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Tuesday News Bulletin 06/27/23

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

This article is by senior reporter Alex Kane.

Palestinians inspect the damage caused by an attack of 200 settlers in the West Bank town of Turmus Ayya on June 21st.

Oren Ziv/Activestills

June 27th, 2023

On June 20th, Palestinian gunmen killed four Israeli settlers at a roadside restaurant near the West Bank settlement of Eli. The next day, hundreds of settlers responded by rampaging through the Palestinian town of Turmus Ayya, shooting live ammunition at residents and setting fire to at least 30 homes and 60 cars. According to witnesses, Israeli soldiers only arrived at the end of the hours-long attack, at which point they escorted settlers out of the town. One Palestinian was killed during the assault, though it is unclear whether an Israeli soldier or a settler was responsible.

Turmus Ayya bore the brunt of settlers’ outrage, but it was not the only Palestinian municipality that was attacked in retaliation for the killing of Israeli settlers last week. On June 20th, settlers burned cars and homes in the village of Al-Lubban ash-Sharqiya. On June 21st, settlers set fire to a school in the village of Urif; they also entered a mosque and seized a copy of the Quran, which they defaced and threw into the street. Yet another group of settlers stormed the village of Umm Safa on June 24th, firing weapons and burning houses and cars.

In the aftermath of these attacks, Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said that an Israeli army commander searching for the Umm Safa rioters was engaging in “collective punishment” by checking settlers’ cars. Ben-Gvir separately called for a military operation in the West Bank that would “blow up buildings [and] assassinate terrorists—not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands.”

To understand the roots of this settler violence, Jewish Currents turned to Hagar Shezaf, Haaretz’s West Bank correspondent. I spoke to Shezaf about the scope of the settler rampage in Turmus Ayya, Israeli leaders’ response, and why the political situation in the occupied West Bank is likely to worsen. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Kane: Settler violence is a daily reality throughout the West Bank. How is what happened in Turmus Ayya different?

Hagar Shezaf: Settlers will often go to the nearest junction and throw stones at Palestinians’ cars. That does not require much planning. But in Turmus Ayya, settlers set fire to houses and cars, which means they went in armed with flammable material. So that indicates to me that the Turmus Ayya attack was more premeditated and thus more violent. Overall, settlers are growing less concerned about the possibility of being stopped by law enforcement, and are acting with the knowledge that Israeli society in general is more accepting of their actions.

AK: The attack on Turmus Ayya is one of hundreds of incidents of settler violence that have taken place during the first year of this Netanyahu-led government. Just five months ago, Israeli settlers entered the village of Huwara, where they torched cars and homes with Palestinians still inside. Why are these settler attacks escalating?

HS: The attacks in Huwara and Turmus Ayya were made possible by Israel’s current government, which is a settler government. Sources in the defense establishment have told me that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are supportive of the attacks. My colleague Yaniv Kubovich’s sources say it is government policy to deny Israel’s armed forces the reinforcements necessary to prevent attacks on Palestinians.

The attack on Turmus Ayya could have been averted if the military, the Shin Bet [Israel’s equivalent of the FBI], and the Border Police weren’t standing down. I’m in a bunch of WhatsApp groups where settlers share times of protests and events, and when a message went out saying there will be a protest following the funeral of a settler killed by a Palestinian gunman, I thought, “Yeah, of course, there’s going to be violence.” I didn’t know the attack would be as extreme as it was, but when you see settlers marching toward a Palestinian town after a funeral, it’s a safe bet that there will be some sort of violence. And yet the Israeli authorities did nothing to anticipate the violence or act against it.

So my takeaway is that the situation was really bad before this, but—surprise—it can get worse under a government that is not just pro-settler, but a settler government.

AK: After Turmus Ayya, the Israeli army issued a statement condemning settler violence, and Netanyahu said, “All citizens of Israel are obligated to obey the law.” What do you make of those statements coming from a security apparatus and government that is allowing settler violence to escalate?

HS: On the one hand, certain statements need to be made for the sake of Israel’s relationship with the United States—even though that relationship has deteriorated. Officials need to say something, even if it means nothing.

On the other hand, the military actually is concerned about settler violence because it makes their work difficult. Even some of my army sources say that the chaos is a bit too much, which is something I’m hearing for the first time in my three years as a West Bank reporter. One source told me that army officials had planned a certain routine military action in the northern West Bank, but they ended up not doing it because they had to deal with settler violence in Urif. Of course, they did not deal with the settler violence very well—they didn’t prevent anything—but I do think there is a feeling among some in the military that things have gotten out of hand.

AK: What steps are Israeli authorities taking to stop settler attacks?

HS: After Huwara, the police arrested 17 settlers suspected of being involved in the attack, but the arrests never led to indictments. Most of the settlers have since been released.

Notably, two of the settlers suspected of attacking Huwara were sent to administrative detention [imprisonment without charge or trial]. It’s very, very rare to see Jews in administrative detention, so much so that after these early March detentions, for a time we had the highest-ever number of Jews in administrative detention—four. [The two other Jews were settlers detained for separate attacks in Huwara and Jerusalem.] But a few months later, the March detainees were let go after members of the Knesset signed a letter calling for their release and Ben-Gvir said “it’s undemocratic to arrest a person and then throw him in jail without evidence or a trial.”

AK: How do these attacks fit into the broader settler project of territorial expansion?

HS: I recently interviewed residents of Ein Samiya, a very small Palestinian village near the settlement of Kochav Hashahar. There are a number of very violent outposts [settlements built without explicit government authorization] in the area. As a result, the villagers said, “We are leaving because we can no longer tolerate the settler attacks here.” The day they left, settler WhatsApp groups were celebrating, which showed this violent settler attack had the aim of ethnic cleansing.

In Turmus Ayya, a private Palestinian company has been building houses for several years, but the project has been vandalized again and again, and the company has lost money and clients. The explicit goal of the attacks—which you can see in settlers’ tweets about it—is to prevent the construction of these Palestinian houses. Violence is the tool they are using to achieve that goal.

AK: Settlers are even able to leverage Palestinian militancy to grow their power. After the Palestinian attack near the settlement of Eli, seven more outposts were erected throughout the West Bank, more settlements were authorized in Eli, and settlers illegally returned to the outpost Evyatar, which the government removed them from in 2021. What’s the relationship between Palestinian violence and these developments?

HS: Many settlers want to find every opportunity to advance their aim of settling the entire West Bank. So the moment there is a political excuse, they use it. After the Palestinian gunmen killed settlers near Eli, Israel’s settler government quickly advanced an extra 1,000 housing units in Eli. The plan had been contemplated before, but they took this shooting as the opportunity to advance it.

AK: How do you think these dynamics will continue to play out in the West Bank?

HS: I don’t like prophecies, and I don’t know exactly where things are headed, but I do know a few things. First, Palestinian attacks on Israelis and settlers have become more deadly than before, simply because more weapons are being smuggled into the West Bank. There’s also a lot of theft and trade of Israeli army weapons, and you can now order materials online to construct a gun at home. So with these weapons and with the weakening of the Palestinian Authority, which used to arrest Palestinian militants, I think violence will continue to grow.

Secondly, within the Israeli political sphere—which has become more and more radical—there is a push toward a bigger military campaign in the northern West Bank, which would lead to even more killings of civilians. We’re already seeing tactics that prefigure such an escalation. A few days ago, the Israeli military used a drone to kill three Palestinian gunmen who were in their car, which is something that hasn’t happened in the West Bank since 2006. Such drone attacks are typically seen in Gaza, and Israeli policy has been to create different conditions in the two places, but recently, the lines between Israel’s treatment of Gaza and the West Bank are blurring.

When the news of the drone strike broke, Ben-Gvir and other ministers called the action a good start. All of this leads me to suspect that the situation will keep on spiraling. I don’t see a lot of good in the future.

Israeli settlers damage a Palestinian business in the West Bank village of Luban ash-Sharqiya on June 19th. The settler attack occurred near the spot where Palestinian gunmen shot and killed four settlers hours earlier.

Oren Ziv/Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • In early June, the Biden administration reversed former President Trump’s decision permitting US government funding for scientific projects conducted in Israeli settlements, according to news reports published on Sunday. The State Department made the decision shortly after Biden took office, but this month was the first time the policy had to be implemented after researchers in an Israeli settlement applied for a US grant. “Engaging in bilateral scientific and technological cooperation” with settlements is “inconsistent with US foreign policy,” the State Department said in recently-circulated guidance to other US government agencies on the policy. Republicans immediately condemned the move. The Biden administration is “discriminating against and banning cooperation with Jews based on where they live,” said Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
  • Sixty-five US Senators urged the Biden administration to grant Israel entry into the Visa-Waiver Program (VWP), which would allow citizens of Israel and the US to travel between the two countries without needing a visa. “Israel’s participation in VWP would significantly increase the potential for both tourism and business travel,” the senators wrote in a letter sent to the secretaries of state and homeland security on June 21st. The letter asked the Biden administration to prioritize Israel’s entry into the program by September 30th, which is the end of the US fiscal year. Palestinian and Arab American groups say Israel should not be granted entry into the program until it agrees to stop the racial profiling, harassment, and detention of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim Americans traveling to Israel and the occupied West Bank.
  • According to newly unsealed documents published by New York University’s Taub Center for Israel Studies, Israeli authorities poisoned Palestinian land as part of an effort to dispossess Palestinians and ultimately build an Israeli settlement in the West Bank in the 1970s. The documents showed that the Israeli government deployed a crop duster to spread a toxic chemical in the Palestinian village of Aqraba in order to stop Palestinians from cultivating their land.
  • Earlier today, Human Rights Watch criticized the United Nations (UN) Secretary General’s decision to omit Israel from its annual list of groups that perpetrate grave human rights violations against children. While the UN report documents Israeli attacks on and detention of Palestinian children, it does not include Israel on the list of “parties that commit grave violations affecting children.” “Israel’s continued omission from the list of shame does a grave disservice to Palestinian children,” wrote Jo Becker, advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “While the secretary-general has never included Israel in his list, he has included other forces or groups responsible for far fewer violations.” Becker noted that Israel engaged in “aggressive lobbying” to avoid being included on the list.
  • The international organization of senior diplomats known as The Elders said last Thursday that Israel’s government has shown “an intent to pursue permanent annexation rather than temporary occupation, based on Jewish supremacy.” The group’s statement summed up the conclusions of a June visit to Israel/Palestine by former Irish president Mary Robinson and former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who are the chairs of The Elders. The statement also said there is “growing evidence that the situation meets the international legal definition of apartheid.”