Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government dealt with its first flare-up of mass settler violence in the West Bank on Sunday as dozens of settlers left the Palestinian town of Huwara in ruin, with one dead and more than one hundred injured, triggered by the killing of two Jewish Israeli brothers in the town of Huwara. In the wake of the disaster some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners broke with his call for de-escalation, with one Knesset member hailing the event as a success for Israeli security and the far-right Bezazel Smotrich, now a high-ranking coalition partner in charge of all civil affairs in the West Bank, advocating for the government to destroy the village.
This tragedy emerges against the backdrop of an already tense Israeli political and security situation, including a bitter fight over a potential overhaul of the country’s judicial system. In response to terror attacks, Israeli security forces have been carrying out near nightly raids in the northern West Bank, leading to the deaths of dozens of Palestinian militants and civilians. It was initially reported that Israel had agreed to a freeze in settlement construction in order to de-escalate the situation, but soon after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir expressed defiance, Netanyahu stated there would be no change in Israeli settlement policy.
On Sunday morning, brothers Hillel Menachem Yaniv and Yagel Ya’acov Yaniv, Yeshiva students from the Har Bracha settlement, were shot and killed by a Palestinian gunman while driving on the Route 60 highway that cuts through Huwara, a road often used by Israelis and a flashpoint of past tensions. The assailant fled on foot and is still at large. By that afternoon, a rally had been organized in response with posters reading, “We demand victory! We demand revenge! We demand fighting back!“
Later that evening, dozens of settlers rampaged through Huwara, burning property, throwing rocks and attacking both Palestinians and Israeli journalists. The IDF, still searching for the Yanivs’ killer, were unprepared to deal with the violence according to Major General Yehuda Fuchs, who oversees the West Bank. The Palestinian Health Ministry reported that more than 100 people were injured. One man, 37-year-old Sameh Aqtash, died from a bullet wound to the stomach. According to his relatives, the IDF—not settlers—shot Aqtash, but the IDF contests this.
That same night a group of settlers occupied Evyatar—a controversial outpost south of Nablus that has been forcibly evacuated by the IDF many times—and vowed to resettle it in response to the Yanivs’ killings. Multiple attempts were made to evacuate the outpost overnight, and again on Monday morning, but removed settlers returned to the site.
Prime Minister Netanyahu made a call for calm and stability, saying that “despite all of the fervor and impulses, there is no room for anarchy and we will not come to terms with anarchy.” Bezalel Smotrich, who is himself a settler and a leader in the right-wing religious Zionist movement addressed the crowd via tweet, saying they “should not take the law into [their] own hands.” Smotrich later elaborated, advocating for the government to “wipe out” the town of Huwara. Itamar Ben Gvir, also a settler and right-wing religious Zionist leader, did not comment until later the next day while visiting the still populated Evyatar. Ben Gvir urged against vigilantism, saying that “the political answer to [a terror] attack is to establish this settlement.”
Ben Gvir’s fellow Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party member Zvika Fogel, chairman of the Knesset’s National Security Committee, proclaimed on Monday that he “looks very favorably” on the settler violence. “The effect of deterrence that was achieved yesterday following these so-called ‘pogroms’ hadn’t been achieved in the West Bank since Operation Defensive Shield,” he said, referring to the operation taken by the Israeli army in 2002 to counter the Second Intifada. In response, Leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid said, “This is not a full right-wing government, this is a full-anarchist government. MK Fogel must go to jail for inciting terror.” Fogel did later walk back his comments, ameding them to say “my words this morning were twisted. I said that the state is the body that needs to act to deter the terrorists, and under no circumstances should citizens [do the same].”
Foreign condemnation was swift. An EU spokesperson called the settler violence “unacceptable.” The U.K.’s ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, remarked that “Israel should tackle settler violence, with those responsible brought to justice.” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price condemned as unacceptable “the wide scale and indiscriminate violence by settlers against Palestinian civilians,” adding that “we expect the Israeli government to ensure full accountability and legal prosecution of those responsible for these attacks.” Price said of Smotrich’s call to destroy Huwara, “these comments were irresponsible. They were repugnant, they were disgusting.”
Hostilities in Huwara continued into Monday, with settlers still entering the town and attempting to harass Palestinians and the IDF using tear gas to separate fights. Moreover, the military has reported attempts by settlers to throw stones at IDF personnel and, in one case, to ram an officer with their car. Also on Monday, a Jewish American-Israeli man, Elan Ganeles, was killed in the West Bank by multiple gunmen driving in a passing car on Route 90 near Jericho. The assailants shot at two more cars and were apprehended Wednesday afternoon by Israeli security forces.
Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party announced on Monday, amid continuing violence, that they would boycott a previously planned Knesset debate over, among other things, the government’s attempts to re-evacuate the Evyatar outpost. A spokesperson claimed that doing so would be “in violation of the coalition agreements, and the right-wing policy.”
Opening Image: A burnt out car in Huwara. Credit: Osama Eid via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)