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Huwara highlights the ‘symbiotic’ relationship between settlers and soldiers

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 10 March 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Army veterans, rights groups and Palestinians say the protection and blind-eye support offered by the IDF has enabled the spread of settler violence against West Bank towns.

The recent settler rampages in the West Bank villages of Huwara, Burin and Zaatara, with their images of flames of houses rising up to the night-time sky, elicited shock, dismay and denunciations abroad and from many Israelis.

But somewhat grotesquely, settlers were back in Huwara dancing in the street with IDF soldiers Monday in honour of the Purim holiday. Palestinians that day in Huwara again came under violent settler attack in which four people were injured.

Settlers also returned to Burin, pelting a house with stones as soldiers nearby did nothing to stop them, as was documented in a video. It was hard to escape the conclusion that despite tough pronouncements and vows to investigate, the IDF has learned little from the mass assault.

Although the scale and support for the onslaught from coalition figures like Bezalel Smotrich are worrying new developments, the underlying problem of settler violence is not new at all.

Indeed, the outburst can be seen as a continuation of the trend in recent years of increasing attacks in number and severity. The causes are much deeper than the killing of the two brothers from Har Bracha, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, in Huwara hours before the eruption. The shooting of the brothers itself came after the IDF killed 11 Palestinians during a raid in Nablus.

While IDF officials say that troops are charged with upholding the law for both settlers and Palestinians, in the eyes of Palestinian civilians and Israeli rights groups the settlers and army are on the same side, serving the same function: coercing Palestinians in order to make them leave their lands.

"The soldiers protect the settlers. They are like two fingers on the same hand."

Lafee Shalaby, mayor of Turmus Ayya

“The soldiers protect the settlers. They are like two fingers on the same hand,” Lafee Shalaby, the mayor of Turmus Ayya village near the Shilo settlement, told me in his office on Sunday.

IDF veterans in the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, who served in the West Bank, say the IDF-settler relationship is “symbiotic”.

Regarding Huwara, the IDF top brass seemed to recoil from the magnitude of the devastation wrought by an estimated 400 settlers who torched and damaged houses, some with residents who barely escaped, and in the words of one settler at the scene who spoke proudly on a video clip that his peers were engaged in “burning everything that comes to hand”.

West Bank Major-General Yehuda Fuchs told reporters the next day that it was a “pogrom” and that the settlers “spread terror”. IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said: “The severe events of wildness in Huwara will be investigated with the appropriate depth.”

Fuchs later took the rare step of taking responsibility for what he said was a failure to anticipate the sheer size and ferocity of the settler attack. “This was a terrible incident that shouldn’t have happened and I was supposed to take care of it.”

In general, when settlers attack Palestinians, the soldiers either stand idly by and do nothing, or they intervene in stone-throwing exchanges by firing tear gas and using stun grenades against the Palestinians - and only the Palestinians.

However,  what took place in Huwara, Burin and Zaatara was not a result of a technical or operational flaw but rather the result of the way the occupation works: Israeli security forces enjoy a cosy relationship with settlers that has until this point enabled the latter to act with virtual impunity and often without interference. The alliance is one of the pillars of the occupation.

“I don’t think Israel sends settlers to attack the Palestinians but because the goals are the same, Israel has no intention to stop it and that’s what happens on the ground,” says Ori Givati, spokesman for Breaking the Silence.

During my last few years of reporting, I have heard many similar accounts from many Palestinians of what IDF soldiers do when settlers attack. In general, either they stand idly by and do nothing, or they intervene in stone-throwing exchanges between settlers and Palestinians by firing tear gas and using stun grenades against the Palestinians - and only the Palestinians - who are trying to defend their property and families inside the houses.

Tellingly, more than 90 Palestinians and zero settlers were treated for tear gas inhalation in Huwara.

This has also been repeatedly filmed. Tellingly, more than 90 Palestinians and zero settlers were treated for tear gas inhalation in Huwara.

“I’m sure the settlers saw their role as dispersing Palestinians with tear gas and stun grenades. Eyewitness accounts show that when houses were torched and people went out to protect their property, they were shot at with tear gas and stun grenades," says Dan Owen, researcher at the Yesh Din group that monitors settler violence.

But the symbiosis extends to other areas. Settlers man patrols on the lookout for “illegal” construction, reporting their findings to military administrators who sometimes order their demolition in army operations. This takes place, even though it is virtually impossible to get permits to build legally.

In the village of Beita, near Nablus, the IDF has acted as the enforcement arm of messianic settlers, with soldiers using what appears to be massively excessive force to suppress an uprising against a takeover of land orchestrated by settler leaders.

In the southern West Bank, too, the army and settlers have been complementing one another at the expense of destitute Palestinian civilians. In late 2021, settlers in the Masafer Yatta area carried out a devastating assault on an entire hamlet, Mufaqara, that was seen as an escalation of their previous attacks in the area.

A three-year-old boy was struck in the head by a rock. Left-wingers termed it a pogrom and Fuchs showed up and made statements against the assault. But attacks by settlers continued, aimed at terrifying the Palestinians into leaving.

The army, for its part, confiscated or demolished residents’ property with the same apparent aim on the grounds that the area was a military firing zone. Since a High Court ruling last May in favour of the army, Fuchs’s troops have ratcheted up pressure on residents to leave, ordering restrictions on movement, heightened demolitions and the conducting of live fire training exercises around the villages. If past practice is any guide, the army training zone will be repurposed for use by settlers.

Burnt cars in Huwara after the settler rampage
Burnt cars in Huwara after the settler rampage

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the symbiosis is that some senior army officers in the West Bank are embracing the anti-Arab ideology of extremist settlers, promoting a degree of fundamentalism in the IDF ranks which can only augur poorly for the Palestinian civilian population.

Last year, officers in Hebron organised a series of lectures for reservists on local history given by Baruch Marzel, a disciple of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane. The series was cancelled after some of the reservists complained about the first lecture.

And the army under Fuchs’s guidance has been helping settlers stake out dubious new claims to Palestinian land. In August, as reported in Haaretz, troops invaded Tuwani village, south of Hebron, in the middle of the night and restricted Palestinians to their homes so that dozens of settlers could recite Tisha B’Av prayers in reverence to the destroyed biblical temples at the site of what the settlers claim is an ancient synagogue.

A few weeks later, more than 20 officers came back in the middle of the night for a tour marking the days of repentance in which special prayers are recited asking forgiveness from God.

Just five weeks ago, Judea and Samaria division commander Brigadier-General Avi Ballut encouraged top officers to read a book glorifying “redemption of the land”, a phrase settlers use for their land takeovers in the West Bank, Haaretz reported.

The book promises readers to outline how land has been “redeemed” from Abraham the Patriarch to “the youthful settlement”, the settler term for the illegal outposts that are often springboards for violence against Palestinians in places like Huwara and Burin.

It seems that in order for settler violence to be reduced, the IDF itself would first have to undergo significant attitudinal, operational and personnel changes. Meanwhile, the settlers are right in concluding that they have got away with their upping of the ante.

“Until we see the Minister of Defence and the head of the army saying clearly, 'We direct soldiers to stop and do everything they need to do to arrest settlers who attack Palestinians', nothing will change” Givati, from Breaking the Silence, says.

Given the clout of extremist settler leaders in the coalition and the poor record of the IDF, that seems unlikely. Under the current circumstances, Huwara’s “pogrom” is likely to remain just a case of unsound methodology in the eyes of the enforcers of the occupation.

The future for Palestinian civilians in the West Bank looks increasingly bleak.

Photo: A man in a Purim costume chats with an Israeli soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron this week (REUTERS/Baz Ratner TPX)

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

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