Earlier this month, Israeli settlers set ablaze the Palestinian town of Huwara, near Nablus, in what many described as a pogrom. Sameh Aqtesh, a 37-year-old Palestinian father of five, was shot dead, dozens were injured and many homes and businesses were vandalised. Since then, there have been subsequent attacks on the town and neighbouring areas. The Western media has taken an interest, but it framed what happened in Huwara as tit for tat between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. As a result, the coverage of the pogrom in the West ignored not only months of escalating settler violence but also the reality of Zionist settler colonialism.
So-called liberal Zionists and Israelis who consider themselves on the left of the political spectrum also showed an interest in Huwara. Since the pogrom, dozens of Israeli activists descended on the town to demonstrate. A small minority among the tens of thousands of Israelis attending the “pro-democracy” protests against the coalition government’s judicial reform plans have also raised anti-occupation slogans in the wake of the attack on Huwara. Others have taken to writing publicly about the shamefulness of what took place, claiming that at this moment “to love Israel is to denounce it”. “This is of concern to Jewry all over the world,” said British Jewish historian Simon Schama. “It’s absolutely, utterly horrifying.” Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence – “a noble document, which promised equal civil rights to all religious and ethnic groups” – had disintegrated, he said. For these Israelis and Zionists, what happened in Huwara is seen simply through the prism of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government. In other words, as a regrettable symptom of the Israeli regime’s shift to the right and the inevitable emboldening of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. This is an astoundingly deluded take on reality.
Indeed, portrayals of Israeli settlers in the West Bank as completely separate and inherently different to the rest of Israel is a demonstration of cognitive dissonance par excellence. One does not have to dig that deep to discover that the burning of Palestinian villages is not a new tactic in the Zionist playbook, rather it is a core feature. In 1948, the year of the Nakba, over 450 Palestinian villages and towns were wiped from the map by Zionist militias and 800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile as a result. Indeed massacres such as the one in Deir Yassin and Tantura remain etched in Palestinian collective memories. Today, some of the Israeli regime’s most important landmarks sit where Palestinian localities once stood, from Tel Aviv University to Ben Gurion airport. Many of the Israeli activists who came to demonstrate in Huwara, came from their homes, hipster bars and artisanal bakeries in Tel Aviv that sit on top of destroyed Palestinian villages. Far from Schama’s description of a noble document, the Israeli Declaration of Independence institutionalised Zionist settler colonialism and the destruction of Palestine. In the decades that followed the Nakba, the destruction of Palestinian villages continued to be a core feature of the Israeli regime. In 1967, when it conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more villages were wiped out and yet again hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced into exile. In the Old City of Jerusalem, an entire neighbourhood – the Maghrebi Quarter – was razed to the ground. The year 1967 also marked the start of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza, spearheaded by an Israeli Labour government and not a right-wing one as some might have presumed. While the discourse of the far right has undoubtedly led to more settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank in recent years – such as the one in 2015 when Israeli settlers invaded the village of Duma, south of Nablus, and set alight the Dawabsheh family home killing an 18-month-old Palestinian baby – the erasure of the Palestinian people is in the essence of the Israeli regime. To separate the actions of settlers in the West Bank from the rest is an attempt to conceal the reality of Israeli settler colonialism that exists from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. That is why the pogrom in Huwara has to be understood as a simple continuation of a settler colonial legacy.