Yad Vashem chairman slams settlers for abusing Palestinians

By Reuters

Haaretz

Shvat 2, 5767

The head of Israel's central Holocaust memorial on Saturday assailed Jewish settlers who harass Palestinians in a tinderbox West Bank city, saying the abuse recalled the anti-Semitism of pre-World War Two Europe.

Yad Vashem chairman Yosef Lapid's unusually fierce and public attack was prompted by Israeli television footage showing a Hebron settler woman hissing "whore" at her Palestinian neighbour and settler children lobbing rocks at Arab homes.

The spectacle stirred outrage in the Jewish state, where many view the settlers as a movement opposed to coexistence with a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Lapid, a Holocaust survivor who lost his father to the Nazi genocide, said in a weekly commentary on Israel Radio that the acts of some Hebron settlers reminded him of persecution endured by Jews in his native Yugoslavia on the eve of World War Two.

"It was not crematoria or pogroms that made our life in the diaspora bitter before they began to kill us, but persecution, harassment, stone-throwing, damage to livelihood, intimidation, spitting and scorn," Lapid said.

"I was afraid to go to school, because of the little anti-Semites who used to lay in ambush on the way and beat us up. How is that different from a Palestinian child in Hebron?"

Hebron has been a frequent flashpoint of more than six years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Some 400 settlers live there, under heavy Israeli military guard, among 150,000 Palestinians.

Hebron settlers were not immediately available to respond to Lapid's criticism, but Israel Radio broadcast earlier comments by the community's spokesman, Noam Arnon, in which he played down the televised harassments as "fringe incidents."

"In six years, 37 Jews have been murdered in Hebron, and now they're preoccupied with curses?" Arnon said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered a cabinet-level probe last week into Palestinian allegations that abuse by Hebron settlers is commonplace and routinely ignored by Israel.

Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh said he hoped for an Israeli crackdown against the settler "provocateurs", but Palestinian officials called for comprehensive action.

"If they are serious about coexistence, the Israelis must take practical steps on the hundreds of daily violations against Palestinians in the old city," Hebron Governor Arif Jabari said.

Jabari's apparent pessimism was shared by Lapid, a former justice minister.

"We Jewish citizens of Israel wave a reprimanding finger at most," he said. "Worse still, I tolerated this silently as justice minister too."

The World Court has branded the settlements illegal but many Jews claim a biblical birthright to the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, a move billed as breaking the diplomatic deadlock with the Palestinians. The rise since of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group whose charter calls for the Jewish state's destruction, has hardened settler resolve not to leave the West Bank.

Lapid said while there was no comparing the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering from Israel's policies, this did not mean Israelis could not be culpable.

"It is inconceivable for the memory of Auschwitz to warrant ignoring the fact that there are Jews among us who behave today towards Palestinians just like German, Hungarian, Polish and other anti-Semites behaved towards Jews," he said.