Humiliation, terrorism and mass displacement in Palestine’s other war
A war is ongoing in the Occupied Territories. But this war is far from Gaza — and it started long before Oct. 7.
In acts of flagrant terrorism, extremist settlers have waged increasingly aggressive assaults against rural West Bank populations, beating-up Palestinian farmers, terrorizing families, burning villages and crops, stealing livestock and murdering those who fall in their path. They seek to conquer the entire West Bank, compelling agricultural communities to abandon their ancestral farmlands.
The settler movement’s state-sponsored war of encroachment, displacement and ethnic cleansing goes back decades, despite its illegality under international law. However, under Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership and Donald Trump’s presidency, all pretense of efforts to curtail wholescale settlement expansion evaporated. By late 2022, Netanyahu had a Cabinet composed of a cohort of extreme-right stablemates with pedigrees of championing the forced displacement of Palestinians to neighboring countries and the seizure of the land in its entirety. As Simcha Rotman, a Religious Zionist party lawmaker, told the BBC: “You cannot occupy your own land. Israel is not an occupier in Israel because that’s the land of Israel.”
With fascist provocateur Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister responsible for West Bank policing, extremist settlers were unleashed to embark upon all-out war against Palestinian neighbors. This included large-scale invasions of Palestinian towns by paramilitary “hilltop youth.” In February, hundreds of settlers stormed Huwara and villages near Nablus, torching dozens of homes and vehicles and attacking residents.
In October, Shin Bet director Ronen Bar warned Netanyahu’s war Cabinet that settler attacks could trigger an explosion in West Bank violence, in parallel with the Gaza bloodshed. Yet government measures have thrown further gasoline on the fire. Official policy envisages doubling settler numbers, including large budget increases for house, road and infrastructure construction.
Settlers were drafted into the security forces as reservists under the recent emergency call-up, unsurprisingly abusing the power accruing from government-issued uniforms and automatic weapons. Palestinians report that nighttime attacks on their homes frequently include armed thugs in reservist uniforms.
After Netanyahu’s Oct. 7 security failures, Israeli gun ownership is predicted to exponentially increase, with Ben-Gvir lobbying for the relaxation of firearms licensing laws. The US State Department has voiced concern that an Israeli request for 24,000 assault rifles could pass directly into settlers’ hands. If automatic weapons enter circulation among settlers, the mass murder may be just getting started. It also bodes ill within Israel’s highly polarized society if the radical camp arms itself to the teeth.
There has been a dangerously rapid security deterioration in the West Bank, with a large increase in settler attacks since Oct. 7 — at least 308 recorded incidents in two months. Since Oct. 7, more than 266 West Bank Palestinians have been killed and 3,365 injured by Israeli forces and settlers, with a further 7,800 detained, along with the bulldozing and destruction of infrastructure and property.
Settler violence goes unpunished, as security personnel facilitate the attacks. In one October incident near Hebron, a settler shot an unarmed Palestinian at point-blank range while soldiers idly observed. According to the Israeli Yesh Din nongovernmental organization, of nearly 1,600 settler violence investigations since 2005, 93 percent were closed without legal action being taken.
In their inexorable efforts to monopolize the West Bank, this latest settler war seeks control of the entirety of Area C, the rural areas under Israeli security control. By carving out extensive belts of territory, they aim to displace Palestinians into ever smaller bubbles of land, rendering the vision of a contiguous Palestinian state an impossibility.
Settlers have seized about 10 percent of Area C in five years — including 110 sq. km in just the past year — an astonishing rate, given that all formal Israeli settlement zones seized since 1967 encompass 80 sq. km. According to UN statistics, 43 percent of all settler-related evictions since January 2022 have occurred since Oct. 7. In lightly populated agricultural areas, the loss of about 2,000 people represents the depopulation of entire villages.
Khirbet Zanuta is just one village abandoned after settlers threatened to murder those who stayed. One former resident testified that “settlers attacked us, destroying our homes, water tanks, solar panels, and cars … I made the hardest decision in my life: to leave Zanuta and leave everything behind, as memories. I did this to protect my children.”
Legal measures have furthermore been taken against moderate Israelis who advocate coexistence, often labeled as “traitors” and “seditionists.” There have been comparable witch hunts in the US, with the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania hauled before Congress and accused of being apologists for Hamas “terrorism” and “genocide” — compelling Pennsylvania’s president to resign.
The West has a long history of paying lip service to settlers’ peace-defeating exterminatory agendas. In a rare symbolic move, the US last week announced the imposition of travel bans on settlers implicated in attacks. Former State Department official Aaron David Miller categorized the measure as “necessary but not sufficient,” while James Zogby from the Arab American Institute dismissed the move as “cosmetic and not indicative of a serious effort to stem settler violence.”
The common threads running through the violence in Gaza and the West Bank are systematic humiliation and state terrorism.
Belgium’s prime minister last week commendably announced that “extremist settlers in the West Bank will be banned from entering Belgium.” He added that “violence against civilians will have consequences … We will push the European Union to follow suit.” The EU has indeed been discussing such measures, with foreign relations chief Josep Borrell remarking that he was “shocked” at Israel’s latest allocation of funds to build “new illegal settlements.”
The common threads running through the violence in Gaza and the West Bank are systematic humiliation and state terrorism. While West Bank farmers are terrorized and their livelihoods destroyed, Gaza citizens are bombed, displaced and orphaned. Citizens who refused to abandon their homes were last week paraded half-naked in humiliating footage, reminiscent of US atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison.
Hamas’ Oct. 7 killing of civilians was indeed an act of terrorism. Yet the killing, displacement and brutalization of West Bank citizens is equally a state-sponsored, systematic act of terror, explicitly committed toward the goal of a Palestinian genocide.
With the Biden administration expediting the sale of $106.5 million of tank ammunition and related equipment to Israel, the US and its allies must be compelled to recognize that, through billions of dollars of aid, weapons and political support, they are complicit in decades of enabling terrorism, occupation, apartheid, ethnic cleansing and flagrant violations of international law. Then, perhaps, initial steps can be taken toward justice, accountability and restitution for these historic crimes.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.