Words fail, following the stabbing murders at the settlement of Itamar. The victims were Ruth and Rabbi Udi Fogel and three of their children, Yoav (11), Elad (3) and Hadas (four months). What was the terrorist thinking as he slit the throat of a baby? What were the feelings of the 12-year-old daughter who arrived home around midnight to find her family slaughtered? With our dead laid out before us, let us not attempt to describe the deed. But we must not shrink from contemplating the cost of dehumanization.
One need not be a supporter of settlements like Itamar, located in areas intended as obstacles to the emergence of Palestinian statehood, to acknowledge that there is an international climate of hate directed at Jewish settlers as such, and to recognize this massacre as a clear symptom of the need to end it.
Three ideas come together to generate the current demonization of Jews living on the West Bank. One (certainly a reasonable position in and of itself) is opposition in principle to the concept of “the whole Land of Israel” that drives an activist minority among the settlers. But this idea should not necessarily imply that the Palestinians have a right to a country empty of Jews, a notion that the international community has promoted, or at least tolerated, No one has a right to live in a country free of Jews, and no moral interpretation of international law can support such an inversion of right and wrong.
When these two notions join with the delusion that the settlers are the core of the conflict, the process of demonization reaches a boil. The experience of the last 20 years disproves the claim that the settlers represent an inherent obstacle to peace. No Israeli withdrawal has been successfully resisted by the settlers, 45,000 of whom have become internal displaced persons after their villages were dismantled. Nevertheless, the delusion distorts thinking at all levels of diplomacy and society. At Itamar we saw how these three ideas taken together can push those most prone to violence over the edge.
But it is not just the Palestinian Authority and the international community that must examine the shaky moral ground to which demagogy on this issue has led. The government of Israel responded injudiciously when it publicized the authorization of 400 new homes in settlements after the murders. Surely, the construction of settler homes as a punishment for Palestinian misbehavior trivializes what happened. It will ultimately achieve two unintended but foreseeable results. First, the settlers see it as an insult, since they demand an unlimited right to build. The mayor of Maaleh Adumim, where many of the new units are planned, rejected the government authorization, calling it “cynicism.” Second, responding to infanticide by constructing settlements plays into the kind of thinking that has generated the absurd focus on settlers and settlements at the expense of all other aspects of the conflict.
Can the cruelty perpetrated at Itamar produce anything positive? Perhaps, if the shock pushes all sides to reduce the settlement issue to its proper human proportions. Settlers are not demonic figures but human beings. The settlements are not devilish obstacles to a peace process but an essentially failed political project. Those who inflate their importance beyond reason bestow power upon the settlements to hold back an accord.