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When confronted by scenes of bloodshed and destruction in Israel and the occupied territories, there’s a tendency to talk of “the cycle of violence.” In this view, the entrenched enmities and existential imperatives that drive conflict between Israelis and Palestinians are so powerful that they create their own lethal logic, a tortuous chain of atrocity that winds its way back a whole century.
That chain lengthened by a few more links this weekend when an organized force of vigilante Israeli settlers descended upon the West Bank town of Huwara on Sunday and carried out a deadly, destructive rampage, torching dozens of homes and scores of cars. The raid was described in some Israeli and Palestinian circles as a “pogrom.” It left at least one Palestinian civilian — Sameh al-Aqtash, 37, who had just returned from a stint in Turkey as a volunteer earthquake relief worker — dead, an estimated hundred more injured and a whole community traumatized.
The attack by the settlers was billed as an act of revenge after a Palestinian gunman opened fire at a traffic junction near Huwara, killing two brothers who lived in a nearby Jewish settlement. That assault itself was likely retaliation for an Israeli military raid on the city of Nablus last week that saw 11 Palestinians — including militants and civilians — killed. On Monday, there were reports of new Palestinian attacks on Israeli-owned vehicles in the West Bank. The bloody wheel turns, the cycle of violence continues.
But such logic obscures more immediate forces at play. The installation of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history at the beginning of the year has been accompanied by the marked rise in violence. Since the start of the year, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed at least 61 Palestinians — civilians and militants. A new wave of militancy is stirring in the West Bank, which analysts say is fueled by anger at the Israeli military occupation and mounting settler violence as well as disillusionment with the prevailing political status quo represented by the deeply unpopular Palestinian Authority.
The violence in Huwara is “yet another sadly predictable reminder that events on the ground are spiraling out of control and will continue to do so absent real systemic changes,” observed the centrist Israel Policy Forum in a statement after Sunday’s violence. “The combination of a far-right Israeli government that is escalating confrontations with Palestinians in the West Bank and a Palestinian youth movement that is newly dedicated to terrorism and armed struggle as preferred forms of resistance will only ensure more such days.”
A timeline of recent escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians
Israeli security officials branded the settler attack on Huwara as “terrorism.” Yet, close to 24 hours after the raid was carried out, not one arrest had been made by Israeli police, and police had already released six of eight people detained. Israeli and Palestinian observers pointed to the acquiescent role played by the local Israel Defense Forces in essentially turning the other way as the settlers went on the rampage. According to +972 magazine, a left-wing Israeli publication, eyewitnesses in Huwara said the Israeli military allowed the settlers to walk into the town “on foot, while preventing journalists, medics, and Palestinian aid workers from doing the same.”
“For sure they will return again, but what can we do?” Refat Amer, a 47-year-old resident of Huwara, told my colleagues, referring to the armed settlers. “We can throw stones at them, and then the military shoots us, too.”
There also didn’t appear to be that wide a gap between the vigilantes and some figures in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, which leans on support from extremist pro-settler factions and has put forward an agenda that includes further annexation of Palestinian lands and legislation that would weaken the political rights of non-Jews.
Two of the most prominent ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, came to power on a track record of years of anti-Palestinian extremism and advocacy for the interests of ultranationalist settlers in the West Bank. They have routinely criticized Israel’s political establishment and military for not being supposedly tougher on Palestinian militant threats.
Tzvika Foghel, a lawmaker from Ben Gvir’s far-right Jewish Power party, told local radio on Monday that this form of “collective punishment” was justified. “A closed, burned Huwara; that’s what I want to see,” he said. “That’s the only way to achieve deterrence.”
Itamar Ben Gvir: How an extremist settler became a powerful Israeli minister
Horrifying scenes from the aftermath of last night’s settler attacks in Huwara, which left over 200 homes and shops vandalized or burned. The Damedi family just recently renovated their homes, only to have their brand new furniture, and car, burned and their windows shattered. pic.twitter.com/qJA6QevcLL
— Hiba Yazbek هبه يزبك (@Hibamyazbek) February 27, 2023
Such rhetoric underscores a hardening reality in Israel. “The Jewish Supremacist regime carried out a pogrom in the villages around Nablus yesterday. This isn’t ‘loss of control.’ This is exactly what Israeli control looks like,” tweeted Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “The settlers carry out the attack, the military secures it, the politicians back it. It’s a synergy.”
Palestinian observers accuse Israel’s security forces and settlers of deliberately inciting violence with near-daily incursions, an increase in home demolitions and tougher measures for Palestinians in Israeli detention. “Israel’s disproportionate violence and excessive force will lend credence to Palestinian armed actions as a way of avenging the dead and deterring more killings,” wrote Palestinian author and analyst Muhammad Shehada. “But escalation is exactly the point.”
“People might accept an occupation for a short while but will not accept it forever,” wrote veteran Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab. “When the Israelis stormed Jenin recently killing ten including an elderly man, what did they expect would happen in reaction? When the orders were given to storm the biggest city in the West Bank, Nablus, what did they expect?”
As violence unfurled across the West Bank, Israeli and Palestinian senior officials held a rare meeting in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba over the weekend in a bid to restore some calm to a rapidly deteriorating situation. But a joint statement that indicated Israel would temporarily freeze plans for settlement construction was rejected by Ben Gvir and Smotrich, and even Netanyahu backtracked from the announcement.
The Biden administration has largely sought to engage Netanyahu without truly reckoning with his far-right allies. That approach may prove untenable in the months to come. Similar concerns may be felt among the leadership of countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where warming ties with Israel could be undermined by a major bout of violence in the West Bank.
“A careful reading of the tea leaves shows that Netanyahu may, in fact, be able to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia without a two-state solution,” noted Alissa Pavia of the Atlantic Council, referring to the moribund process to create an independent Palestinian state. “But actions by his far-right ministers and his own further crackdowns on Palestinians may push Arab countries further away from normalization.”