Fear and terror rising in Israel’s tinderbox settlements

Fear and terror rising in Israel’s tinderbox settlements

The seemingly eternal Israel-Palestinian conflict now includes the increasingly volatile participation of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, who fervently oppose any compromise that would grant land and sovereignty to Palestinians.

Ongoing Palestinian violence follows in the path of a pair of past uprisings, each called an “intifada” in Arabic, or “shaking-off.” The settlers are engaged in their own version of intifada—violence to shake off a nearly dormant “land for peace” compromise that would give Palestinians sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Late last month, a group of settlers invaded the Palestinian West Bank town of Huwara, torched houses and cars, and killed a man. The attack was advertised as revenge punishment for the deaths of two Israeli settlers killed by Palestinian gunmen.

A member of Israel’s government blessed the assault. “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out,” said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, though he added the Israeli state should do it.

Quickly, Smotrich became a poster boy for Israelis who want either the expulsion or at least confinement in closed-off enclaves of Palestinians in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a promotor of Israeli settlements, quickly said the remarks were “inappropriate.”

Israel Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Image: Screengrab / I24 News

But the Huwara attack and the finance minister’s comment illustrated the long-standing rejection of the “two-state solution” by both settlers and a series of hyper-nationalist Israeli governments, most of them led by Netanyahu. It’s simply become more evident as violence has surged this year.

In practical terms, separating the West Bank from Israel is far-fetched. The Israeli population in the West Bank has grown from 94,000 in 1999, when the two-state solution formed the basis of Arab-Israeli peace talks, to 450,000 now.

Around 100 inhabited “outposts,” illegal under Israeli law, are sprinkled throughout the area. Israel controls water resources and high ground separating three main Palestinian enclaves.

The Palestinian West Bank population numbers 2.7 million. A network of settler-only roads and fences are intended to keep Israelis and Palestinians apart, though Huwara sits on one of the roads used by both.

The coastal Palestinian enclave of the Gaza Strip, devoid of settlements but isolated by walls and the lack of a seaport or airport, contains two million Palestinians.

Sides in the conflict respond reflexively to unrest. Israeli governments habitually call for calm. The Palestinian Authority, which governs the Palestinian population in the West Bank, demands peace talks. Neither gets what they claim to want.

The Ukraine war and China-US tensions far eclipse Middle East violence in the global mind. As for Israel and the Palestinians, US President Joe Biden focused his worry on the chance that the conflict will distract from a different threat—Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and its “continuing regional and global aggression.”

Nominally, Biden continues to support the two-state solution to the conflict. On March 9, his Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin took time out from the pressing Ukraine conflict to visit Netanyahu in Israel. Austin criticized settler violence, but he made no mention of solutions to the conflict as a whole.

“The United States remains firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric. We’re especially disturbed by violence from settlers against Palestinians,” Austin said.

Palestinian demonstrators throw rocks in response to Israeli forces’ intervention during a demonstration against the building of Jewish settlements and separation wall at Kafr Qaddum town of Nablus, West Bank on July 12, 2019. Stone-throwing characterized the first intifada earlier but the second one was more deadly and the third is shaping up similarly. Photo: Nedal Eshtayah / Anadolu Agency

The US administration did take a symbolic slap at Israel by canceling attendance by any of its members to a coming fundraising appearance in Washington by Smotrich, the Israeli minister who wants Huwara crushed.

Settler militancy has been building since the early 1990s when Israel and the Palestinians signed two Oslo Accords, named for the city where peace negotiations took place. They were designed to arrange land return to the Palestinians in exchange for lasting peace.

In 1994, a setter gunman killed 30 Palestinian worshippers at the main Muslim shrine in the West Bank town of Hebron.

The next year, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who favored the Oslo agreements, was assassinated in Tel Aviv. His killer, though not a settler himself, had organized student trips from Israel to the West Bank.

Before being sentenced to life imprisonment, the killer told police he assassinated Rabin as settlers weren’t up to the task because they “are concerned about their image.”

In the years since, individuals and organized groups of settlers have carried out physical assaults and arson attacks on Palestinians. This February, B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, chronicled 20 attacks by civilians on Palestinians, apart from the assault on Huwara.

They included beatings and the use of pepper spray on Palestinian civilians, the chopping down of olive groves and scattering of flocks of sheep and destruction of shacks.

Netanyahu, during his 14-year, off-and-on stints in power, has opposed a land-for-peace deal. His mantra is peace-for-peace, that is, acceptance by the Palestinians of Israel’s control of all land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River.

Netanyahu’s ruling coalition partners are even more unequivocal. They believe the conflict in the West Bank can only be solved by force.

His National Security Minster Itamar Ben-Gvir, who lives in a settlement, uses much the same language as the finance minister when he describes solutions to the conflict: “It’s time to stop the policy of acceptance. The terrorists must be crushed.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adjusts his skull cap after speaking at a special session of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to approve and swear in a new government, in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. Photo: Pool / Amir Cohen

Netanyahu also faces unrelated political problems. Demonstrations have rocked the country in recent days, though not over the Palestinian issue. Rather, the protests center on moves by Netanyahu to reduce judicial powers that could bring him to trial and conviction over longstanding charges of corruption.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is paralyzed by fear that its archrival, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), which rules the Gaza Strip, is growing in popularity.

Any agreement by the Palestinian Authority to bring “calm” without some sort of progress on territorial issues would further erode its waning hold on West Bank Palestinians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already declined an American offer of US$60 million in aid to help his police force fight off West Bank insurgents.

Biden is unfriendly with Netanyahu, who, when Biden was vice president under Democratic president Barack Obama, spoke to the US Congress at the invitation of Republicans.

The Israeli leader spoke out against Obama’s plan to curb Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons. But Biden has not tried to forcefully hammer either the Israelis or Palestinians into compromise.

In any event, settlers seem undeterred. On social media, hardline activists called for another attack on Huwara on March 11.