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Palestinians fear settler attacks foreshadow mass expulsions

Ben Lynfield
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Palestinians fear settler attacks foreshadow mass expulsions

Published: 30 June 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Fear is deep among Palestinians in the West Bank after a rash of settler attacks on Palestinian villages last week. Palestinian and Israeli analysts outline their concerns to BEN LYNFIELD.

Smouldering villages, mounting casualties and intensifying settlement activity are reinforcing Palestinian fears that settlers are moving towards expelling them from their West Bank homes.

That is the assessment of Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian analyst and pollster, following a week that saw violent settler attacks on five towns across the northern West Bank. The revenge rampages included the burning of homes and cars, desecration of mosques and at least one attempted shooting. They occurred after Palestinian gunmen shot four settlers dead in an attack on a gas station at Eli settlement last week. The attacks follow the pattern of a settler rampage in Huwara in February, which has been widely described as a pogrom.  

The far-right government led by Benjamin Netanyahu used the Eli attack as a spur to significantly ratchet up its drive to annex the West Bank, endorsing more than 5000 new housing units and allowing settlers reoccupy a disputed hilltop near the Palestinian town of Beita.

“It’s not just killing, it’s expansion of settlements, confiscation of land, policies the Israeli government is currently adopting that are creating a tremendous level of threat perception among Palestinians,” Shikaki says.

Shikaki’s work is highly esteemed by foreign diplomats and also among Israeli academics, with whom he has cooperated on projects. Now this senior scholar has concluded the same thing many ordinary Palestinians are fearing: that settlers, emboldened by the far-right coalition, believe they can destroy Palestinian national identity and will try to steer Israel-forced expulsions of Palestinians, and possibly even mass killings.

A settlement rabbi called for the “destruction of a village or city” to teach the Palestinians a lesson. Without missing a beat, he then went on to discuss the weekly Torah portion.

“This is not something that they will find easy to do but that this is their intention is certainly very clear,” Shikaki told The Jewish Independent.

He identifies the goal of “National Religious Israel” as the “extermination of the Palestinians eventually or forcing them to leave the country. That is the original aim of the settlers who came to Palestine more than 100 years ago and that is where National Religious Israel is leading Israel today.”

Whether or not this threat materialises, its resonance among Arabs is an indication of just how terrifying settler violence has become as an element of Israel's disastrous 56-year occupation of the West Bank.

Israelis also have reason to fear. Shikaki and veteran East Jerusalem journalist Said Ghazali both predict further escalation as Palestinians seek revenge for army operations and settler violence. The army says arrest raids are necessary to thwart Palestinian attacks.

But Ghazali, a former contributor to the UK’s Independent newspaper, stresses that Israelis will pay a price in fatalities for what he alleges is their government’s complicity in failing to stop settler attacks. “The Israelis will suffer from the enlargement of the circle of violence. There will be violence inside Israeli cities,” he told The Jewish Independent.

Ghazali also believes Israelis are “thinking about” expulsions of Palestinians. “But they cannot do it exactly the same way they did in 1948, to expel large numbers. I don’t think the world will allow them to do this and the US is asking Netanyahu to stop these attacks.”

 Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat dismissed fears of expulsion or mass killings as a “baseless accusation.” Haiat said that Palestinians are trying to score propaganda gains by demonising Israel. “After decades that the Palestinian Authority incites and promotes antisemitism in textbooks and pays monthly salaries to terrorists who kill Jews and promotes violence and terrorism against Israelis. this is a baseless accusation. Every time the Palestinian leadership had to choose between peace and violence, they chose violence.”

But some Israelis do not consider Palestinian fears far-fetched. Veteran Israeli political and strategic analyst Yossi Alpher told The Jewish Independent: “In 1948, with our backs to the wall, Israeli troops and irregulars did carry out a few massacres e.g. Deir Yassin to catalyse Arab flight from critical areas. So, there is precedent. Now imagine an all-out intifada focused on the West Bank. I can conceive of settler atrocities carried out in the fog of war.”

Democracy protest leader Shikma Bressler spoke out against the wave of settler attacks at a rally in Tel Aviv last Saturday night. In separate remarks to The Jewish Independent, Bressler said, “Fascism is fascism everywhere in the world. Jewish supremacy is yet another form of fascism and we must fight against it.”

Incitement against Palestinians has become a major issue. Israeli political scientist Menachem Klein, emeritus professor at Bar Ilan University, said settlers are normalising calls for the killing of Palestinian civilians.

Last week Moshe Heger, a reservist colonel and rabbi who heads a pre-military academy in the Yatir settlement, called for the “destruction of a village or city” in order, he said, to teach the Palestinians a lesson. Without missing a beat, he went on to discuss the weekly Torah portion. The Srugim website that is highly popular among religious right wingers publicised a video of Heger’s call without any criticism or comment.

Similarly, a radio interviewer made no comment when far-right MK Tzvika Foghel called for an all-out military onslaught, saying, “I prefer one thousand Arab mothers in mourning to one Jewish mother.”

Such language has become commonplace from the far-right minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir who last week urged that during a military campaign the army should kill “thousands of terrorists.”


Israel's Defence Minister orders four settlers to be held without trial after West Bank riots (Haaretz)  
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich condemned the orders, saying their use against settlers was “democratically and morally unacceptable” and “completely illegal”

Four months after Huwara settler riots, Israel fails to prosecute individuals involved (Haaretz)  
Although 17 settlers suspected of involvement in the  Huwara pogrom were arrested in the days after the rampage, most were released within days of their initial arrest.

Netanyahu: 'We are losing legitimacy in the international community' (Ynet)
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir clash over settler violence during closed-door meeting; Gallant: “We cannot behave like our enemies. You cannot say the Arabs do it, so we are allowed too”.

Ben-Gvir: Settlers who torched Palestinian villages are 'sweet boys' (Jerusalem Post)
The head of the Shin Bet warned of a direct threat to settlers conducting violence in Palestinian villages.

Israeli President Herzog denounces settler violence in call with Palestinian counterpart (Haaretz)  
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant made a similar declaration in a call with Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister. It is the first time since the government's formation six months ago that a member of the government has spoken with a Palestinian minister.

 US delivers 'tough talk' to Israeli officials over West Bank escalation (Al-Monitor)
The Israeli government has been warned that the Biden administration won’t stand idly by while settlers attack West Bank Palestinians.

Israel 'drifting into apartheid' with 'Government driving Jewish supremacy': What ex-UN chiefs saw on their visit (Haaretz)  
“Israeli society is being eroded” by the move towards a “one-state reality”: Ireland’s ex-president and the UN's former secretary-general have a harsh message for Israel and the international community – and expect to be  labelled “antisemitic”.

European Parliament committee calls for war crimes charges against Israel (Jerusalem Post)
MEP Evin Incir of the Swedish Social Democrats spearheaded the measure, which passed with 41 in favour, 24 opposed and nine abstentions.

How should the world react to Jewish terror? (Yossi Melman, Haaretz)
An idea raised in talks between Western and Arab diplomats regarding Israeli settler violence involves establishing a multinational force, to include “ normalisation countries” plus Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and possibly Saudi Arabia, to monitor the West Bank.

Netanyahu hasn’t ‘lost control’ of his government. He gave it to the supremacist far-right (David Horovitz, Times of Israel)
PM not only empowered Justice Minister Yariv Levin to batter democracy. He also placed anti-democratic radicals in key posts. Did he really think he’d be able to control them and their violent disciples?

Photo: An international delegation examines a torched building as they tour the West Bank town of Turmus Ayya last Friday, days after a rampage by Jewish settlers (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

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.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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