Residents of Karnei Shomron patrol Route 55 in Samaria, on Oct. 10, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Judith Segaloff.
Residents of Karnei Shomron patrol Route 55 in Samaria, on Oct. 10, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Judith Segaloff.
featureIsrael at War

IDF drill or blood libel?

“Whose army is this?” ask Samaria residents, after the IDF rehearses a scenario in which Israeli Jews abduct an Arab from a nearby village.

“I’m trying to find out which idiot officer issued the orders,” said Igal Lahav, mayor of Karnei Shomron, outraged at an Israel Defense Forces drill on Monday that simulated settlers kidnapping an Arab from a neighboring village.

Messages came through early on Feb. 5, warning residents to expect traffic on Route 55, one of the few West-East roads that connects Kfar Saba to the Jordan Valley, because the army was conducting a division-level drill. Residents took it with a grain of salt; Traffic on 55 is to be expected. As are terrorist incidents—Arabs from Azzun, Funduk and other towns throwing rocks, fire bombs and shooting at Israeli cars and buses.

However, as the drill unfolded, it became evident that the scenario involved containment of a kidnapping—of an Arab by settlers. IDF forces wore yellow vests identifying them as the enemy.

The town of Funduk does not have a bypass road. To get from Karnei Shomron to Kedumim, you must travel down its main street.

“Going through Funduk is like driving the Indy 500,” said Sharon Rosenbluth, a resident of Karnei Shomron. She drives through the town daily to get to work in Kedumim. “I would never think of kidnapping an Arab, but I’m scared to death of running them over. There are no traffic lights or stop signs and they walk in the middle of the street. It’s laughable to think that I might ‘kidnap’ an Arab.”

Jewish residents of Samaria, already rattled by the ongoing allegations of “settler violence” that have caused the Biden administration to go so far as to sanction four Israelis, can’t understand why IDF Central Command is practicing for such an unlikely event. The mock kidnapping even surprised the local soldiers and officers participating in the drill.

IDF reserve commanders from the region expressed frustration with the exercise.

“Many of our soldiers have lost faith in the senior command,” explained one, who asked not to be identified. “How can they [IDF command] be so detached from reality?  Instead of preparing for terror attacks, they rehearse nonsense scenarios in Karnei Shomron, which has lost four IDF soldiers during the war and has dozens of wounded.”

In an interview a few weeks ago, Dror Sadot, spokesperson for B’tselem, a Jerusalem-based non-profit whose stated goals are to document human rights violations in what they call the “Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories,” admitted that when it comes to “settler violence” no one is keeping track of actual statistics.  

“We have a lot of documentation,” explained Dror. “Videos and witness testimonies. If we know that what we have is not everything then we cannot keep statistical information.”

According to Dror, “Settlers know that the world is focused on Gaza and they are expediting their plan of taking over Area C, attacking Palestinians. Intensity and scale has intensified since Oct. 7.”

Naomi Kahn, director of the International Division of Regavim, an NGO dedicated to the protection of Israel’s national lands and resources, addressed the allegations.

“The documentation that they [B’tselem] do have shows disputes with Jewish shepherds, who, accompanied by the army, go to Arab villages to recover stolen animals,” she said. “Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria suffer greatly from agricultural theft. When the army helps them retrieve their stolen livestock, B’tselem documents the retrieval. The Jewish shepherd and soldiers are attacked and when they defend themselves, the cameras go on,” she continued.

“As for the communities they [B’tselem] claim have been disbanded because of so called threats,” she continued, “these are Bedouins who move with the season. To allege that it is because of acts of Jewish settler violence is ridiculous. There has never been a kidnapping of an Arab by a Jew. These are simply blood libels.” 

Kahn cites OCHA, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as one of the sources of numbers used to “prove” escalating settler violence.

“They have 2 clear objectives. First to demonize and delegitimize the Jews of Judea and Samaria by painting them as evil, brutal, bloodthirsty people who attack innocent residents of ‘ancient’ Arab communities in Area C,” said Kahn. “Perhaps more importantly, their real goal is to create the connection between settlers and the IDF,” she added.

According to Kahn, in the incident reports on the OCHA website the phrases “settlers accompanied by soldiers” or “settlers disguised as soldiers” or even “settlers wearing uniforms” are repeated over and over again.

“Once they create this connection, they move toward discrediting the entire IDF, undermining the moral foundations of our national forces,” she said.

“When Arabs attack and Jews defend themselves, it is considered ‘settler violence.’  When the IDF enters the headquarters of a terrorist organization to carry out arrests of wanted murderers, it is considered ‘settler violence.’ When Arab terrorists open fire on Israeli forces and the soldiers return fire and kill the attackers, once again, this is ‘settler violence,” she said.

One reserve officer who lives and works in Karnei Shomron was nonplussed by the drill.

“When one of the officers who was with me yesterday told me about the drill, I knew immediately how bad this was going to get,” he recalled. “I told him, ‘you’re running a drill as if we kidnapped people? To Ramat Gilad? From Funduk? How would anyone from here kidnap an Arab child to Ramat Gilad? What kind of leftist B.S. is that?’  Ten seconds later my phone was blasting with screenshots and messages asking what was going on. I knew it would go viral.”

The burning question many residents have is where the orders for this drill came from. And, if, as Kahn alleges, the notion of “settler violence” is aimed at undermining the IDF, why are there factions of the IDF that are complicit in the narrative?

“I understand they need to vilify us for Biden’s plan for a P.A. state here,” said one Samaria resident. “This way, there won’t be an objection to kicking us out of our homes. We will have ‘deserved it’,”

But for Israeli generals “to do America’s bidding like this is beyond disgusting. They are not putting the safety and security of the State of Israel a s priority and therefore are not trustworthy to hold a position protecting our nation.”

In a statement released by the IDF, Central Command defended the exercise by noting it was just one of many scenarios, including particularly extreme ones, drilled by the military. Other scenarios, for instance, include the Palestinian Authority weakening to the point of losing control over geographic areas; Hamas supporters protesting in the face of economic hardships and rioting by the tens of thousands; Terrorist attacks with anti-tank missiles, sniping, drones and explosives; quickly stopping a widespread surprise attack by hundreds of armed Palestinians on a settlement; Jordanian border infiltration; nationalistic crimes against Arabs; and increasing intervention of the international community hampering the movement of IDF forces.

According to IDF spokesperson Doron Kadosh, “The exercise that caused a stir yesterday is one of many, some extreme, some would say far-fetched. The main preoccupation of the IDF is with Palestinian terrorism, as you can see in the list. Nationalist crime is almost last in the list of scenarios.”

Which doesn’t make people smarting from United States’ allegations of settler violence feel better.

Meitar Eliyahu, widow of fallen Gaza reservist Yedidya Eliyahu and a resident of Ramat Gilad, wrote, “At a time when 80% of the residents of Ramat Gilad are in the reserves, and only two months after I buried my dear husband who fell in Gaza, it is more important for [Maj. Gen. Yehuda] Fox [the head of IDF Central Command] to simulate a drill against ‘Messianic settlers’ than to tend to the murderers in Azzun.  Shame on everyone who took part in this.”

She went on to state. “I can’t make peace with this. Do you really think we are the enemy?  I can’t understand how you can even think such a shocking thing.”

Ministers Itamar Ben Gvir  and Bezalel Smotrich both publicly weighed in on the incident, calling for an investigation. 

The Nachala Settlement Movement, which organizes groups of young couples to establish new communities in Judea and Samaria, called it a blood libel and demanded Fox’s ouster.

Meanwhile, as Palestinian Authority Cabinet leader Mohammad Shtayyeh calls for U.S. sanctions to extend beyond the four individuals named by the Biden administration to “the entire settlement enterprise,” and insists that the 60,000-plus Americans with dual Israeli citizenship who live among the half million Jews in Judea and Samaria be expelled from the area, Samaria residents are understandably angry and frustrated. 

Kahn points out that by sanctioning Israelis, the U.S. government has discounted the entire Israeli justice system. “That’s not how you treat your only democratic allies in the Middle East,” she said.

Area residents told JNS that the U.S. sanctions were extremely disturbing, as were American threats to invoke the Leahy Law. But most disturbing, they said, is the possible threat from within factions of their own military.

“It’s poison,” said Mayor Lahav. “Nobody understands why they held this drill. Either an idiot or a [terrorist sympathizer] is trying to wreck our relationship with the army, which has been excellent until now. The army must own up to its mistake and should never allow anything like this to happen again. If it was deliberate, it was against the State of Israel. And it’s a blood libel.”

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