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Israeli settler terrorism isn't new. It is foundational to the Zionist project

Despite liberal Zionist condemnations of recent Israeli settler violence against Palestinians, the crimes committed by prior generations are more horrific and larger in scale
A man stands inside a restaurant set on fire by Israeli settlers in Turmus Ayya near the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, on 21 June 2023 (AFP)

Reports of pogroms and attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank have increased in recent months, leading the spokesman for the Israeli occupation army to describe the phenomenon as "nationalist terror".

The head of Israel's Shin Bet secret police further warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week that "Jewish terrorism" was spurring Palestinians to retaliate against their colonisers. Even the US government, whose support for Jewish colonisation is legendary, went as far as calling settler attacks "terrorism".

While the ultra-Zionist New York Times merely mentioned the colonial settlers' alleged "revenge attacks" or "violence" against the Palestinian people for daring to resist their colonisers, a dozen US-based Jewish organisations have expressed horror and condemned the settlers' anti-Palestinian pogroms.

A few days ago, as the Israeli government was taking measures to prop up the Palestinian Authority (PA) so that the PA could continue its repressive campaign to suppress Palestinian resistance to Israeli settler colonisation, the PA itself was busy auctioning off to the West Bank Palestinian business class vanity licence plates priced as high as $250,000.

Meanwhile, and apparently of little concern to the PA, an Israeli settler ran over a four-year-old Palestinian boy with his car in Tel Rumeida near al-Khalil (Hebron), in a hit-and-run attack. Two days later, another settler ran over another four-year-old Palestinian boy in Kisan, a village east of Bethlehem.

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This is part of the decades-long terrorist attacks by Israeli settler colonists in the West Bank and Gaza, which the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz described as nothing short of "KKK-style" racist violence.

But are the crimes perpetrated by Israeli settlers particularly crueller and more violent today than they have been since 1967, let alone those carried out before the establishment of Israel?

Targeting children

While it is true that Israeli settler terrorism against the Palestinians, especially the settlers' targeting of Palestinian children, has increased in leaps and bounds in 2023, it is hardly a new phenomenon.

In fact, this particular brand of violence dates back to the early days of post-1967 colonisation, especially from the second half of the 1970s onwards. For example, one of the major terrorist settler groups, which attacked and killed Palestinians in the mid-1970s, called itself TnT, or "Terror Against Terror" in Hebrew. It was associated with the racist American Rabbi Meir Kahane and comprised mostly American Jewish colonists.

Hit-and-run attacks on Palestinians, targeting children especially, have been an important feature of Israeli settler terrorism

Another fanatical settler group was Gush Emunim, or "Block of the Faithful", which attacked Palestinians in the same period. Gush Emunim specialised in car bombings and assassinations. Other settler terrorist groups include "Egrof Magen" and "The Revolt" - the latter specialising in attacking Palestinian Christians and their churches. And so-called "price tag" attacks on Palestinians, which aim to "exact a price" on Palestinians for resisting colonisation of their lands, became more predominant in the new millennium.

Palestinian children were never spared the violence of Israeli terrorism. Indeed, in 1979, Israeli settlers from the colony of Kiryat Arba came to help the Israeli army in repressing Palestinians, and in the process killed two Palestinian boys.

Hit-and-run attacks on Palestinians, targeting children especially, have also been an important feature of Israeli settler terrorism. In September 2011, a settler ran over an eight-year-old Palestinian boy in al-Khalil (Hebron). To take a random period in 2014 alone, as a United Nations document reveals, we find that "on 25 September, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl was hit by an Israeli settler in Silwan; on 17 August, a Palestinian man was killed after being hit by the car of an Israeli settler in occupied East Jerusalem; on 14 August, a Palestinian man was hit by the car of an Israeli settler; and on 7 August, a settler hit and ran over an 8-year-old Palestinian girl in the southern West Bank".

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According to UNICEF, settlers injured 18 children (13 boys, five girls) in 2012, while the Israeli military injured 21 children in settler-related incidents.

In 2015, settlers in the West Bank burned an 18-month-old Palestinian toddler to death when they set his family's home ablaze in Duma. In 2016, an Israeli settler ran over a six-year-old Palestinian girl in the village of al-Khader, killing her. Another 65-year-old settler deliberately ran over a Palestinian girl in June 2017 and killed her, while another settler ran over another eight-year-old girl in August, also killing her.

A settler killed a seven-year-old boy in 2019 when he ran him over in al-Khalil (Hebron). In 2020, an Israeli settler rammed his car into a Palestinian child near Salfit and fled the scene.

In 2021, a three-year-old Palestinian boy and his six-year-old brother were severely injured when settlers attacked their family’s car near Ramallah. In 2022, a settler ran over a nine-year-old Palestinian child and fled the scene. In January 2023, a settler ran over a seven-year-old Palestinian girl near Qalqilya.

This is aside from the uprooting of thousands of trees on Palestinian land - a specialty of both the Israeli settlers and the Israeli army, especially since 1967.

'Pioneer terrorists'

As some of the more recent attacks have received their share of condemnation in certain liberal quarters of the western and Israeli press, there seems to be a measure of liberal Zionist and pro-Israel bias and unfairness in judging the terrorism of these contemporary settlers more harshly, when, in fact, their Zionist predecessors in the 1930s and 1940s committed far more horrific crimes than they have. Yet the latter continue to be celebrated by liberal Zionism.  

Indeed, even the hallmark hit-and-run settler attacks targeting Palestinian children are no more than copycat tactics that current settlers learned from innovative Zionist pioneer terrorists.

In the Spring of 1935, official British reports of the cruelty of "Jewish chauffeurs passing through Arab villages" began to surface. One British official reported an eyewitness account of a Brit who saw a "Jewish chauffeur kill an Arab child and after pushing the body out of the way, drive on before anyone could stop him". There were "several accounts of such incidents".

British officers inspect Haganah attack
A photo released on 10 January 1948 shows British police investigating a Haganah attack against a Palestinian Bedouin community in the Arab as-Sawahra neighbourhood of Jerusalem (AFP)

The uprooting of trees planted by Palestinians is also one of the oldest Zionist settler traditions in Palestine. When, in 1908, settlers found out that a forest they wanted to dedicate to the memory of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was planted by Palestinians, they uprooted all the saplings and replanted them, so that it would be said Jews had planted the trees.

When Zionist colonial settlers began to attack Palestinian civilians in the 1930s and 1940s, Palestinian children were included among the victims. The blowing up of Palestinian cafes with grenades (such as one which occurred in Jerusalem on 17 March 1937) and placing electrically timed mines in crowded marketplaces (first used against Palestinians in Haifa on 6 July 1938) are a few examples of those notorious crimes.

While these may resemble some of the attacks by contemporary Israeli settlers, the latter never committed massacres on the scale of the previous generations of colonial settlers. The Haganah, a group of Zionist settler militias that would serve as the pre-Israel Zionist paramilitary arm, for example, blew up the Patria ship docked in Haifa in November 1940, killing 260 Jewish refugees and a number of British police personnel.

In the 1940s, colonial settlers assassinated British government officials; took British citizens hostages; blew up government offices and hotels, killing employees and civilians; blew up the British embassy in Rome in 1946; flogged and killed captured British soldiers; and sent letter bombs and parcel bombs to British politicians in London, among others.

king david hotel
A picture taken on 22 July 1946 shows the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the headquarters of the British Mandate government, after a bombing attack by members of Irgun, a Zionist militant group (AFP)

Menachem Begin, a leader of the Revisionist Irgun terrorists who would later become the prime minister of Israel, was the mastermind behind a number of these attacks. Following his group's massacre of more than a hundred Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948, his name had become synonymous with terrorism.

Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt, among others, described Begin's group as not only "a terrorist right-wing, chauvinist organisation", but "closely akin to…the Nazi and fascist parties". Yet the official settler militia, the Haganah, committed far worse massacres during the period, which seemed to merit little condemnation then or now from liberal Zionists.

In December 1947, one of the first attacks by the Haganah - which would become typical in this period - targeted the Palestinian village of Khisas in the Galilee, killing four Palestinian civilians and four Palestinian children. This proved to be a small number compared to the subsequent mass murders awaiting the Palestinian people.

In the village of Al-Dawayimah, for example, the Haganah committed a massacre in October 1948, killing more than 100 Palestinians. The murderous terrorist war against the Palestinians in 1948 also included raping and killing scores of Palestinian women.

Milder cruelty

Nothing the contemporary Israeli settlers have committed since they declared their war on the Palestinian people five decades ago comes close to these figures, let alone the level of barbarism that Zionist settlers committed in the 1930s and 40s.

Nothing the contemporary Israeli settlers have committed comes close to the barbarism of their predecessors

The only exception is the 1994 massacre of the al-Ibrahimi Mosque committed by Benny (aka "Baruch") Goldstein, an American-born Israeli settler who killed 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers inside the mosque. But his massacre pales in comparison with the many anti-Palestinian murderous campaigns launched by the Israeli army after 1948 - from the massacres at Qibya; Gaza; Khan Yunis; and Kafr Qasim in the early to mid-1950s onwards.

This is not to downplay the present-day horrors being visited on Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but rather to expose the history of Zionist terrorism against the Palestinian people since the inception of the Zionist project.

Indeed, today's Israeli settler-terrorists are a milder version of their predecessors, even though they continue the very same colonial tradition for which they are being unfairly judged by defenders of past Zionist terrorism, including by Israel's top generals.

Colonial settlers in pre-1967 Palestine are known in Hebrew by the term "mityashvim", literally "settlers", while the post-1967 colonists call themselves "mitnachlim", or inheritors of the fathers who had bequeathed to them the land of Palestine as legacy, and to which they refer as "nachalat avot".

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Much as liberal Zionists, however, want to draw a major distinction between the two sets of colonial settlers, for the Palestinian people, the colonial cruelty of both groups and their terrorism are indistinguishable, except perhaps insofar as the contemporary Israeli settlers, popular liberal Zionist opinion aside, seem to be much less cruel, at least until now.

What we see today is ultimately nothing more than a milder version of how Zionist colonists stole the homeland of the Palestinians.

Those Zionists and pro-Israel liberals in the west who find the current settler terrorists unpalatable should check Zionism's atrocities-filled history before passing their unfair moral judgment.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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