Manger Square Christmas tree
© Musa Al Shaer / GettyA Palestinian municipal worker decorates Bethlehem's Christmas tree in Manger Square.
If Christian pilgrims traveling to Bethlehem for Christmas this week happen to witness violence, for the first time militant Jews, not Palestinians, are most likely to be the perpetrators.

Now that a far right-wing government has governed Israel for almost three years, settlers feel emboldened so that Jewish extremists are wreaking havoc and mayhem. West Bank Palestinians, meanwhile, are standing by quietly, largely minding their own business - even as these settler-marauders repeatedly attack them. This has never happened before.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority now employs a widely respected police force that has effectively kept the peace. And so it certainly will in Bethlehem. Secret cooperation between Palestinian police and Israeli security forces is "one of the reasons Israeli citizens enjoy such a calm security situation of late," Reuven Pedatzur, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote last summer, before the settler-extremist violence had reached its zenith.

But in just the last few weeks, these settlers have burned two mosques, torched Palestinian homes and cars, threatened Israelis they perceive to be leftist and attacked an Israeli army base, wounding one of its officers. That final act, attacking the army, finally roused the government from its lackadaisical approach to the violence.

These militants, intent on challenging anyone who questions their perceived right to live in the occupied West Bank, have been causing trouble since at least the fall of 2008. Occasionally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials have offered condemnatory statements. But they've done little else.

Now, suddenly, Netanyahu is giving the army new powers to arrest these malefactors and send them to administrative detention - imprisonment without charge, usually reserved for Palestinians. Why suddenly now? "Whoever lays a hand on (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers or Israeli policemen will be severely punished," Netanyahu vowed. So much for all those Palestinian and liberal Israeli victims the settlers have threatened and attacked over the last three years.

This month 20 human-rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, issued a report making the point that settlers have destroyed hundreds of Palestinian homes, water wells and other structures, 10,000 olive trees and more - acting "with virtual impunity." More than 90 percent of complaints filed with police, the report added, are closed without action.

In recent weeks, the Palestinians' most significant bit of militancy came when six of them, reporters in tow, tried to ride a bus from the West Bank to Jerusalem, something they are not permitted to do. They called themselves "freedom riders," after those black bus riders in the American South during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Jewish extremists first announced their presence in September 2008, when they exploded a pipe bomb on the front porch of Hebrew University Professor Zeev Sternhell's home. He was an outspoken critic of settlements. On the side of his house, the extremists spray-painted their slogan "price tag."

Since then, the militants' avowed policy has been to attack Palestinians or liberal Israelis as payback every time the army removes an illegal settlement outpost, or someone in Israel acts against the settlers' interests. About 350,000 Israelis live in settlements that occupy about 10 percent of the West Bank, and on Sunday the government authorized 1,028 more settlement homes.

After hundreds of attacks over several years, earlier this month Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the latest incidents "homegrown terror." He and other security officials asked the prime minister to designate the settler-extremists "terrorists." That would give the army more leverage. Netanyahu refused, saying the violence was merely "something small that could grow to be a big plague."

He had already made plain his lack of respect for Palestinians a few days earlier, when he voiced his support for a bill that would forbid the use of loudspeakers when mosques offer their "annoying" calls to prayer. Twenty percent of Israel's population is Palestinian Arab.

Reflecting on the settler extremists, the Forward, an American Jewish newspaper, noted that it was a "sad irony that settler thugs and their allies" are terrorizing Palestinians when over the centuries Jews themselves have suffered "a long and bitter legacy of persecution defined by pogroms" and worse.

Now those pilgrims visiting for Christmas may find some Israelis in a sour mood. As the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv put it: "A very bad wind is blowing through the country."


Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.