Two recent statements by US officials have me wondering if we are seeing a subtle shift in US-Israeli relations. One is that for the first time, acts of violence by Israeli “settlers” against Palestinian residents of the West Bank have been described by the State Department as “terrorist incidents”; the second is a statement made by the US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro who said that an official Israeli investigation into the death of American activist Rachel Corrie in 2003 was not “thorough, credible and transparent.”
Corrie was only 23 when she was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer as she and others tried to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The action prompted international outrage and became a rallying point for those protesting the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government promised a full investigation into the incident (a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation, which Amb. Shapiro referenced in his statement). But last week, Israel closed the formal investigation, concluding it was an accident, but also chiding the now-dead Corrie for inserting herself into a war zone.
Turning back to the terrorist declaration against the Israeli settlers, the State Department took the move after recent attacks by groups of young settlers against Palestinians, including attacks on mosques, beatings and one particularly brutal incident: the firebombing of a Palestinian taxi that left six people injured, including two four-year old twins. The State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism for 2011 included: “Attacks by extremist Israeli settlers against Palestinian residents, property and places of worship in the West Bank.” According to the United Nations, which monitors conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians have increased by almost 150% between 2009 and the end of 2011.
It is important to note that the State Department isn't going out on much of a limb here. The Israeli media and government have been growing increasingly concerned about the actions of extremist settlers, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the fire-bomb attack of the taxi and other government officials have used the word terrorism when referring to some of the actions taken by a subset of extremist Israeli settlers (though the Israeli government supports the expansion of more “mainstream” Israeli settlements in the West Bank).
But given how reluctant the US typically is to criticize the actions of Israel, it is then quite noteworthy that officials with the US government would, in the space of a week, use the word “terrorism” when referring to the actions of Israeli settlers and would condemn an official report by the Israeli government. Could it be the sign of a subtle shift in US-Israeli relations? Only time will tell.