Burned cars which were set on fire by Jewish settlers in the West Bank village of Huwara, February 28th, 2023.
(This article previously appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter; subscribe here!)
In September of 2021, early in the afternoon on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, around 60 settlers entered the Palestinian village of Mufagara wearing ski masks and scarves, and armed with handguns, sticks, and rocks. They slit the throats of three sheep, then rampaged through the town, smashing windows, knifing tires, slashing water pipes, overturning cars, and shooting in the air. A three-year-old boy was hospitalized when a rock came through the window of his home, striking him in the head. According to Basil al-Adraa, a local activist and journalist who filmed the event, soldiers were present, but did nothing to stop the rampage. Some appeared to assist the settlers by firing tear gas and stun grenades into the homes of Palestinian residents.
A similar course of events transpired late last month: Following the killing of two Jewish Israeli brothers from the settlement of Har Bracha, Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, by a Palestinian man from the West Bank town of Huwara, hundreds of settlers chanting “Jewish blood will not be abandoned,” some of them armed, descended on the village by foot. Over the course of five hours that evening, hundreds of Israeli settlers marched into Huwara smashing windows, vandalizing shops and homes, and setting fire to over 250 automobiles. A 37-year-old Palestinian man, Sameh Aqtash, was killed in the mayhem, while soldiers stood by. More than 100 other Palestinians were wounded.
The rampage followed incitement by Davidi Ben Tzvi, the deputy head of the Samaria Regional Council, a settler political body, who tweeted, “our children’s blood is running in the streets . . . the village of Hawara must be erased today.” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich “liked” the tweet. According to Ziv Stahl, the executive director of Yesh Din, which provides legal support to Palestinian victims of settler violence, the army was certainly aware that violence was brewing. “Even I got a WhatsApp [message] saying ‘we’re going to retaliate’ with a place [to meet up],” she said. “I assume the military has better intelligence than I do.”
On Monday night, Israeli settlers again invaded Huwara and attacked a Palestinian family of five with rocks and an ax, injuring four, including a young girl. A group of settlers also celebrated the Jewish holiday of Purim by dancing in the streets of Huwara. They were joined by Israeli soldiers.
The February settler rampage in Huwara has been called “unprecedented” in media outlets like The Times of Israel and The Economist. But as the 2021 violence in Mufagara suggests, these violent episodes are part and parcel of a settlement movement that grants impunity across the board—whether for violent acts or illegal building and expansion—to settlers. Scholar Shaul Magid, who wrote a book on the political impact of the right-wing Jewish political figure Meir Kahane—a man who inspires Smotrich and his fellow far-right minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir—noted in an interview with Jewish Currents, “For people that are paying attention, what happened yesterday [in Huwara] is not surprising at all. This has been happening on a smaller scale for years.” This state of affairs has been recently intensified by the late February announcement that Israel’s Ministry of Defense was reassigning certain military authority over two of the bodies that exercise civic control the West Bank—Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Civil Administration—to Smotrich, a civilian government official. Analysts say this shift from military control to civilian control amounts to legal annexation of the West Bank. ”The bottom line,” Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer, tweeted “is that the agreement . . . is simultaneously a giant leap of legal annexation of the West Bank and an act of perpetuating the regime’s apartheid nature.”
The illegal outpost of Avigail is a case in point. Avigail was “established” in 2001, when Elisha Medan—the 25-year-old son of settler Yaacov Medan, a rabbi who heads a prestigious yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc—drove a bus to a hilltop overlooking Palestinian villages in the area of Masafer Yatta in the southern West Bank. He turned his bus into a home, which was considered illegal, and the Civil Administration—the Israeli body that deals with civilian issues in the West Bank—issued a demolition order. But the order was never carried out.
Instead, Avigail has nearly doubled itself every four or five years, according to Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, an analyst at the urban planning organization Bimkom. By 2005, the hilltop had ten prefabricated structures with civilians living in them. It had 18 in 2009, plus a paved road. By 2014, it was edging toward 40. By 2022, Bimkom’s aerial footage showed more than 50 buildings in Avigail, including a synagogue and a handful of permanent homes (“true villas,” Cohen-Lifshitz called them) with poured concrete foundations, gardens, and front yards with gates. Of the 101 demolition orders issued, only four were carried out by the army, which destroyed a storage container, a piece of heavy machinery, a concrete pool, and a bathroom. In the nearby Palestinian village of Mufagara, by contrast, nearly every home is in real danger of being demolished.
On February 12th, Netanyahu’s cabinet declared Avigail and eight other settlement outposts formally approved. (Cohen-Lifshitz, who read the fine print on the announcement, told me the number of outposts that will be affected by this approval was actually closer to 14.) Avigail demolition orders vanished in a poof of bureaucratic will.
The impact of Avigail on Palestinian life in the area is hard to quantify, but according to al-Adraa, the settlement’s main effect is to generate tremendous fear amongst Palestinains in the area: Palestinian farmers and shepherds are afraid to get anywhere near the settlement to raise their crops or graze their sheep. The result is that they have less and less land on which to earn a livelihood. “Every day [settlers] go and help to destroy Palestinian crops,” al-Adraa said.
Al-Adraa’s first memory of Avigail as a child was in 2007, he told Jewish Currents. His father was arrested near the outpost for reasons he could not understand at the time. “Later I understood that settlers came to harass him while he was there with his sheep, and the soldiers accepted whatever the settlers said and he was arrested,” he said. His father was held for 20 days, al-Adraa said, and then released.
The settlers have become bolder over the years. For some time, al-Adraa said, shepherds could still graze their sheep in the vicinity of the settlement. “But today the shepherds don’t go there . . . they attacked a shepherd and broke his hand in the spring of 2021. Now the residents are afraid to get too close.” What’s more, the settlers are raising sheep of their own, and they graze them on Palestinian fields. “They come next to the houses,” he said.
Settlement expansion and settler violence have long been understood as acts of “creeping” or “de facto” annexation. In late December, though, Prime Minister Netanyahu signed coalition agreements with both the Religious Zionism Party and the Jewish Power Party that include an explicit intent to annex the West Bank. According to Yael Berda, a professor at Hebrew University and an Israeli sociologist who studies Israel’s West Bank bureaucracy, the results of this move are becoming clearer every week. While the state has not formally declared annexation, the decision to sign over powers that govern the West Bank to Smotrich, Berda says, amounts to de jure or “legal” annexation of the territory. When the military occupies a territory, under international law its army is formally obligated to protect the occupied population, whether or not it actually does so. But if the West Bank is under civilian rule, as Smotrich’s appointment suggests, there is both no pretense of protection and no international legal framework to legitimate the application of different laws in different territories—a situation that formally constitutes apartheid. Berda said that this is one reason it has been so difficult for diplomats and officials to know how to respond to Smotrich’s new position, “because it means that [the international community] has a duty to act.”
On the ground, Smotrich’s civilian authority has already had an impact. Speaking of Huwara or other similar previous incidents, Berda says that while there has traditionally been an “expectation that when vigilantes are burning up the village, the military commander is going to step in and stop them,” the situation is less clear now. “On the ground, people do not know who represents the law. Who is supposed to enforce the law? Who is in charge of the territories? Is the military responsible or is the civilian [authority] responsible?” Berda says this amounts to a constitutional crisis, and makes this “the most dangerous moment ever in Israel’s history.”
After the pogrom in Huwara, Smotrich was asked on camera why he liked Davidi Ben Tzvi’s tweet saying that Huwara should be “erased.” He responded quickly: “Because I think the village of Huwara should be erased! I think that the State of Israel should do it, not private citizens.” The comments drew sharp criticism from the US, and Smotrich has since walked them back as an “emotional slip of the tongue.” But it is clear that Smotrich was sending a message: The state of Israel under this government should be seen as fully continuous with the settlement movement; the state and the law should authorize violence against Palestinians, much as it has with its retroactive legalization of outposts. With his new authority over COGAT and the Civil Administration, Berda says, Smotrich can do just that. Settlers now feel more empowered than ever to act as lords of the land—“not just because God gave it to them,” she said “but because a minister gave it to them.”
A previous version of this article misstated Yael Berda's discipline. She is a sociologist.