Itamar, West Bank — Just inside the entrance to this settlement where Ruth and Udi Fogel and three of their children were stabbed to death late Friday night, a sign reads: “The government destroys settlements, and the Arabs murder Jews.”
It’s a message that reflects the feeling of political and physical vulnerability among the Jewish settlers, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government resists international calls for a settlement freeze.
The aftermath of what appeared to be the worst terrorist attack in Israel in three years has heightened settlers’ sense that the Israeli government has left them exposed to Palestinian attacks and will one day evacuate them. Amid the outrage, they are demanding that the government build thousands of houses throughout the West Bank, well beyond the announced plans over the weekend to build several hundred units in the large settlement blocs.
They want the government to reinstate the security checks of Palestinian vehicles at roadblocks around the West Bank and some want the Israeli army to mete out a retribution that will deter the Palestinians against fresh attacks.
“Everyone knows that if this happened to the U.S. they would take out an entire city. Look what happened after the Twin Towers. But Israel tries to make nice to the world,” said Shaul Ohayon, a Torah tutor who has lived on Itamar for the last six months.
Ohayon called the government announcement of new building “aspirin for a cancer patient.” He continued, “Palestinians see an evacuation here, a freeze there, and say — [the Israeli government] is right. The settlers shouldn’t be here. The Israeli government should take [retaliation] into their hands.’’
The Itamar resident said that while he understood the call from some settlers for revenge, only a response from Israel’s government would be effective.
Palestinian terrorists infiltrated Itamar several times at the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada a decade ago. One sign in the settlement reads, “22 murdered, 15 years, Itamar youth will not break.”
That said, Itamar residents sought out social workers and psychologists to work through the trauma of the attack.
Just beyond the red police tape surrounding the Fogel house in Itamar is the house of the Chabad Lubavitch emissaries. Israeli military officers told David Schneerson, 30, that the terrorist cased his home, peering in an open window, before moving on to the Fogel house.
Schneerson believes that a picture of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, saved the lives of his family and five children.
“Our door was open. We are sure that he saw the rebbe and fled,” he said. “We will now close all the windows in the house, and will close the slats, and will put bars. I told the children that the army is working harder to protect us.”
The teacher said that his wife, who recently gave birth, is taking the attack hard and fears another one. He agreed with other residents that building is an insufficient answer to the problem.
“Only transfer is enough. As long as there is one Arab here, it’s not enough,” he said. “Kahane is the closest to correct in all of the politics in areas,” he said, referring to Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the transfer of West Bank Palestinians. “No one wants Arabs here in the state.”
Beyond the gruesome way in which they were murdered, the story of the Fogel family resonated with the Israeli public. After evacuating a home in the Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim in 2006, the Fogels eventually decided to move to Itamar to start over in 2009. A settlement-produced documentary showed the Fogel family happily readjusted and thriving in their new home.
In a bid to mollify outraged settlers — including a small minority that have a record of vigilantism — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved hundreds of new homes in the settlements over the weekend. A statement from his office said the projects are “measured” and are located in settlement blocs, areas that Israel insists it will keep under any deal with the Palestinians. Settlers have accused the government of holding up large building projects.
The attack forced Netanyahu to maneuver toward hard-line coalition allies pressing for retribution and away from an international community that blames Israel’s insistence on settlement activity as an obstacle to talks. While the announcement of housing units prompted U.S. criticism, settlers consider the new construction insufficient.
“What happens if you respond, will America do something to you?” challenged Tamar Fogel, the 12-year-old surviving daughter of the family when Netanyahu paid a condolence visit after a funeral attended by tens of thousands of mourners.
At the funeral, cabinet minister Moshe Yaalon said that as long as there are attacks like the one in Itamar, a peace treaty with the Palestinians “is not worth the paper on which it is written.”
Adi Mintz, the former director general of the Yesha Council, called in an op-ed on the Hebrew news website Ynet for thousands of new housing units to triple the settler population to one million.
Though the peace process has been moribund for nearly six months, the building announcement is expected to strengthen Palestinian resolve to refuse to talk amid settlement construction. A Palestinian government statement called it “unhelpful.”
That is likely to dim the prospects for a new Netanyahu diplomatic initiative of an interim peace accord setting up a Palestinian state on temporary borders.
“This makes a bad situation worse,” said Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of BitterLemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian online opinion forum. “This attack allows [Netanyahu] to fortify his coalition even more from the right.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned of a “diplomatic tsunami” if Israel didn’t put together a peace initiative to divert momentum away from a Palestinian drive to seek international recognition of a state within the 1967 boundaries of the West Bank.
In a bid to respond to allegations that Palestinian officials haven’t expressed sufficient condemnation of the attack and have even incited the attack, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas conducted a rare interview with Israel Radio aired Monday in which he called the Itamar attack “immoral.” He also said that the Palestinian Authority’s security forces are assisting Israel in the investigation.
But Netanyahu said that Abbas’ condemnation was insufficient. He encouraged Abbas to make the condemnation in Arabic. Israel is also demanding the PA clamp down on anti-Israel incitement — messages that politicians say are directly responsible for the murder.
On the roads of the West Bank this week there was a heightened presence of Israeli security forces. Itamar is located in the rural area outside of Nablus, a region infamous for clashes between Palestinians and settlers who support vigilante “price tag” retribution.
While soldiers put the nearby village of Awarta under a several-day curfew to look for suspects, Israeli police boosted their presence on the roads. A military spokesperson said that Arab Jewish violence could have a “snowball” effect on regional security.