Why Israeli officials are suddenly labeling Jewish settler pogroms ‘terrorist’

Adrian Kreutz

Mondoweiss  /  June 28, 2023

The Israeli state sees violent Jewish settler mobs as challenging its monopoly over violence. This puts right-wing ministers like Itamar Ben-Gvir in a bind: settlers facilitate the Jewish settlement project, but the state wants to control it.

On our last day at Al-Haq’s International Law Program, my group of human rights lawyers and academics visited the village of Turmus Ayya, attacked by settlers only days before. At Turmus Ayya, the smell of burned earth was still vividly present in the hot June air. Besides the physical damages, the village was mourning the loss of Omar Qattain, a young man of 27 years. He was killed while defending his village northeast of Ramallah. This pogrom is one of a series of attacks since Huwwara in February, in which hundreds of settlers set the Palestinian town on fire. But why pogroms? Why now? And why did top officials in the Israeli army and security apparatus respond by labeling the pogroms unexpectedly as “terrorist attacks,” despite the symbiotic bond of settlements, violence, and the Israeli state and security apparatus? 

The “terrorist” label has a strategic purpose. For one, some events are so gruesome that they attract international media attention and condemnation. Huwwara was one such event. The center of international media attention, Israel is forced to react, through official channels, in one way or the other, while its human rights abuses and the brute violence of its citizens flicker on international iPhone screens and are printed in international newspapers. An attack that is so blatantly violent and conducted against an unarmed civilian population is very difficult to justify, even for the otherwise creative Israeli government, the Israeli military, the judiciary, and the security forces. 

Beyond the international attention, pogroms such as those that took place in Turmus Ayya force Jewish-Israeli society to squarely address an uncomfortable reality that is otherwise hidden from view through Apartheid walls and segregated roads. 

Most importantly, however, the “terrorist” label serves to maintain the authority of the army, the Shin Bet (Israel’s intelligence services), and the police. The monopolization of violence is every state’s principal role. The overspilling of civil violence must therefore be stopped — to prevent the diffusion of the centralization of violence and power in the hands of the military and security apparatus. To the outside world, the “terrorist” signals a condemnation of violence against Palestinian civilians, while inside the Israeli state and the military-security apparatus, the label signals a recapture of power gone astray. With the current far-right government, Israel might have reached its apex of power. Acknowledging any limitations of their power would be an unacceptable distraction to the government’s linear political ambitions. The idea is to contain the violence of settlers to avoid losing control.

In other words, the Israeli state and the military-security establishment want to be the sole arbiters of who is the target of violence, when they will be targeted, and how they will be targeted. It will tolerate non-state violence only to a limited degree since civil violence, even if tolerated, threatens the state itself. People like Moshe Hagar, the head of a military academy in the Beit Yati settlement, won’t face any consequences for calling for the destruction of Palestinian villages “to teach the Palestinians a lesson,” but post hoc condemnation and the presence of the army at each and every settler attack shows to the world and to Israeli Jews who is the real occupying power. 

Not everyone within the Israeli state structure, however, got that memo. Bezalel Smotrich, who serves both as Finance Minister and is responsible for civilian affairs in the occupied territory through his control of the Civil Administration, regarded any comparison between “Arab terror” and what he called the “civilian counter-operations” of the settlers as “wrong and dangerous.” Smotrich follows an outdated script. They don’t care so much about a strong monopoly on violence as the progression of the settlement project.

In its attempt to centralize violence, the Israeli state faces a problem. Unlike in 2002, when Operation Defensive Shield destroyed the Palestinian Authority through devastating urban invasions by the Israeli army, today, there is no Palestinian leadership or paramilitary group worth decimating. Israeli state violence misses a proper target for military operations. Civilians fill the gap. 

Unlike political targets, however, the international community watches comparatively closely how Israel treats the civilian population under its occupation. This puts Israel in a bind; on the one hand, it must centralize its violence, but it misses a target — hence, it tolerates settler attacks. 

On the other hand, Israel is being forced to condemn those attacks and to recapture the diffusions of power. It is this confusion that pushes people like Itamar Ben-Gvir, the National Security Minister, to establish his own private militia and deepen the Shin Bet’s powers over the lives of Palestinians. Like Smotrich, Ben-Gvir’s incentive seems to be opportunistically using repressive state power for the settlement project. That’s why the likes of Ben-Gvir are in a bind, too: it is settlers who facilitate the ongoing settlement project, but it is the state that wants to be in power. The settlement project must be state-administered to avoid eroding precious Israeli power structures from within.

Of course, any pushback like the “terrorist” label is bound to frustrate the settlers. Trust in the state mechanisms is waning. How is it possible that Israel, with all its power and supremacy, has still not erased Palestinian identity and the people from the land it occupies? It is the perceived lack of violence from the state against Palestinians that drives settler pogroms.

So why has the discourse of pogroms and terrorism only now gathered steam among the Israeli military-security establishment? It is because the Israeli state is trying to square the circle — to proceed in the Zionist project of perpetual Judaization of the occupied territory without a proper political target while struggling to recapture the monopoly of violence it temporarily abdicates to the prerogatives of frustrated and delusional settlers. The victim is, once again, the Palestinian civil population.

Adrian Kreutz is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Amsterdam