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Israel-Palestine war: Why settlers want war in the West Bank

With the world's attention focused on Gaza, Israel’s militant settler movement is poised to seize its chance to drive Palestinians from the West Bank
Relatives of 16 year old Muennis Zeyadat, who was killed when Israeli soldiers opened fire, mourn during his funeral in Bani Na'im district of Hebron, West Bank on 12 October, 2023 (Reuters)

Today the eyes of the world are on Gaza where, assuming that Israel’s leaders are to be believed, the Netanyahu government is contemplating one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century.

With global attention riveted on this unfolding disaster, care should be taken not to overlook events elsewhere that might ultimately prove equally consequential.

Do not forget the Occupied West Bank.

On 10 October, four people were shot dead by settlers in the Palestinian town of Qusra. Then, when relatives gathered to mourn the dead less than 24 hours later, the settlers returned to claim two more lives as they opened fire on the funeral procession.

In Hebron, on 13 October, settlers opened fire on worshippers leaving their mosque after Friday prayers.

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The settlers operate with virtual impunity. They have strong political backing inside the Netanyahu government, and can rely on the support of the Israeli army.

At least 61 Palestinians are reported to have been killed and over 1,100 wounded in the West Bank over the past week.

That compares to a total of 172 killed in the first eight months of this year, according to official United Nations figures. And that figure had already surpassed the 155 killed in all of 2022.

Since Palestinian fighters’ lethal assault on Israel last weekend, UN observers have recorded 70 attacks by Israeli settlers causing property damage or casualties - nearly three times the rate recorded since the start of the year. 

The question is how much worse the situation will get. The signs are bleak. 

Unmistakable signs

Even before Hamas's attack of 7 October, there were already unmistakable signs that the Israeli government was looking at ways of driving Palestinians out of parts of the West Bank.

For Israel’s militant settler movement, this is their time. With the world looking the other way.

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Remember that Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-emergence as prime minister in December last year coincided with a new dimension of support for the settlement project. 

He appointed Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, and himself a settler activist, as finance minister.

Smotrich’s plan for “victory through settlement” would see Israel permanently annex the West Bank without granting political rights to Palestinians.

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After Smotrich was granted broad authority over the settlements earlier this year, he reportedly instructed government ministries to prepare for an additional 500,000 settlers in the West Bank - nearly doubling the number to over one million.

Equally chilling is that Netanyahu awarded the national security portfolio to Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the supremacist Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party.

Ben Gvir resides in the radical settlement of Kiryat Arba and has long been an avowed supporter of Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born rabbi who advocated expelling Arabs from a Greater Israel. 

In 1997, three years after Baruch Goldstein - a supporter of the radical Orthodox Jewish group founded by Kahane - massacred 29 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, the US State Department designated Kahane Chai as a foreign terrorist organisation. 

Last year, Ben Gvir distanced himself from some of Kahane’s positions but his record shows his longstanding support for the extreme right-wing rabbi and for Goldstein.

In 2007, Ben Gvir was convicted of supporting a terrorist organisation and incitement to racism after he carried signs reading “expel the Arab enemy” and “Kahane was right”.

He took his future wife on a first date to Goldstein's grave. Goldstein’s photo long adorned the wall of Ben Gvir’s living room.

In March 2023, Netanyahu acceded to Ben Gvir’s demand for the establishment of a national guard to crack down on unrest in Israel’s Arab communities.

Terrifying language

Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich retained their positions in Israel’s emergency government formed last week. Responding to requests from settlement leaders for weapons and security personnel, Ben Gvir announced that his ministry would distribute 10,000 firearms as well as combat gear "so that the settlements will be protected".

Looking on the optimistic side, there’s no evidence thus far that Prime Minister Netanyahu has tried to inflame the situation across the West Bank.

That’s no surprise. He’s gained a coalition of international support for his plan to invade Gaza, and the last thing he needs is to attract criticism elsewhere.

Netanyahu is fighting for his political life. He will be keenly aware of criticism that Palestinian fighters were only able to break out of Gaza because the Israeli army was too busy employed in settler operations across the West Bank. 

This probably explains why there have been no provocative announcements of new settlements since Netanyahu announced his plan to invade Gaza.

This official Israeli caution contrasts however with the terrifying language of some ultranationalist settlers on WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels.

As Middle East Eye revealed on 13 October, one group, calling itself the Nazi Hunters, is issuing lists of Palestinian targets, with names and locations posted on a far-right Telegram channel calling for them to be killed.

Among them is Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, imam of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It describes those targeted as “Nazis who are walking around freely and have not yet been eliminated”.

Spike in settler violence

Settler activists have been organising on mobile messaging platforms to conduct paramilitary actions against Palestinians in the West Bank. Messages in one such WhatsApp group, The Hills News, warned that “[a]ny Arab who dares to think of approaching one of the Jewish settlements may be killed”, declared that “it’s time to demoralise the Arabs”, and denounced Israel’s military for failing to take a sufficiently hardline approach. 

Take for example the funeral in Qusra. A message on The Hills News denounced the Israeli military for authorising “the terrorists to hold a funeral on the main road”.

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Details of the funeral route were posted along with a declaration of intent to “stop” the procession “with our bodies”.

A subsequent message on The Hills News enthused that the “convoy of Nazi supporters” had been disrupted and noted that two “terrorists” were “eliminated” - before adding, “it’s a shame that no more” had been. 

This ugly incident forms one event in a broader spike in soldier and settler violence. An editorial in Israel’s liberal newspaper Ha’aretz warned frankly that settlers “are trying to drag Israel into war in the West Bank”. 

This has indeed been a common theme in online commentary by settler activists. Posts on The Hills News have celebrated the destruction in Gaza but insisted that “the whole country is a front” while calling for “[t]he Arabs” to be “deported, either on their legs or in bags”, and “[t]he enemies” to be “eliminated” in Israel and the West Bank as well. 

“There are settlers everywhere,” one resident of the West Bank village of Qaryut said.

“Every time we approach houses near a settlement, they shoot at us. They are taking advantage of the security situation in Gaza, to take revenge on the West Bank.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
Jamie Stern-Weiner is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. He is the editor of Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine's Toughest Questions (OR Books, 2018) and Antisemitism and the Labour Party (Verso, 2019).
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