The parents of Israeli settlers, brothers Yagel Yaniv, 19, and Hallel Yaniv, 21, mourn during their funeral at the military cemetery in Jerusalem on Feb. 27, 2023, a day after they were shot dead while driving through the town of Huwara in the occupied West Bank

Gil Cohen-MagenAFP via Getty Images

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The Fraudulent Case Against ‘Violent Settlers’

U.S. officials are using pro-Palestinian NGO sources to back a controversial effort aimed at punishing the Jewish state

Liel Leibovitz
February 07, 2024
The parents of Israeli settlers, brothers Yagel Yaniv, 19, and Hallel Yaniv, 21, mourn during their funeral at the military cemetery in Jerusalem on Feb. 27, 2023, a day after they were shot dead while driving through the town of Huwara in the occupied West Bank

Gil Cohen-MagenAFP via Getty Images

In early November of last year, barely a month after Hamas terrorists breached an internationally recognized border, murdered more than 1,200 Israelis, and kidnapped hundreds more, Michael Herzog attended a meeting on Capitol Hill. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, accompanied by his military attaché, likely hoped that the briefing would focus on the Jewish state’s efforts to defend itself from the heaviest blow it had ever sustained.

But the conversation took a very different tack. Instead of focusing on Hamas or Hezbollah, the lawmakers in attendance, sources told Tablet, including senior-ranking senators from both parties, wanted to focus on the risks posed by Israel—specifically, by roving bands of allegedly violent settlers in the West Bank. Lawmakers pressed the Israeli officials, going so far as to assert that uniformed IDF soldiers were escorting Israeli settlers to attack Palestinians.

Much of the information that these lawmakers were citing came from a single, ostensibly impartial source whose words carry weight in Washington in part because of his rank: Lieutenant General Michael R. Fenzel, a three-star general who currently serves as the U.S. security coordinator to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC). The USSC is well-known for its regular, sometimes daily briefings and reports about “extremist settlers,” which it provides to members of Congress, policy hands, Israel-related advocacy groups, as well as to foreign countries’ forces in Israel.

According to sources in and out of the U.S. government familiar with Fenzel’s reports and advocacy, nearly every claim presented by the USSC as fact seems to have been lifted directly, sometimes verbatim, from the websites of highly partisan pro-Palestinian organizations, including the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA) and the far-left Israeli NGO B’Tselem, which accuses Israel of apartheid and receives vast support from European governments and from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

In the past 12 months, 13 Israelis were murdered by Palestinians in Jerusalem and 17 in the West Bank—not counting those slaughtered on Oct. 7, 2023—while doing nothing more provocative than driving home or stopping for gas. The number of Palestinian civilians who have been killed by Israelis under such conditions over the same time period is zero.

But the story the administration has been telling anyone who will listen is very different. By scrubbing any mention of the daily violence directed by Palestinian terror operatives against Jewish civilians living in the West Bank from his reports, Fenzel has eliminated the clear retaliatory motive for the vast majority of attacks by Israelis against West Bank Palestinians. Thinly laundered reports from expressly anti-Israel organizations, designed to support an illusion of innocent Palestinians being violently attacked by bloodthirsty Israelis, paint a picture of an Israeli equivalent to the Palestinian atrocities of Oct. 7, lending itself an easy “both-sides” posture meant to ease the way to creating a new Palestinian state in both the West Bank and Gaza. With an executive order now in place, the Biden administration has all the tools it needs to crack down on any form of Jewish life in Judea and Samaria, and on anyone, in Israel or stateside, who supports it.

According to sources, the meeting with Herzog was designed as an escalation in a campaign to curb the so-called “extremist settlers,” which the Biden administration wants to isolate as a major threat to regional stability. Last week, President Biden, invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, signed an executive order imposing severe sanctions on “persons undermining peace, security, and stability in the West Bank.”

“I, Joseph R. Biden Jr., President of the United States of America,” reads the statement, “find that the situation in the West Bank—in particular high levels of extremist settler violence, forced displacement of people and villages, and property destruction—has reached intolerable levels and constitutes a serious threat to the peace, security, and stability of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, and the broader Middle East region.” These violent settlers, the order continued, go as far as undermining Israel’s security and “threatening United States personnel and interests.” Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank—including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups regularly attacking Israelis in Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, and elsewhere—went unmentioned.

The executive order uses unusually broad language, and applies not only to those suspected of “actions—including directing, enacting, implementing, enforcing, or failing to enforce policies—that threaten the peace, security, or stability of the West Bank,” but also anyone, anywhere who provides any form of support to these individuals.

The implications of the order were evident last week, when the State Department announced a first round of sanctions, focused on four alleged violent settlers: David Chai Chasdai, Einan Tanjil, Shalom Zicherman, and Yinon Levi. The four, accused of various violent attempts to disrupt Palestinian lives across Judea and Samaria, are now barred from entering the United States or accessing the American financial system. In addition, any assets they may have stateside will be seized. And not only stateside: A few days after the four were named, Israeli Bank Leumi aligned itself with Foggy Bottom, informing Yinon Levi that it had now frozen both of his bank accounts in Israel as well.

In light of such sweeping powers, it is worth asking how the administration determines which of the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria may be guilty of subjective transgressions like “efforts to place civilians in reasonable fear of violence.” That’s where the office of Michael Fenzel, who has become the go-to authority for Israel’s fiercest critics in Washington, comes in.

During the recent confirmation hearings of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack J. Lew, Sen. Chris Van Hollen—who made headlines for insisting the Biden administration exert more pressure on Israel to curb what he called the “unacceptably high” number of Palestinian casualties—urged Lew to make Fenzel his confidant. “I ask that one of the first meetings you undertake if you are nominated,” Van Hollen told Lew, “is to meet with our three-star general Fenzel who is the commander that works with both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority.” This, Van Hollen continued, was a necessary step, because “a lot of U.S. government reporting right now has indicated that while the world is focused on what is happening in Gaza there are extreme settlers on the West Bank that as we speak are seizing more and more Palestinian lands.” In an open letter to Secretary of State Blinken in November, three members of Congress—Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Susan Wild, D-Pa.—similarly singled out Fenzel for praise and stressed the need to continue and exert American efforts to “deter extremist elements in the West Bank.” The letter was circulated by partisan NGOs including Americans for Peace Now.

One source told Tablet that the USSC has developed a reputation for repeating the same numbers provided by Palestinian and radical leftist Israeli organizations, without independent verification, attribution, or contextualization. One major source for this data appears to be the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OCHA), which regularly posts updates with precise numbers of Palestinians they claim have been killed by Israel. “It was an open secret,” the source said. “On any given day last December, their numbers lined up exactly with whatever OCHA was posting.” OCHA’s record-keeping was recently called into question by Israeli officials, who argued that the organization counts every violent event in Judea and Samaria as an act of violence against Palestinians, even if Palestinian militants are the perpetrators and even when Jewish civilians are the targets.

A careful reading of OCHA’s own numbers confirms this claim. Since Oct. 7, the organization alleged that eight Palestinians had been murdered by “extremist settlers.” According to OCHA’s tally, there were seven such Palestinian deaths in the West Bank throughout 2023 up until Oct.7.

B’Tselem echoed OCHA’s numbers, delivering an account of how each of the eight Palestinians killed by Israeli civilians in the West Bank before Oct.7 had died. The details, buried inside an online database, paint a stark picture: Abd al-Karim Badi’a, a 21-year-old, was shot by an Israeli settler after entering the settlement armed with knives and explosive devices. 42-year-old Tareq Odeh Yusef M’aali was shot by an Israeli settler after trying to stab the same settler in a field. Muhannad Falah Abdallah Shihadah, a Hamas terorrist, was killed after murdering four Israelis, including two minors, by shooting them to death outside the Jewish community of Eli.

According to OCHA and B’Tselem, the above all count as Palestinian victims. The USSC amplifies this claim.

Other reporting contains similar problems. B’Tselem, for example, recently posted on its website that 16 Palestinian communities have been forcefully expelled by settlers since Oct. 7. The USSC picked up and amplified that number in its reporting. This is questionable: Some of the “communities” that have been evacuated consist of only one or two families, and many consist of encampments set up by Palestinian shepherds who took over disputed territory, often violently. One of the communities mentioned in the B’Tselem report, for example, Wadi al-Siq, made headlines this past August when Palestinians brutally attacked four Jewish shepherds, sending all four to the hospital with considerable injuries. What on the ground is a series of intricate land disputes and collisions between individuals living in close proximity appears in the Fenzel reports—which land on the desks of elected U.S. officials—as an epidemic of rising settler violence and extremism.

The USSC asserts that extremists are on the prowl, with the number of settler attacks against Palestinians spiking from 109 in September to nearly 500 in October. The source for this statistic, once again, appears to be OCHA. After the USSC repeated the number, it became immutable. Last week, the Biden administration provided it to friendly journalists to justify the new sanctions.

A classified document compiled by the IDF’s Central Command and leaked to the Israeli press reported that settler violence has not only not spiked since Oct. 7, but that whatever incidents had been occurring had gone down by half. The assertion of a spiraling crisis of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians, which the USSC pushed for months, and which formed the basis for Biden’s executive order, is false.

Nor do the USSC reports spend much time describing Palestinian violence or misconduct, which, according to the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University, are on the rise: While data shows 95 cases of Palestinian terror attacks in August and September of 2023, that number shot up almost threefold, to 295, since Oct. 7.

Since the American government’s reports present such a distorted view of reality, here’s a reminder of some of the Israeli casualties: Lucy Dee, 48, and her two daughters, Maia and Rina, aged 20 and 15, murdered by Palestinian terrorists who shot up their car and then turned around, rushed to the Dee family vehicle, and shot all three women at point-blank, execution style. Hallel Yaniv, 21, and his brother Yagel, 19, murdered by Palestinians when stuck in a traffic jam. Asher Menachem Paley, 8, and Yaakov Israel Paley, 6, were standing at a bus stop with their father when a Palestinian terrorist rammed his car into them, killing them along with 20-year-old rabbinical student Alter Shlomo Lederman, who had been married for two months. When Israeli forces finally managed to complete an operation in Tul Karem’s Nur Shams refugee camp last month, they eliminated six terrorists and discovered dozens of explosive devices placed in proximity to an UNRWA kindergarten, along with weapons and ammunition. Photos of all are available on social media.

By contrast, here are some of the Palestinian casualties: Six Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists in Jenin were killed on June 19, 2023, after taking cover in a mosque and opening fire on IDF soldiers and deploying explosive devices. Four Hamas terrorists in Tul Karem were eliminated by the IDF on Nov. 6, 2023, after orchestrating dozens of shooting attacks against Israeli citizens in Judea and Samaria. On Jan. 17, 2023, a Palestinian Authority police officer was killed after using his firearm to try and assassinate IDF reservists. On Aug. 1, 2023, a young Palestinian employee of the Ma’ale Adumim community center walked over to the town’s shopping center and opened fire, injuring six Israelis before being shot by a policeman.

But Washington appears uninterested in all of the above. Instead, it sticks to the story it’s been telling itself for years, regardless of who’s in power or what’s happening on the ground, a story of two proud and largely peaceful peoples that can and must make peace, a project made possible only if we curb the wild-eyed, bearded zealots on both sides. And by rewarding and excusing Palestinian violence and subjecting Israelis to baseless scrutiny, this story is rapidly making it illegal to be Jewish in Judea.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.