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Israel's Land Grabs in the West Bank are Helping Justify the Far-Right Government's Power Grabs
Tolerance of harsh measures in the occupied areas has distorted Israeli politics
Late last month, after the United Nations and the European Union voiced concern over violent attacks by Jewish settlers against Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined them. “Calls to grab land illegally and actions of grabbing land illegally, are unacceptable to me. They undermine law and order in Judea and Samaria and must stop immediately,” he said at a cabinet meeting, using the biblical terms of the regions that make up the West Bank. At the same meeting, he touted his record of having “doubled” settlement construction in the West Bank, and as having done so “despite great and unprecedented international pressure.”
But the pressure was exerted because such construction is illegal. And herein lies the paradox facing Netanyahu, as violence in the West Bank continues: Informal illegal land grabs and violence are happening within the context of formal illegal land grabs and violence.
The Continuing Cycle of Violence
First, the scope of the violence: United Nations’ experts said that 2022 was the deadliest year in the West Bank since 2005 when tracking started. Some 150 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces; 33 of them children. The experts also said that 2022 was the sixth consecutive year of increased settler attacks. “Armed and masked Israeli settlers are attacking Palestinians in their homes, attacking children on their way to school, destroying property and burning olive groves, and terrorizing entire communities with complete impunity,” they said.
This year is on pace to be still more violent. According to the Associated Press, as of late last month, 137 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank so far this year. Meanwhile, 24 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. Earlier this summer, an Israeli raid on Jenin in which five Palestinians were killed was followed by Hamas gunmen killing four Israelis. This was followed by Israeli settlers rampaging through the town of Turmus Ayya, reportedly setting roughly 30 houses on fire.
To be sure, the violence is not only by the settlers. Earlier this month, an Israeli man and his two daughters were wounded in a shooting in the comparatively calm southern West Bank. This followed a shooting at the Hamra junction in April and another one in Huwara in February. The Palestinian Authority has been criticized by the United States and Israel for the “Palestinian Authority Martyrs Fund,” which they say motivates Palestinians to commit violent acts. And, as the International Crisis Group has reported, “In the past couple of years, a new generation of armed groups has arisen among West Bank Palestinians, drawing fire from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority ... They are driven by an inchoate but profound frustration with the status quo—from the Palestinians’ own ineffective leadership to the brutality of the ever-deepening Israeli occupation and an ailing economy.” The report noted that the groups do not yet pose a major security threat, but rather are “the tip of an iceberg, having tapped into the deep-seated disaffection in Palestinian society.”
No Such Thing as a ‘Legal’ Settlement
The construction of settlements—overwhelmingly Jewish Israeli civilian communities—in the West Bank despite the protestation of the international community did not, of course, begin with Netanyahu. As the Israel Policy Forum notes, in 1967 after the Six-Day War, Israel reestablished Kfar Etzion, a Jewish community in the West Bank that was the site of a massacre of 127 Jews in 1948. The community, which was not granted to Israel under the partition plan, was reconquered and occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, many religious Zionists settled in the West Bank who to date maintain a religious claim to the territory in its entirety.
Formal construction slowed in the 1990s and 2000s—but over 100 illegal outposts were still erected during that time. Though these were illegal under not just international but also Israeli law, some were legally recognized by the Israeli government later. This past winter, for example, Netanyahu announced he would recognize 10 illegal West Bank outposts.
Throughout this entire period, various international actors, among them U.S. presidents, have protested the continued construction of settlements. George H.W. Bush stopped billions in loan guarantees to build housing while clashing with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. (But as Eric Alterman recounts in “We Are Not One,” when Yitzhak Rabin returned to office in the early 1990s, Bush approved the guarantees and allowed for the completion of 11,000 in-progress housing units in the West Bank). “CLINTON SCOLDS ISRAEL ABOUT SETTLEMENTS,” reads a 1996 Washington Post headline in all caps. “Bush criticizes settlements on Israel visit,” reads a 2008 headline from the Guardian. The Obama administration famously declined to block an anti-settlement U.N. Security Council resolution in December 2016. Even former U.S. President Donald Trump, who moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, cut aid to Palestinians, and closed the Jerusalem consulate that gave Palestinians a link to Washington, told Netanyahu to “hold back” on the settlements. (Netanyahu was, in fact, the one on who Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump were all calling to stop settlement expansion.)
That president after president would express concern over settlements is not surprising. After all, the West Bank has not formally been annexed, and so is not formally under Israeli sovereignty. The ostensible goal of the settlements is security. In practice, however, they have meant a massive upheaval of Palestinian communities. But even the security rationale is dubious given that the settlements require over half of Israeli Defense Force troops to be positioned in the West Bank—and 80% of them to defend the settlers. The settlements also run counter to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” and bars “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory.” Setting aside the fact that Israeli settlers and Palestinians are treated far from equally under the law (Palestinians in the West Bank, for example, are subject to military law), the continued construction of settlements, formal and informal, is and always has been illegal—as well as ongoing.
Israeli and Palestinian Rights Aren’t Separable
It is said that the dissolution of Israeli democracy for Israelis is a byproduct of the treatment of Palestinians generally and the occupation specifically: That you cannot occupy a people for decades and expect that not to seep into your own body politic. That what happens in the West Bank will eventually be reflected in Jerusalem. In the same way, the rhetoric and ambitions of politicians in Jerusalem empowers settlers in the West Bank.
Does it matter that Netanyahu declares that settlers grabbing land is “unacceptable” when the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, says that the United States’ support for the two-state solution is “suicide” and the national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, declares, “We will not compromise on the Land of Israel. We will not compromise on any step. We will not compromise on any hill, on any outpost. This is ours”?
Smotrich also said last month that violence by Israeli settlers is not terrorism, while Ben Gvir, who was made national security minister weeks after threatening Palestinians in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah with a gun, said, “We have to settle the land of Israel and at the same time need to launch a military campaign, blow up buildings, assassinate terrorists. Not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands.” Netanyahu formed a coalition with Smotrich and Ben Gvir, after all, and this is what they believe. Why would their empowerment not be reflected in the actions of settlers?
The prime minister—and not only the prime minister—in the past year—and not only the past year—has shown that violent land grabs are, in fact, wholly acceptable. They’ve been accepted over and over again, both informally and formally, by a public divided between those who think that the settlements are good, those who don’t care and those who have minimal say in Israeli society.
Israel has been engulfed in mass protests in recent weeks. But these protests are not about the occupation—and settler violence—but about the right-wing government’s plans to reform the judiciary. But the two issues are not unrelated. On Monday, Justice Minister Yariv Levin defended the first part of the judicial reform (or judicial coup, as its critics call it), which abolished the “reasonableness” standard that the High Court uses to prevent corruption and block government decisions that exceed its authority. But every example he offered of the High Court’s illicit interventions involved the court’s defense of anti-occupation activists or Palestinians.
It should come as no surprise that the same officials who turned a blind eye to land grabs by settlers are now themselves grabbing power from the judiciary.
© The UnPopulist 2023