Israeli minister dismisses US ‘terror’ label after deadly Jewish settler attack

Al-Jazeera  /  August 8, 2023

Avi Dichter brushes off the US use of the term ‘terror attack’ to describe the killing of a Palestinian by Jewish settlers.

A member of Israel’s far-right government has dismissed the United States’ description of the killing of a Palestinian in an attack by settlers as a “terror attack”.

“I wouldn’t advise treating the US definition as a precise professional definition. At the end of the day, they are not drawing on intelligence, but on media reports,” Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter was quoted by local media outlets as saying on Tuesday.

“Everything gets poured into media reports – things that are correct, things that are wrong, tendentious and other things. In the end of the day, what is important as far as we are concerned is what happened there,” Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, told Israel’s Army Radio.

Qusai Jamal Maatan, 19, was shot dead in Burqa east of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Friday, as armed settlers stormed the village and sparked fighting with residents.

“We strongly condemn yesterday’s terror attack by Israeli extremist settlers that killed a 19-year old Palestinian,” the US State Department said in a statement late on Saturday, urging “full accountability and justice”.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller made clear on Monday that the word choice was not an accident.

“The thinking is that it was a terror attack, and we are concerned about it, and that’s why we called it that,” he told reporters.

“We have also been clear that accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigour in all cases of violent extremism, whoever the perpetrators are,” he said.

Miller noted that Israel detained two settlers, which he called “appropriate action”.

However, the Jerusalem District Court ruled on Tuesday that the suspects should be freed pending possible prosecution.

The court ruled that one should be released to house arrest, while the other will be kept in hospital, where he is being treated for a head wound.

Israeli media reported that one of two suspects was a former aide to a lawmaker from the far-right Jewish Power party, whose leader Itamar Ben-Gvir is public security minister. Ben-Gvir, widely regarded as a provocateur, has previously called for the displacement of Palestinians.

According to Palestinians, the settlers were part of a group that threw rocks, torched cars and, when confronted by villagers, shot Maatan and wounded several others.

Initial findings by Israel’s military cast the incident as a confrontation that escalated. A defence lawyer said the settlers acted in self-defence.

In its arraignment, a transcript of which was obtained by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the state accused the settlers of “deliberate or depraved-indifference homicide” with a racist motivation.

Ben-Gvir said on social media that Palestinian stone throwers in Burqa “tried to murder Jews” and that he expected them to be fully investigated.

Spike in violence

Settler attacks against Palestinians and their property are a regular occurrence. From physical attacks to arson and vandalism, many of these incidents often take place under the protection of or in coordination with the Israeli army.

Between 600,000 and 750,000 Jewish settlers live in more than 250 illegal Jewish settlements and outposts across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are illegal under international law.

Fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank intensified early last year when Israel launched near-nightly raids into Palestinian areas.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed this year in the occupied Palestinian territories and the besieged Gaza Strip, with the majority of these fatalities recorded in the West Bank.

The figures indicate that 2023 is already the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the United Nations began keeping track of fatalities in 2005.

The UN has warned of a dramatic spike in violence since Israel’s right-wing government took office late last year in a coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly criticized actions and statements from the coalition government while stopping short of countermeasures that could trigger public spats with Netanyahu.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians want the territory as part of a future state. US-mediated negotiations with Israel to that end stalled almost a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has once again refused to allocate funds to Palestinians.

On Tuesday, Smotrich said Netanyahu supported his decision to freeze funds that are meant to be allocated to Palestinian municipalities and educational programs in occupied East Jerusalem.

The funds amount to 200 million shekels ($53.7m).

On Sunday, Interior Minister Moshe Arbel demanded the release of 315 million shekels ($84.6m) that had previously been promised to Palestinian municipalities as part of development programs, Haaretz reported.

The government’s current budget solidifies the ruling coalition’s religious and pro-settlement policies.

Tens of millions of dollars have already been set aside for extreme pro-settler parties as well as settlement expansion projects.

In remarks to local media, Smotrich said: “I refuse to fund incitement and terrorism.”