Fantasies of biblical retribution

History teaches that extremism always fills the void left by the absence of political negotiation. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no exception. In this first of a two-part series, we will examine how extremism is on the rise in Israel. The second part of the series will address the sources of Palestinian extremism.

Currents of extremism have long run through Israeli society. Former Premiers Yitzakh Shamir and Menachem Begin were terrorists in the campaign for Israeli independence. In his earlier days, Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, also engaged in terrorist acts against the British and Palestinian Arabs.

The ruling Likud party originated with Ze'ev Jabotinsky and other "revisionist Zionists" who believed that the Israeli state could only be won and sustained with military power. In a famous speech, he declared that the Jewish state would be established with "a wall of iron"; that is, at the point of bayonets. Once in power, Shamir and Begin, the first Likud premiers, pragmatically adapted their hard-line positions. Begin even signed the 1979 Camp David Accords with Egypt's Anwar Sadat.

But with Benjamin Netanyahu as its leader, Likud has moved further and further right, making extreme nationalist parties like Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu and Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party members of the ruling coalition.

In 2004, Lieberman presented a plan for exchange of populations, forcing Arab Israelis to move to a new Palestinian entity. Though the proposal was rejected by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Lieberman still holds that Palestinian Israelis who fall short of absolute loyalty to the Jewish state and its policies should be "transferred" elsewhere on the principle that "responsible citizenship" requires loyalty to the state.

For his part, Bennett rejects a two-state solution and advocates partition of the West Bank, with Israel annexing more than 60 percent of the territory. He is reported to have said, "I have killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that."

According to The Times of Israel, deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, a member of Likud, has called for military destruction of all built up areas in Gaza and the expulsion of Gazans to tent encampments on the coast, where they will await transfer elsewhere. The plan called for "conquest of the entire Gaza Strip, and annihilation of all fighting forces and their supporters." Commentators have rightly claimed the plan is incitement to genocide.

With political leadership of this sort, there is no wonder that popular anti-Palestinian feeling has taken uglier forms. In Tel Aviv, during a demonstration in support of the Israeli government's military operations in Gaza, right-wing Israelis celebrated the death of Gazan children. A video shows the crowd chanting, "There is no school tomorrow; there are no children left in Gaza." Shouts of "I hate all the Arabs" and "Gaza is a cemetery" were heard as some protestors attempted to physically assault an anti-war demonstration.

Ayelet Shaked, a senior figure in the Jewish Home party, advocated in a Facebook post the killing of "the entire Palestinian people ... including its elderly and its women ... otherwise, more little snakes will be raised." This was a week before the latest Gaza conflict and before a single Hamas rocket was fired.

Sadly, some extremists cite biblical warrants for their barbaric proposals. Following the killings of the three Israeli settler youth, Rabbi Noam Perel, head of Bnei Akiva, the largest Jewish religious youth group in the world, called for the Israeli Defense Force to become an "army of vengeance" and for the same biblical retribution as King David meted out to the Philistines -- namely, taking body parts of 300 Palestinians as trophies of war.

Aryeh King, the Jerusalem city councilor in charge of municipal security, speaking on stage to a large assembly of ultra-Orthodox Jews, issued a similar barely veiled call to murder Palestinians and the Jews willing to mix with them. Invoking Pinchas in the Torah, who killed an interracial Jewish-Midanite couple, he said, "The Rebbe, who is here with us, expects us to commit acts of Pinchas."

None of the above leaders were denounced or punished in any way for these inflammatory statements. Thankfully, extremism still only retains a minority hold over Israelis and Palestinians. The danger, however, is that without a political settlement, this core minority will expand its support base, aggravating the vicious cycle of conflict and rising extremism.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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