The firestorm that engulfed Hawara was just the latest pogrom Israeli settlers have visited upon Palestinians in the West Bank. The rookie mistake would be to see this in isolation. This was premeditated, a core part of the settler war on Palestinians. The settlers are not shy in adopting the most extreme brutality. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich last week declared: “The village of Hawara needs to be wiped out. I think that the state of Israel needs to do that – not … private individuals.” His threat should be taken seriously. He is not on the fringes. He is at the center of the Israeli system.
Mini Hawaras occur routinely – an average of three a day this year, up from two last year. Settlers attacking Palestinians and smashing up Palestinian property is an age-old custom, particularly since the 1980s. The Israeli army increasingly facilitates their actions. Settler violence has evolved from a strategy of harassment and local land theft to an all-out assault on strategic areas of the West Bank. It is a settler war on Palestinians, who have nobody to protect them. But the biggest change is that the headquarters of the settler movement is now the Israeli government. The drivers of Israeli government policy toward the Occupied Territories are settlers. Yes, settlement expansion has, without exception, been a key plank of every Israeli government since 1967, whether left or right, Labour or Likud. Even so-called Israeli doves like Shimon Peres expanded settlements. Yet, in 2023, the settlers determine policy, funding and even most of the military and security operations. Israelis notice how the army takes more action against Israeli activists protesting than it does against violent marauding Israeli settlers who have actually killed someone. The army is not a bystander watching Israeli settlers; it has actively connived and collaborated their attacks. The attack on Hawara was known about. The Israeli army base is only a couple of minutes away. However, when 500 Israeli and other activists turned up to show solidarity with the residents, the army declared it a closed military zone and denied them entry. Soldiers beat up several of the protesters. For an Israeli soldier to beat up a settler is almost unheard of.
Settler control has also been formalized. Last month, in an agreement between Smotrich and the defense minister, most of the day-to-day running of the West Bank was transferred to civilian control under Smotrich, himself a settler. His partner in crime, fellow settler Itamar Ben-Gvir, is the minister for national security. Why does this transfer matter? It is not shuffling the deckchairs. Occupied territory is meant to be temporary and under military control. Hitherto, the Israeli defense minister has acted as the sovereign power in the West Bank, the dictator over the day-to-day lives of Palestinians. Putting the West Bank under civilian control is tantamount to de jure annexation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir all openly work to end any possibility of a Palestinian state. This is not from the realm of the conspiracy theory but openly stated aims. International statesmen continue to spout their support for a two-state solution, seemingly oblivious to how dead set against it successive Israeli governments have been. Settlements are the key plank in denying any path to Palestinian statehood or even the end of occupation. For a passing moment, the international community, with the US at the forefront, pushed for a halt to settlement expansion. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raced to Israel and publicly declared settlements were an issue. At the Aqaba summit in February, it was agreed that Israel would make no new settlement plans for four months. Opposition leader Yair Lapid was quick to point out that, as prime minister, he had never buckled to American pressure to freeze settlements. Within minutes, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir mocked the summit and the reported freeze. Netanyahu then claimed the commitment to be completely false. The Israeli government was collectively mocking the Americans and others.
For those who still did not get the message, in the last week of February, an Israeli government panel advanced plans for 7,100 settlement units in the West Bank. This was the largest ever such decision at one meeting. In the whole of 2022, Israel approved “only” 4,427 units. To rub it in, they set a date for moving forward with the next stage of the doomsday E1 settlement plan that will sever Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and split it north to south. And to top it all, 15 settlement outposts are being legalized. In Jerusalem, settlement plans are never static. This week, plans will be approved that will make the settlement enclave of Nof Zion part of the settlement network, linking it to larger neighboring settlements. It would become the largest settlement embedded inside a Palestinian community in East Jerusalem. Given all the brouhaha in early February, one might have thought Blinken et al would be seething and demanding these decisions be revised. Barely a whimper emanated from the State Department. Spokesperson Ned Price referred to a “terrorist attack” on Israelis, in contrast to mere “settler violence.” If settler attacks are not terrorist, one wonders what is.
The settlers and their ilk are not just at war with Palestinians, but also much of Israel. The attack on the judiciary is also part of the settler strategy that links to Netanyahu’s personal need to undermine it to keep himself out of jail. The Israeli protests are massive, but are they winning? It is conceivable that they could bring down this coalition government, but this is energizing the settlers to maximize their advantage in power by accelerating every possible decision. They know time may be short in this political round and want to leave as many facts on the ground as possible. They will not waste their time. The settler movement has every incentive to escalate with the Palestinians. Palestinian attacks have largely been by individuals, but when they attack Israelis, the settlers will not hesitate in profiting to take more land and terrorize more Palestinians. The settler attacks are and will be massive and are designed to inflame because, heavily armed as they are and backed by the state, this is not a fair fight. Most Palestinians hide in their houses as soon as any settlers approach. The settlers have started their war for the West Bank by pursuing their maximalist goals. Unarmed Palestinian civilians have every right to be scared of these heavily armed thugs. What is so astonishing is that the international community runs away from the settlers too. It is a policy of appeasement. Such extremism needs to be countered, not condoned.