There is every reason to believe that Israeli leaders are earnest in condemning the terrorist attack on the West Bank town of Duma, where Jewish settlers appear to have set a Palestinian home on fire while the family was still inside. Most of the family escaped, but one member did not: their 18-month-old infant son, Ali Saad Dawabsheh, who was burned alive.
"I am shocked by this terrible criminal act," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "This is a terror attack. Israel deals harshly with terrorism, no matter who the perpetrators are."
Naftali Bennett, a right-wing pro-settler political leader, called it a "disgusting act of terror." The West Bank settler council condemned the attack as well, promising full cooperation with the Israeli military's effort to find the perpetrators.
It is good that Israeli leaders have condemned the attack so categorically. But they have also worked for years to maintain and deepen Israel's occupation of the West Bank, knowing full well that extremist violence against innocent Palestinians has been and would continue to be not just a consequence of that occupation, but a fixture of it.
Israel's occupation of the West Bank empowers and abets settler extremists, who have been increasingly violent for years. While it is clear that Israeli leaders sincerely abhor this attack, they bear responsibility for it. And as long as they continue the occupation of the West Bank, they will bear responsibility for the next attack as well. Indeed, it has happened many times before. Extremist settlers have set fire to nine Palestinian homes in the past three years alone.
By perpetuating the occupation, Israeli leaders are creating and maintaining an environment where extremist settler violence thrives.
The causal chain of events is not difficult to see.
Israel's occupation of the West Bank inevitably empowers and abets a movement of extremist Jewish settlers.
This movement of extremist Jewish settlers inevitably promotes vigilante violence against Palestinians.
This vigilante violence against Palestinians inevitably results in terrorism such as the murder of Ali Dawabsheh.
The line connecting Israel's occupation of the West Bank to extremist settler violence against Palestinians could not be clearer. By its very nature, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank deliberately and systematically privileges the rights of settlers over those of Palestinians, even using different justice systems. And that is when Israeli occupation authorities bother applying justice at all. According to one recent study, only 7.6 percent of Palestinian complaints about settler violence lead to indictments, and only 33 percent of legal proceedings lead to a conviction.
The occupation has abetted the disturbing rise of settler violence; according to one UN report, the number of settler attacks on Palestinians more than doubled between 2009 and 2011. The forward-most outposts of the occupation naturally attract hardcore ideologues who oppose the very idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and see it as Israeli land. That movement, for various reasons, has grown in recent years; its members see it as their duty to enact violence against Palestinians. The nature of the occupation, which privileges the rights of settlers, grants them the physical and legal cover to do it, even if it sometimes also punishes them later.
The Israeli government officially condemns and does at times arrest these extremists, who also sometimes attack Israeli military forces. Yet the Israeli government goes to great lengths to create and maintain the larger occupation in which these extremists thrive and their violence is made possible. Israel still expands settlements, still enforces military occupation rule that allows these settlers to exist and that grants them more rights and protections than the Palestinians they torment.
These settlers are the vanguard of the occupation; they and their extremism primarily exist as direct results and components of the West Bank occupation that Israel has maintained for decades.
This is part of a pattern. In 1994, for example, an American-born Israeli named Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 innocent Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron. Israel's government rejected him as a terrorist, but it refused to end the settler occupation of Hebron even as those settlers hailed Goldstein as a hero. Three years later, it negotiated for settlers to take over 20 percent of Hebron's land, and installed Israeli soldiers to defend them.
When Hebron's settlers built a shrine to Goldstein, the Israeli government ordered it bulldozed. But at the same time it provided those settlers with military protection that has continued now for almost 20 years, making it easier for settlers there to harass Palestinians by dumping garbage on them in the streets, throwing stones at schoolchildren, and attacking their homes.
I believe that Israel earnestly does not want the Baruch Goldsteins, does not want extremist settlers to throw stones at children in Hebron or set Palestinian homes on fire in Duma. But it does want to keep the West Bank under Israeli occupation rule — Netanyahu has been quite clear on this — and has demonstrated over and over that it is willing to accept settler terrorism as a cost of this policy.
"If Netanyahu is really serious about ending settler violence, he'll commit to ending the occupation that privileges and empowers them," Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, wrote on Twitter.
Treating these settler extremists as terrorists is an important step, and it is laudable that Netanyahu has taken it. But if he continues to perpetuate a system whereby Jewish settlers are allowed or encourage to move onto Palestinian land, whereby settlers are above the law, and whereby official Israeli policy is to forcefully subjugate the Palestinian population under Israeli military rule, then he is and will remain responsible for the conditions that allowed this happen — and that will allow it happen over and over again.