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Israeli extremists are attacking Palestinians. But are these mobs or pro-government militias?

Who’s behind the violence?

- June 28, 2021

Israel’s annual Jerusalem Day march, postponed after last month’s fighting between Israel and Hamas, resulted in further clashes between right-wing marchers and Palestinian residents in Jerusalem in June.

In May, violent groups of Israeli right-wing extremists carried out attacks against Palestinians across Israel and the West Bank. Extremists tagged Palestinian neighborhoods with racist slogans, sometimes marking them for future attacks. They patrolled the streets of Israel’s “mixed cities” bearing arms, and some reportedly stabbed, beat and stoned Palestinian civilians and protesters.

Who is behind these attacks? Since April 22, when a group of Jewish Israeli extremists marched into the Old City of Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs,” researchers have tallied more than 75 violent incidents of a similar nature. The initial attacks followed protests against the forced expulsion of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem and police raids at the al-Aqsa compound during the holy month of Ramadan.

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Media coverage nearly uniformly adopted the language of “mobs” and “mob violence” to describe these events — my research suggests these were organized efforts and premeditated attacks, rather than random outbreaks of violence.

What we know about mobs and militias

Far-right, Jewish supremacist and/or terrorist groups like Lehava and the Hilltop Youth were involved in several of these attacks. And newly formed groups used WhatsApp to recruit members and organize attacks.

This level of coordination suggests several of the “mobs” may be more akin to pro-government militias organizing and inciting violence to achieve their aims. Pro-government militias are armed groups that engage in organized violence in support of the government or its objectives. To varying degrees, they may get support from the government.

Mob violence is a form of communal violence that is carried out by spontaneously formed groups seeking to take matters of justice into their own hands. Mobs tend to form and dissipate quickly, and lack a chain of command or supporting organizational structure. Most of what we know about the dynamics of mobs and mob violence comes from the history of lynch mobs in the American South. However, scholars and activists are also looking to understand how mob violence operates in other contexts.

Conversely, pro-government militias are armed groups that support government aims but operate outside the formal security apparatus. They often form in contexts of conflict and civil war, and may carry out egregious acts of violence that governments avoid because they’re unwilling to engage in activities the international community might find unacceptable.

These militias can advance government goals, using tactics the government cannot adopt openly. This often means the government supports these efforts — formally, informally or tacitly. In contrast to spontaneously formed mobs, pro-government militias are at the very least minimally organized.

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Many of the recent attacks appear premeditated

In Israel and the West Bank, many of the attacks in recent weeks appear to be premeditated, the work of known extremist groups. That runs against definitions of mob violence, as mobs form spontaneously and lack a clear organizational structure.

Lehava, one of the key groups behind the April 22 march, is a far-right extremist group espousing explicitly racist and anti-Palestinian sentiments. It is also known for its ideological links to the Kach party, classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Lehava also organized a violent riot in Ramla on May 11 — on both of these days, extremists targeted Palestinian civilians and counterprotesters, leaving more than 100 people injured in Jerusalem.

Some groups relied heavily on social media to organize and plan attacks. Adalah, a legal center promoting the equal treatment of Palestinian citizens in Israel, alerted the national police commissioner regarding extremist settlers’ use of social media platforms to organize armed attacks in several cities. More than 100 groups formed using WhatsApp and Telegram, adopting names like “the Jewish Guard” and “the Revenge Troops,” using the messaging platforms to plan violent attacks and recruit members. WhatsApp has since banned numerous users involved in these groups for inciting violence.

How do these groups support Israel’s goals?

Extremist settler groups have long supported Israel’s territorial expansion goals and efforts to establish a Jewish demographic majority in the West Bank. The Pro-Government Militias Database classifies Israeli settlers as a pro-government militia with a “semi-official” link to the military. Since late April, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project has identified over 25 events in the West Bank and Jerusalem where security forces provided protection to extremist settlers carrying out attacks on Palestinians.

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Residents in these neighborhoods also accused Israeli police forces of standing by while extremists attacked Palestinian civilians and protesters. In Jerusalem, a human rights organization reported that police checkpoints blocked the entry of nonresident Palestinians into the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, “while simultaneously granting access to organized groups of dozens of Israeli Jewish extremists.”

These reports demonstrate that on multiple occasions in recent weeks, Israeli security forces tacitly cooperated with — or ignored — attacks by extremist settlers.

Militias can remobilize and incite future violence

Why is the distinction between mobs and militias so important? Understanding the role of these attacks and these groups is helpful to understand the ongoing conflict in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. All groups that planned and executed attacks, even newly formed ones, have an enhanced capacity to remobilize in future escalations. That’s not the case for spontaneously formed “mobs,” who by definition lack organizational cohesion.

Will Israel’s new government change these dynamics?

Interestingly, the new Bennett-Lapid coalition government could alter far-right groups’ perceptions of their relationship to the government. Some right-wing groups consider Bennett’s alignment with centrist and Arab parties as a betrayal of the ultranationalist cause. And many experts expect Bennett will be cautious regarding settlement expansion, for fear of losing Arab coalition members.

In fact, Israel’s domestic security agency warned against the possibility of anti-government violence from these groups. However, Bennett’s coalition approved the June 14 ultranationalist “flag march” in Jerusalem, throwing a bone to far-right parties and extremists. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Israel’s far-right groups will retain their pro-government posture — or instead rebrand themselves in opposition to the new coalition.

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Hannah Bagdanov is a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame and a doctoral affiliate of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies.