In 2011, Palestinian terrorists murdered two Israeli parents and three of their children in Itamar, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. In response, the Israeli government OK’d 400 new housing units spread across four settlements following a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that reportedly lasted less than thirty minutes. Amid the fallout from the attack and Israel’s reaction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed, “They kill, we build.”

That line put an already existing Israeli policy in a neat rhetorical package, and the tactic of punishing terrorism with settlement expansion continues to find new life following attacks targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers alike. It was most recently on display in Israel’s response to two acts of terror in East Jerusalem, when the security cabinet legalized nine outposts in the occupied territories. But “they kill, we build” is a reductionist outlook, dehumanizing both Palestinians and Israelis, sowing deeper despair among Palestinians, and subtly undercutting the official Israeli line on the conflict.

Construction in the settlement of Maale Adumim, July 2004

There is no moral equivalency, of course, between settlement building and taking a human life. The former is an issue for a number of reasons, but cannot possibly undo a murder. Still, following up terror attacks with settlements is not a juxtaposition of Israeli productivity in contrast with Palestinian destructiveness, as Netanyahu’s “they kill, we build” philosophy posits. Rather, it is a destructive policy in and of itself, and a concession that settlements are part of the problem.

Building settlements or authorizing outposts in response to terrorism is a form of collective punishment. It is one thing for Israel to put an assailant on trial and imprison them, or even to kill a terrorist during the course of an attack if they continue to pose a threat. But the impact of settlements is not felt by the perpetrator alone. Neighboring Palestinian communities will feel the strain as resources and infrastructure are devoted to settlements. And settlement growth only reinforces the hopelessness felt by Palestinians about statelessness and a bleak political future. The Israeli government knows settlements are contentious, and its policy of supporting them in the aftermath of attacks is revealing. Certainly, there are many Palestinians who object, in principle, to a Jewish presence within the Green Line, but there is a reason Israel never responds to terrorist attacks with a new construction project in Haifa or Beer Sheva. 

This goes against the narrative Israeli leaders have constructed around the conflict, which ties Palestinian violence to classical antisemitism and general malevolence while distancing it from more immediate problems like the occupation. Take, for example, how Israeli officialdom framed the terrorist attack outside a synagogue in the East Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Neve Yaakov, which took place at the end of last month. That incident was part of the impetus for the recent outpost legalizations. Leaders like Prime Minister Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana emphasized that the killings took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a point echoed in Washington and many European capitals.

Border police at the scene of the Neve Yaakov terror attack, January 27, 2023 by Israel Police, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

But how relevant was Holocaust Remembrance Day in the perpetrator’s calculations? He was killed before he could be apprehended, so we will never know for sure. But we do know that he was a “lone wolf,” not affiliated with any structured terrorist group or organized political movement. It’s possible that the 21 year-old Palestinian East Jerusalemite had Holocaust Remembrance Day in mind, though in Jewish society, that commemoration plays second fiddle to Yom Hashoah, an Israeli innovation, to say nothing of its presence in Palestinian and Arab life. It’s also possible that he was animated by the shooting of two Palestinians in confrontations with Israeli police just days before the attack in Neve Yaakov, or the ongoing fighting in the northern West Bank, which has seen casualties among both militants and civilians, or simply the banal depravities and political limbo of life in a divided city. Neither explanation is moral cover for murder, but the second motivation is less convenient than the first, which fits more neatly into a framework in which (civilized) Israel builds, while (uncivilized) Palestinians kill. No one is made safer by avoiding context.

The East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya by Hagai Agmon-Snir, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

On top of all of the other problems, meeting terrorism with settlements also dehumanizes the settlers themselves. Even for Greater Israel aspirants, it’s worth asking what kind of message it sends when the Israeli government leverages a terror attack as a catalyst for legalizing or expanding settlements. Under the “they kill, we build” mantra, settlers are useful as both a human front line along Israel’s borders and at the edges of Jerusalem and martyrs whose deaths are an engine for right-wing policy.

This past month illustrated how officials in Jerusalem are still returning to the policy of answering terrorism with settlement expansion. Far from lending Israel the moral high ground, that policy ensures that Israelis and Palestinians will continue to find themselves locked in a deteriorating relationship years after Prime Minister Netanyahu first declared that one side builds, while the other kills.