Thursday, 09 November 2023 10:19

In the West Bank, Israeli settlers are on an anti-Palestinian rampage

Palestinian families pack up their belongings, dismantle their homes, and uproot their lives after a decision was made as a community to leave due to repeated reports of Israeli settler violence and harassment, in the village of Khirbet Zanuta in the West Bank, on October 30.

On Friday afternoon, I sat at home and waited to find out if Tariq Hathaleen was alive.

Tariq is an activist and English teacher in the Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair located in the West Bank, the land to the east of Israel that’s home to nearly 3 million Palestinians and would make up the heart of any future Palestinian state. He and I had just been connected by a mutual acquaintance, who suggested that Tariq would be a good person to talk to about the wave of violence unleashed against West Bank Palestinians while the world’s eyes were focused on Gaza.

Radical Israeli settlers, who intentionally build communities in the West Bank, routinely harass and assault their Palestinian neighbors. The settlers attack their herds, burn their property, beat them, and even kill them. This violence, paired with many more subtle techniques to pressure Palestinians to give up their land, has reached unprecedented levels in the month since the terrorist group Hamas’s massacre in southern Israel on October 7. At least 15 Palestinian communities have been fully displaced.

Many of these forcible transfers have happened to Palestinian communities in the South Hebron Hills, the West Bank region where Tariq lives. I was supposed to talk to him about what it was like to live through this at 4 pm on Friday, 11 pm his time. But when I texted, he didn’t answer. When I called, he didn’t answer again. Soon after, he sent me an ominous voice memo.

“I was about to answer and call you back, but now there’s military inside the community. We’ll see what happens,” he said.

The Israeli military, far from enforcing order, is a major part of the problem: Soldiers frequently abuse Palestinians, nearly always getting away with it. Data from the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din shows over 99 percent of official Palestinian allegations against soldiers between 2017 and 2021 did not yield an indictment, let alone a conviction. Since the war in Gaza began, sources on the ground have reported soldiers becoming even more hostile toward the Palestinians. While some Israeli military activity in the West Bank serves legitimate counterterrorism needs, the day-to-day reality is the Israeli government working hand-in-glove with the settlement movement to seize Palestinian land.

The most radical faction in Israel is, in effect, stepping up a longstanding campaign of dispossession: acting, both opportunistically and out of anger, to remove West Bank Palestinians from their homes. This escalation could lead to a deeper entrenchment of Israel’s occupation and, quite possibly, a violent Palestinian response that brings outright war to the West Bank. These developments threaten to further weaken the already-slim prospects of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the foreseeable future.

But most immediately, the consequences are being felt by the Palestinians under attack — like Tariq. When he told me that soldiers were in his village late at night, it meant something bad could happen — bad enough that I might never talk to him again.

I waited past sundown, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. I try not to work or use social media on Shabbat, but I had to know if Tariq was okay. Around 7 pm, he called me back: He was safe. This time around, the soldiers hadn’t bothered him — searching only outside Umm al-Khair’s homes rather than inside of them.

But the threat was real, based on both his recent experiences and those of other Palestinians. According to the United Nations, over 130 West Bank Palestinians have been killed in the weeks since October 7 — already nearing the entire total of Palestinians killed in the West Bank last year, itself the deadliest in nearly 20 years. Almost all were killed by the Israeli military, while “eight of them, including one child, were gunned down by settler militias, sometimes in army uniform,” per Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“[In our village] you think about how to live that day, how to stay safe that day, how to stay alive that day,” Tariq told me. “You don’t think about the future.”

A person walks on rubble past small homes that have been graffitied in Arabic and English. The English reads, “Where will I sleep?” and “Families not firing zones.”
A Palestinian walks in the village of Khallet al-Daba, in the occupied West Bank on October 26, 2023, after it was attacked by Israeli settlers.

Fanaticism, security, and the settlements

Israeli settlement in the West Bank, which started after Israel took the territory from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, grew for two distinct reasons. Understanding their interconnections is crucial to understanding the violence plaguing the West Bank today.

In those early days, the settlers themselves tended to be religious radicals, firmly committed to the idea that all of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea had been biblically granted to Jews and (by extension) to the state of Israel. Israel’s government encouraged settlement for more pragmatic reasons. A few settlements, established in key places alongside military bases, could serve to protect Israeli control over Jerusalem and provide “strategic depth” in the event of a Jordanian invasion from the east, which was then a real possibility.

Today, the security situation is completely different. Israel has had a formal peace treaty with Jordan for nearly 30 years and, bolstered by its close relationship with the US, is so militarily powerful that neither Jordan nor any other neighboring Arab state would dream of trying to conquer it. Its greatest security threat comes from Iran and its non-state terrorist proxies, including both Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the settler movement has long taken on a life of its own. Religious nationalists streamed into the West Bank; quite a few less fanatical Israelis, lured by relatively cheap housing prices in the settlements, followed suit. While many of these settlers live close to the “Green Line” — the border between Israel proper and the West Bank — many others live farther out. Settlers established these far-flung communities, sometimes legally and other times illegally, with an eye toward cutting Palestinian communities off from each other.

The radical religious settlers make up a small percentage of the overall Israeli population, but they have allies on the mainstream right, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu and many in his Likud Party oppose a Palestinian state on security grounds, worrying it would become a launching pad for rocket fire and terrorist incursions. Together, the settlers and their allies employ a laundry list of legalistic tools — ranging from housing subsidies to the national parks service — to assist in settler land grabs.

A large orange metal gate blocks a road, and behind it stand soldiers in camouflage uniforms.
Israeli soldiers guarding Israeli settlers who launched an attack on the Palestinian town of Deir Sharaf in the northern West Bank, on November 2.

And all Israeli governments, not just Netanyahu’s, have felt obligated to ensure their citizens’ security, settlers included. To protect them from Palestinian militants, Israel uses troops to block Palestinians from going near settlements, builds settler-only roads leading to and from Israel, and places hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks impeding Palestinian movement around the West Bank.

Settlement, in short, is not merely isolated acts from individual radicals; it is a wholly owned project of the Israeli state. It is no surprise that Israeli soldiers have long turned a blind eye to settler violence against Palestinians; they’re there to protect the settlers, and sometimes even align with the settler agenda. The interplay of religious fanaticism and Israeli security concerns has created an ever-deepening colonial project in the West Bank.

“The relationship of military and settlers is so symbiotic that the system cannot go against itself,” says Yehuda Shaul, director of the left-wing Israeli Center for Public Affairs.

Over the past two years, things have gotten much worse — especially since Netanyahu returned to power in the very last days of 2022, helming one of the country’s most extreme right-wing coalitions.

According to a September UN report, there had been roughly two settler attacks on Palestinians per day in 2022, a doubling of the previous year’s average. In the first eight months of 2023, the daily average went up to three — the highest figure since the UN began recording data on the topic in 2006. The violence between 2022 and August 2023 displaced roughly 1,100 Palestinians and emptied four communities, with scant accountability. The UN found that while 81 percent of Palestinian communities reported incidents to Israeli authorities, only 6 percent said they were aware of Israel acting on the provided information.

In the current government, the minister in charge of settlement policy is Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the far-right Religious Zionist party who is himself a settler extremist. After settlers attacked the Palestinian town of Huwara in February, Smotrich said, “I think that Huwara needs to be erased.”

So when the October 7 attacks happened, things were already getting worse. Since then, the dire situation has become a true crisis.

A cloud of black smoke rises above two multi-story tan buildings with trees in front of them.
Smoke seen rising from Palestinian shops and homes after an attack by Israeli settlers on the town of Deir Sharaf, in the northern West Bank, on November 2.

How October 7 set the West Bank on fire

Since the Hamas attack, the pace of settler violence has more than doubled — reaching an average pace of seven attacks a day. The scale of displacement has escalated accordingly, with nearly four times as many communities depopulated in the past month as in the preceding year and eight months. Of the 29 Palestinians killed by settlers in 2023, eight have died in the past month alone.

Part of the reason is very simple: The settlers thrive on impunity. When fewer people are paying attention to them, they feel like they have a greater ability to act without pushback from their opponents inside Israel and around the world. Like all Israelis, they were infuriated by the attacks of October 7; unlike almost all other Israelis, they have both the motive and the opportunity to take out their anger on Palestinian neighbors.

“The focus on Gaza has created a fog that allows ... settlers to create facts on the ground that they believe to be irreversible,” says Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

The government has condemned the violence but done little to stop it. If anything, some elements of the current Israeli leadership have encouraged their rampage.

During the war, a far-right parliamentarian named Zvi Sukkot became the new chair of the legislative subcommittee on West Bank affairs. Sukkot is an extremist settler who has been arrested at least four times on suspicion of radical activity, including lighting a mosque on fire. While he will have limited concrete powers, his appointment sends a signal that settler violence will be tolerated.

There’s another factor at work here, too, one that has to do with the nature of wartime mobilization.

Typically, the foot soldiers deployed to the West Bank are conscripts — young Israelis just out of high school fulfilling their mandatory military service. But during wartime, these conscripts are needed elsewhere. Currently, they’re deployed either in and around Gaza or else on the northern border with Lebanon, positioned in anticipation of potential escalation with Hezbollah.

To supplement its wartime forces, Israel has called up at least 360,000 reservists — roughly 4 percent of its entire population. Many of these reservists are directly involved in the war effort. But in at least some parts of the West Bank, the reservists are being drawn from local communities — which is to say, the settlements. As a result, some settlers who were assailing Palestinians as private citizens are now formally in charge of their security.

“It’s not that the military accompanies the settlers. Now the military is the settlers,” Shaul says.

These three factors — the focus on Gaza, the government’s indifference, and the settler penetration of the military — have created a kind of perfect storm leading to a spike in settler violence.

And now, Palestinians like Tariq Hathaleen are paying the price.

People gather around a bloodstain surrounded with leaves near the occupied West Bank city of Tulkarm, where two Palestinians were reportedly killed during clashes with Israeli forces on October 5.

How settler violence could ignite a wider war

There are a number of armed Palestinian militants in the West Bank, including both a smallish Hamas presence and the newly formed “Lions’ Den” faction. These groups’ activities are both a cause and consequence of settler violence; their attacks lead to settler retaliation, but their own incentives to violence arise in the wake of land grabs.

The more egregious the settlers’ actions become, the more likely Palestinian militants are to respond with brutal violence of their own. The more violent they get, the more settlers and the Israeli military will retaliate. And the more Israel inflicts violence on Palestinians, the more likely it is that violence erupts into a full-fledged uprising across the West Bank.

“I smell blood in the West Bank,” an unnamed Palestinian official told the Economist. “I don’t know where it will be, but it is coming: the settlers are going to do something terrible.”

The settler attacks on Palestinians, while occurring under the aegis of Israel’s military, are thus actually endangering the country’s security while it focuses on the tough task of fighting Hamas in Gaza.

“Hamas has a crucial ally in the West Bank: the settlers,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute.

Israel is aware of the risk here. The US government has become increasingly vocal about its fears of West Bank escalation; President Joe Biden has publicly and privately demanded that Israel do more to put a stop to the settler violence.

This is definitely within Israel’s power, but there’s a question of will. Netanyahu is on incredibly shaky political ground as resentment over October 7 and his response to it simmers; he remains in office by the grace of far-right settler parties, who care primarily about seizing West Bank land. If Netanyahu crosses them by ordering a crackdown on settler violence, there’s a real chance they’ll punish him by leaving the governing coalition — collapsing his government and costing him the position he seems to value above all else.

Israel today is in the exact opposite position it was in 1967. The interests of the state and settlers are no longer aligned; the settlers’ religious quest for land is increasingly jeopardizing Israeli security. The question is whether the settlers have become influential enough to override what is, in theory, the number one obligation of the Israeli state: keeping its citizens safe.

But security is not the only reason that some Israelis oppose the settlers. A minority, but a meaningfully sized one, care deeply about Palestinian rights and are willing to do something about it.

At the end of my conversation with Tariq, it was deep into the night in the West Bank. He told me something extraordinary: that, as we spoke, there were two Israelis still sleeping in his home, part of a contingent that voluntarily offers their bodies as protection from settler violence. They are not only his friends, but representatives of a different Israel than that of the settlers.

If there is to be a solution to both settler violence and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will involve gestures like this: Israelis and Arabs working together against the extremists to build a common future. As dark as things look in the West Bank and Gaza today, we can at least take some comfort in the idea that this spirit isn’t entirely dead.