October 17, 2022
The last week has seen arguably one of the most intense bouts of Israeli army and settler violence against Palestinians since the height of the Second Intifada. It is a moment to contemplate how what used to be a few thousand settlers on the margins now find themselves at the heart of the Israeli establishment.
If you dive back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, with Likud in power for the first time, you find the Israeli settler movement brim full of aggressive confidence about settling — or, in reality, colonizing — the West Bank. Wildcat settlements started cropping up and settlers formed violent armed gangs to terrorize Palestinians. Settlers also started moving into the center of the Palestinian city of Hebron, as well as East Jerusalem.
Back in 1981, the West Bank settler population was just 17,000, which was alarming enough. Ariel Sharon was pushing to boost the number to 20,000 in advance of elections. But the settler movement always had a long-term horizon too. This was an era when the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division was busily planning for a settler population of 150,000. The settlers also had their own smaller organizations.
Two Israelis involved with the settler movement had a destructive impact on the Oslo process: Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians at prayer inside the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in February 1994 and Yigal Amir, who helped found a settler outpost, murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 18 months later.
Settlement pioneers would be astounded at the sheer scale of the settlement industry in 2022. With a population of more than 700,000 all over the West Bank, their leadership is now planning for a population of a million.
They are armed, powerful and unaccountable. Settlers continue to mount attacks on Palestinians at Hawara near Nablus, the northern Jordan Valley, around Ramallah, in East Jerusalem and also in the South Hebron Hills. More than 30 settlers from the settlement of Susiya, with Israeli soldiers alongside, stormed the village of Wadi Jaish in Masafer Yatta, destroying three tents and stealing trees from families. All of this is more than the usual settler harassment of olive farmers at this time of year, although the olive harvest has been a target. Settlers last week set fire to a Palestinian-owned farm near the city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, killing 30,000 chickens.
It is all part of quotidian life under occupation. Settlers block roads, throw stones at cars and houses, raid villages and farmland, set fields and olive groves alight, rip up crops and subject property to physical assault. Some are happy to hurl Molotov cocktails or use live fire. Even Palestinian children can be targets, especially en route to school.
One newish tool is drones. Friends in Nablus complain of the buzz of Israeli surveillance drones. Settlers also use them to try to catch out any Palestinians putting up what Israel would deem to be illegally constructed buildings.
Few areas of the West Bank are safe from the armed settler mobs. All this settler activity is scaled up, magnified and multiplied. Yes, not all of the 700,000 are part of the phalanx of Jewish supremacist, racist pyromaniacs tearing up the West Bank, but more than enough of them are there to terrify the unarmed Palestinian population.
One reason for settler exuberance is that settlers and their supporters are no longer on the periphery; they are truly welded into the Israeli establishment. The Israeli army and the settlers work very much in tandem. Time and time again, video evidence shows settlers firing live rounds while the Israeli soldiers do likewise.
The last week has highlighted the climate of permissibility and impunity these settlers enjoy. This has been the case since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, but the settlers of 2022 bask in the extraordinary confidence that, in today’s Israel, they are no longer on the outside but are represented in all major institutions, including the Supreme Court. If the far right forms a major part of the next Israeli coalition government after the Nov. 1 elections, then the settlers will see it as an even greater opportunity for a land grab and further unrelenting violence against their Palestinian neighbors.
Of course, settlers serve in the army, so many of them are active soldiers. For Palestinians, including children, who land up in the Israeli military court, it is often a settler judge who sentences them.
One settler champion who may make it into a Benjamin Netanyahu-led Cabinet is the far-right MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, an overt racist and populist. He supports expelling Palestinians and leads what may become the third-largest party in the Knesset. According to Israeli media reports, he meets with opposition leader Netanyahu at least once a week to coordinate. Ben-Gvir summed up his attitude when he pulled out a gun in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, telling the settlers with him that, “If (Palestinians) throw stones, shoot them.”
In the same area, settlers were heard screaming, “Slaves, you’re here to clean our houses,” intermingled with “death to Arabs” chants. Such appalling racism is all too common. “Here live enemies — expel or kill” was scrawled on a wall in the Palestinian village of Urif.
The complicity of the Israeli army and police in settler violence is alarming. Anyone who has spent time with Palestinian communities near settlements will have witnessed this time and time again. Israeli soldiers are there to protect the settlers, not the Palestinians. It is worse as the army increasingly facilitates settler attacks, as can be seen in the pogrom-like settler violence at Hawara in recent days.
The settlers and their supporters are no longer on the periphery; they are truly welded into the Israeli establishment.
The legal system plays its role. The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din determined that, from 2005 until the end of 2021, only “approximately 3 percent of investigation files opened following ideologically motivated offenses Israelis committed against Palestinians in the West Bank led to convictions.”
In the run-up to the Israeli elections, the settlers clearly feel they have the green light to escalate. Israeli soldiers have chalked up an alarming Palestinian fatality count, highlighting that they too have full clearance to shoot and kill. As ever, Palestinians have every reason to hate Israeli election season.
If the overt racist settler right, as opposed to those who try to disguise their bigotry, makes it into the next Israeli coalition, the world will be tested. Who will accept this, approving anti-Arab racism, and who will speak out? Do not hold your breath.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech
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