Hard-line settlers in Israel’s far-right coalition government align with rioters on the ground.
The thick smoke and blazing fires rising from the Palestinian village of Huwara last week didn’t just signal the destruction below: burnt out houses and cars, scores of injured residents and one Palestinian man killed by rioting Israeli settlers.
It might also be a turning point in the conflict between these two groups — Israelis and Palestinians — that could set alight the occupied West Bank with violence not seen in decades.
“In the West Bank, no Palestinian feels safe anymore,” said Nour Odeh, a Palestinian author and activist in Ramallah.
In Huwara, dozens of armed Jewish settlers had stormed through in retaliation for the killing of two Israeli brothers a few hours earlier by Palestinian gunmen nearby.
Calls for calm after more violence in the West Bank
Israeli settlers rampaged through a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank hours after two Israeli brothers were killed nearby by a Palestinian gunman. It’s the latest flashpoint amid growing violence between Palestinians and Israelis that have leaders calling for calm.
The Israeli general in charge of the area called it a “pogrom carried out by outlaws,” his army division later detaining more than a dozen alleged rioters even as soldiers were accused of helping the settlers that night.
Friction between settlers and Palestinians has been rising, as Israeli settlements spread across the occupied territory — settlements largely approved by the Israeli government, though they are considered illegal and inflammatory by most of the international community. Some 620,000 Israeli Jewish settlers now live in the occupied territories according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, almost seven per cent of Israel’s total population.
Settler extremists now have government allies
And now, settler extremists have even more powerful allies in the new ultra nationalist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a far-right coalition that includes hard-line settlers in key cabinet portfolios.
One of them, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, triggered outrage at home and abroad when he responded to last weekend’s violence by saying, “I think Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it.”
The U.S. State Department called his comments “irresponsible” and “disgusting,” and pressured Netanyahu to disavow them.
Not only has he not done that, Netanyahu is also promoting new settlements.
Hours before the Huwara attack, Israeli and Palestinian delegations — along with U.S. and other Arab representatives — met in the Jordanian city of Aqaba to try to agree on a strategy for “de-escalation,” to prevent further violence.
The final joint communique included “an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months.”
Moments after the statement was released, Netanyahu denied there was any such agreement, tweeting that construction of settlements will continue on schedule.
“There is no freeze, and will not be any,” he wrote.
Rampage gives some Israelis pause
In Israel, many worry all this just gives extremists a green light to launch more attacks.
“This has given a sense of empowerment to everybody who has a more radical perspective, supporting very far right wing, I would even say Jewish supremacist, militant and violent tactics towards Palestinians,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political analyst for the Century Foundation think tank in Tel Aviv.
Some Israelis denounced the settlers’ rampage at protests.
The settlers did it “because they have the support of the government,” said Uri Weltmann. “They are deepening the occupation,” he said, and triggering “a spiral of violence.”
Other Israelis reached out to Palestinians with a crowdfunding campaign to rebuild Huwara, raising more than $600,000 Cdn in contributions.
But Palestinians see an existential threat in the Israeli government’s unvarnished support for settlers and even their extremism.
Odeh says she sees an attempt at “ethnic cleansing.”
“I don’t see that it’s beyond them to attempt to do that, whether by expulsion or by waging a military onslaught or by confining Palestinians,” she said. “I fear it, if they continue to be this drunk on power and they feel this shielded from any kind of accountability.”
Frustration among younger Palestinians
Many also fear more violence from both sides.
So far this year, more than 60 Palestinians — militants and civilians — have been killed by the Israeli army, police and settlers. Meanwhile, just over a dozen Israelis have died in attacks by Palestinian militants — three in the past week.
Some Palestinian attacks have been backed by major militant groups, such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, acting on ideology. But frustration is driving more and younger Palestinians to lash out on their own, or in “groups that are not politically affiliated, that have no ideology, but are more focused on resistance,” said Odeh.
“It’s just making Palestinians resort to even more desperate measures because the threat is becoming so much more present and severe,” said Nizar Farsakh, a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, now a lecturer at George Washington University.
With any kind of peace negotiations to end the occupation long stalled, Farsakh says Palestinians feel Israel “only responds to threats and to actual acts of violence.”
“That’s when we get results,” he said.
Israeli public opinion hardening, poll suggests
But public opinion also seems to be hardening in Israel, a long-term trend measured by Scheindlin, the Tel Aviv pollster, who says most Israelis now consider themselves “right wing,” and a larger proportion of them have “a more extreme understanding” of what that means. They’re the ones who elected the parties now in power.
A poll she conducted in December painted a pessimistic picture. When asked “What should happen next?” to solve the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians, only 30 per cent of Jewish Israelis opted for reaching a peace agreement, 11 per cent fewer than when they were last asked that question two years ago.
Instead, 26 per cent said the solution was a “definitive war with the Palestinians,” an increase of seven per cent. The trend was similar among Palestinians polled.
And for the first time since 2016, more Jewish Israelis opted for a “one-state solution” — with Israel controlling the whole territory and Palestinians having fewer rights — than a “two-state solution,” where each group has its own country.
Scheindlin says that might explain why major political parties in Israel “are afraid to embrace positions” that were long considered the diplomatic goal, even parties on the centre or left.
“Almost nobody in that camp talks about reviving a peace process or getting back to a two-state solution. And nobody dares to even touch the idea of freezing settlements.”
‘This is de facto annexation’
The Netanyahu government agenda includes none of those things.
Instead, he has given tighter control over administration of the occupied West Bank to Smotrich, the minister who said Huwara “needs to be wiped out.”
It’s a level of direct authority Israeli politicians have never had before, says Oded Haklai, a professor at Queen’s University who has studied Jewish Israeli-Palestinian relations and the politics of settlers.
“This is de facto annexation. It’s a tremendous, tremendous change,” he said. “It’s changing legal rules to make it into territorial absorption.”
Combined with “unprecedented” legitimization of settler violence, Haklai says it puts Israel on a “path toward nationalist authoritarianism.”
“I’ve never seen Israel like this,” he said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC’s Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.
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