On February 26, a mob of hundreds of Israeli settlers rampaged through the West Bank village of Huwara, home to about seven thousand Palestinians, sowing terror and wreaking havoc. They chased residents with submachine guns and stabbed and assaulted others with metal rods and rocks. They set houses ablaze, broke doors and smashed windows, torched cars, burned stores, set fire to crops and trees, and killed sheep.
Israeli soldiers stood by and watched. Eyewitnesses related that the army was there to protect and support the settlers. Relatives of a Palestinian man killed during the rampage said that he was shot by Israeli soldiers as the family struggled to defend themselves from the rioters.
After seventeen hours of unceasing violence, the village resembled an abandoned battlefield, engulfed in smoke. Hundreds of Palestinians lay injured.
Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors settler violence in the West Bank, described the settlers quite chillingly: “They were monsters.” Even senior Israeli officials were shocked by the intensity of violence. Yehuda Fuchs, a top Israeli general who oversees the West Bank, called the rampage a “pogrom.”
The Huwara riot was a brutal example of settler vigilantism: the perpetrators sought to avenge the deaths of two Israeli settlers who had been shot by a Palestinian gunman in the occupied West Bank days before the attack.
In the aftermath of the Huwara rioting, Israeli government officials refused to condemn the violence. Some went so far as to praise the Huwara attackers, demanding additional collective punishment of Palestinians. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, vowed to “crush the enemies,” telling a gathering of armed settlers in the illegal outpost of Evyatar: “Our enemies need to hear a message of settlement, but also one of crushing them one by one.”
Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, a self-proclaimed fascist who also handles civil administration in the occupied West Bank, called for the village “to be wiped out,” adding, “I think the state of Israel should do it.” (The US State Department spokesman condemned Smotrich’s comments as “repugnant, irresponsible, and disgusting.”)
The crime itself has gone unpunished, and the settlers who orchestrated the attacks remain at large. (The eight settlers arrested by the police were promptly set free by an Israeli court.) Meanwhile, Palestinians suspected of killing Israelis were hunted down and killed by Israeli troops, their families forcefully evicted, and their homes demolished by Israeli bulldozers.
The Huwara attack was not an isolated episode. The rampage came days after Israeli forces invaded the West Bank city of Nablus, killing a dozen Palestinians and injuring over a hundred others. In February, Israeli military forces raided the city of Jericho, placed it under siege, and killed five Palestinians. In January, Israeli forces charged into the Jenin refugee camp and massacred ten Palestinians. So far this year, Israeli police, soldiers, and settlers have killed sixty-eight Palestinians.
Emboldened by Israel’s new ultranationalist government, violent settlers are acting with a sense of impunity long encouraged by hard-line Israeli leaders. The new government is proposing loosening civilian gun laws for settlers, while lavishing the settler movement with gifts and concessions — from appointing leaders to key cabinet posts, to legalizing illegal outposts, to building new settlements — at the same time it ramps up the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes.
The government itself is packed with hard-right settlers. Ben-Gvir, the new national security minister, is the leader of the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party and a far-right provocateur who lives in the hard-line Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron, where residents have harassed and assaulted Palestinians for decades. A lawyer by trade, Ben Gvir has built a legal career defending Jewish extremists accused of terrorism and hate crimes.
Ben-Gvir is a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of Kach, an extremist Jewish group that advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and was outlawed in Israel and placed on the US terrorist list. On Ben Gvir’s first date with his future wife, the two visited the grave of Baruch Goldstein, a settler terrorist who gunned down twenty-nine Palestinian worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994. He keeps a photograph of Goldstein on his living room wall.
In a nod to the settler community, Netanyahu named Ben Gvir to the national security post, with expanded powers that include control over Israeli police and the security forces operating in the West Bank. Ben Gvir has proposed granting police and soldiers wider leeway to deploy live ammunition and more legal protection for killing or injuring Palestinians. He is expected to leverage his new job to further empower settlers and dispossess Palestinians.
The Brutal Reality
For the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, the violence and terror unleashed daily by settlers and their leaders is a constant reminder that Israel is indeed an apartheid state, where a minority of Jewish settlers rules over an entire Palestinian population through a ruthless blend of military might, ethnic segregation, and lawless violence.
Today there are over half a million settlers in the West Bank, living in over 140 Jewish settlements, in addition to some 140 illegal outposts, which have been built over the past three decades without government approval and are considered illegal even under Israeli law. In East Jerusalem, about 340,000 Jewish settlers reside in illegal settlements built by Israeli authorities on private lands and private homes taken from Palestinians by force. Those settlers enjoy full civil rights and legal privileges that Israel denies to Palestinians.
Meanwhile, some 3.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, mostly in segregated cantons behind Israel’s “Apartheid Wall” and the newly constructed “Apartheid Road,” and in towns and cities penned between Jewish settlement blocks and behind a network of segregated roads, security barriers, and military installations. For Palestinians who live there, apartheid signals not merely segregation, but the inhumanity of life under occupation: the beatings, shootings, killings, assassinations, lynchings, curfews, military checkpoints, house demolitions, forced evictions and deportations, forceful separations, forced disappearances, uprooting of trees, mass arrests, extended imprisonments, and detentions without trial.
The ongoing explosion in violence is the ugly reality of Israeli apartheid, the culmination of decades of occupation of a stateless people deprived of basic human rights and freedoms.