDF commander walks away in disgust.
These kinds of incidents, untold dozens of them throughout the West Bank over the last year, reached a crescendo recently. Last Tuesday, a group of settlers invaded an IDF army base near Nablus armed with paint and nail guns while, at the same time, Jewish settlers occupied an IDF base in the Jordan Valley. The settlers threw stones at IDF soldiers and defaced IDF vehicles. The Israeli government reacted forcefully. Defense Minister Ehud Barak condemned "these rioters," calling them "criminal groups of extremists," while adding that "homegrown terror" would not be tolerated. Prime Minister Netanyahu sounded just as tough, saying that Jewish "rioters" would be subject to administrative detention -- while refusing to label them as "terrorists."
And on Friday, Barak appointed Brig. General Nitzan Alon as the new commander of the IDF's Central Command -- with oversight of the West Bank. Alon is the IDF's tough guy, and has had his own run-in with settlers. In July, a group of settlers confronted him at his home, denouncing him as a traitor and "Nazi" -- an apparent response to his condemnation of settler "price tag" operations against the IDF and Palestinians. Alon is undeterred: "When you burn a mosque or throw a fire bomb into a house it's an act of terror," he said, after being named head of the Central Command. "Our job goes beyond censure -- we have to deal with it."
Of course, the IDF's problems aren't restricted to the emerging settler-on-IDF civil conflict, as evidenced by the ongoing punitive nature of its engagement with the Palestinians of the West Bank. Even so, the engagement is taking its toll, as evidenced by the circulation of a July video of the shenanigans of a Hebron detachment dancing in a Palestinian street brought IDF commanders up short. As did a recent series of tweets from IDF soldiers following the death of 28-year-old Mustafa Tamimi, shot and killed when a tear gas canister was fired at him at close range.
The story of the IDF tweets was breaking, last week, just as I was attending Tamimi's funeral in Nabi Saleh: "What was Mustafa thinking running after a moving jeep while throwing stones #fail." The tweet, written by IDF Major Peter Lerner seemed to mock Tamimi's death and to suggest that he deserved what he got. This, despite the fact that there are strict IDF regulations against Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas directly at protesters. The Lerner tweet caused additional headaches for the already hard-pressed IDF, whose official spokesperson was quick to note that the message did not reflect Israeli thinking or official IDF policy. While Lerner later apologized ("I did not mean to hurt anyone's feelings by writing 'fail'," he said. "I felt the need to point out that none of the pictures of Tamimi prior to the incident were published despite the fact that he was throwing stones"), the message inflamed an already volatile situation in the West Bank. Then too, Lerner's apology hardly seemed that -- for if IDF officers believe that Palestinians deserve to die for throwing stones, then the IDF has bigger problems than an increasingly radical settler population.
For Israel, then, the emerging problems in the West Bank provide a dual challenge: to dampen settler radicalism at the same time that they ensure continued IDF discipline. On the one hand, Israeli leaders are hoping that a new, tougher line against the settlers will serve to dampen the burgeoning crisis -- which will take pressure off the soldiers of the Kfir Brigade, established and trained as an "elite" unit for West Bank service. But a number of IDF officers doubt that simply issuing threats and naming a new West Bank commander will do much to address the problem and many expect the situation to get worse. Recently, the IDF warned its commanders that they could expect "live fire" from settlers opposing the dismantling of outposts near Nablus and on Wednesday, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger warned of an incipient civil war pitting settlers against the IDF. "Damaging IDF property is a horrible defamation of God. Nothing justifies such a violent act, especially when it is directed at the IDF and its soldiers, who sacrifice their lives to protect the people of this country." But Israel's religious establishment is hardly united. The Chief Rabbi for Samaria blamed the government for provoking settlement violence. "This is violence and this is violence," he said. "There is violence against Jews on the part of those young extremists who run wild, and there is violence of the Israeli government against peaceful and quiet settlers."
The traded barbs have drawn the line in Israel, between a government that has traditionally supported settlements as a political project -- and those who see settlements as a redemptive religious calling. Increasingly, the IDF has found itself caught in the middle of this conflict, with IDF soldiers told that their time in the West Bank will be spent protecting Israelis. Given the anti-IDF current among large numbers of settlers, and the most recent attacks against Israeli soldiers by "criminal groups of extremists," that will, now, almost certainly change. Even so, the current incipient conflict is markedly different than the one the IDF trained for just a generation ago. "My parents and their parents lived in a country threatened by Egypt and Syria," Yehuda Shaul notes, "but this conflict is quite different. It's definitely not what we're trained to do." But Shaul adds this caveat: "I think one of the worst things we do is blame the settlers," he says. "That's the easy way out. The settlements are there because our government thought it was a good idea. So. Was it?"
Mark Perry is the author of eight books, including the recently released Talking To Terrorists (Basic Books, 2010). He recently returned from a visit to the West Bank.