As 2021 Ends, Tensions in the West Bank Flare Again

Israel, Latest

This May, rocket fire broke out between Israel and Gaza after a confluence of tensions in the region boiled over, especially in Jerusalem. After 11 days and hundreds of deaths, a ceasefire was reached. Since then, a lot has happened: two new variants of COVID-19, a change in Israel’s leadership for the first time in 12 years, and more have muffled the ongoing reports of violence in the area. In the West Bank, where Israel has struggled to balance the interests of the settler population with its desire for stability, a quickening pace of attacks against both Jews and Palestinians is beginning to come to wider attention.

One chain of events in headlines revolves around the former Israeli settlement of Homesh, which was constructed in 1978 on private farmland used by a nearby Palestinian village and forcibly evacuated as part of the 2005 disengagement under Ariel Sharon. Eight years later, the Israeli High Court ruled that the Palestinian owners should be permitted to return to the land. Some Jews have maintained a presence in Homesh by illegally continuing to operate its yeshiva, however, and Israeli settlers have continued to victimize Palestinian residents: In mid-November, four Arab farmers were injured in the farmland surrounding Homesh when they were attacked by Jewish settlers wielding clubs and pepper spray.

Yehuda Dimentman, a 25-year-old Israeli, was leaving the Homesh yeshiva with two of his friends when he was killed in an ambush by Palestinian gunmen, apparently in retaliation for the death of Palestinian Jamil al-Kiel. Al-Kiel was killed in Nablus a few nights prior to the ambush in Homesh, during an arrest by Israeli forces in the course of which he allegedly threw Molotov cocktails at police. Al-Kiel, as well as Dimentmen’s killers, are allegedly part of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which this weekend reached an agreement with Hamas to increase terrorism in the region. According to Palestinian officials, groups of settlers invaded several Arab villages after the murder, smashing cars and physically assaulting at least two people. Palestinians in the village of Silat al-Harithiya shot at Israeli soldiers, who were surveying the village to assess how to execute the punitive demolition of the homes of Dimentman’s killers and their families, consistent with IDF policy. On Sunday, Israeli public broadcaster KAN reported that the IDF has relaxed its rules of engagement with Palestinians who throw rocks or Molotov cocktails. Previously, soldiers were not allowed to shoot live ammunition at these individuals once the projectiles had left the assailants’ hands. Now, they can. On Tuesday, meanwhile, a car-ramming attack against an IDF checkpoint resulted in the death of the driver.

After the period of shiva mourning ended on Thursday, Dimentmen’s family led a rally of thousands at Homesh calling for the reinstatement of the settlement. Israel’s parliament voted 59-50 to oppose a non-legislative declaration that would have expressed support for legalizing the Homesh yeshiva and 70 other West Bank outposts. The IDF has established a temporary base on the hilltop, and organizers of the Samaria Regional Council, which organized the rally, fear that the yeshiva will be evacuated. “We will win,” said Dimentmen’s brother at the gathering. “It might take us five, 10 or 15 years, but we will return here and everywhere in the Land of Israel.” Omer bar Lev, Israel’s Public Security Minister, told KAN radio on Thursday that he disagreed. “What is illegal must be dealt with,” he said.

It can be difficult for those following from overseas to contextualize these kinds of developments or identify a narrative thread.There were 397 violent incidents in the West Bank recorded by the Shin Bet this year, up from 272 in 2020, according to a Times of Israel report. In a briefing with the Jerusalem Press Club, Israeli Security Services’ former Ramallah District chief Gonen Ben Itzhak says that the escalation is due to power struggles with Palestinian leadership. “Soon Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] will step down, and someone will need to take his place. Hamas is making a lot of efforts, some of them are shown by those incidents—and it is strengthening the leadership of Hamas in the West Bank.” This analysis links the incidents in the West Bank to two in Jerusalem in recent weeks: On November 21, a Hamas militant opened fire on a crowd of Israelis in the Old City, killing one and injuring four others. A week later, a Palestinian assailant seriously injured a Jew outside the walls of Old City in a stabbing attack. Both attackers were killed by Israeli forces.

Other analyses emphasize the rising rates of settler violence in the West Bank. According to the report by the Times of Israel, violent assaults by settlers against Palestinians rose by almost 50 percent this year, but arrests and indictments remained scarce. Per Haaretz, incidents of settler violence against Israeli security services also rose to 60 this year from 50 last year. The attacks were particularly bad in September and October. In one incident, 12 Palestinians were injured by a group of dozens of masked Israelis in the South Hebron hills throwing stones at the hamlet of al-Mufaqara. Those hurt included three-year-old Mohammad Mamamdeh, whose skull was fractured when one of the assailants threw a stone through the window of his house.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid characterized this attack as “terror,” but only two Israelis were charged with crimes. Per Times of Israel, rights group Yesh Din’s statistics indicates that 91 percent of police investigations into attacks by Israelis on Palestinians between 2005 and 2019 were closed without indictments. Palestinian sources in Times of Israel say that few attacks are reported to the police due to lack of action as well as fear that transit visas into Israel will be revoked.

Times of Israel reports that these incidents are predominantly perpetrated by so-called “Hilltop Youth”—radicalized ultranationalist young Jews from both sides of the Green Line. Definitions of the Hilltop Youth vary, as do estimates of their number, but many of them consider the State of Israel their enemy and wish to reestablish the Kingdom of Judea, seeking to accomplish this by harassing Palestinians and establishing encampments in areas of the West Bank Palestinians in which Palestinians reside, as well as conducting “price tag attacks.” The incidents reported are concentrated in the towns of Burin, Burqa, Kafr Malik, Huwarra and al-Tuwani.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has minimized the importance of settler violence, calling it an “insignificant phenomenon” after Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev’s repeated condemnations of the attacks. “I understand that it is truly difficult for some to look in the mirror,” said Bar-Lev, but “violence by extremist settlers is sweeping the entire world and foreign governments are interested in the issue.” Lapid has also called settler attacks “a stain on Israel.”

There are other factors that could be adding to the tension. A report by Haaretz indicates that 797 demolition orders for Palestinian-owned structures were issued by the Civil Administration last year in Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control per the Oslo Accords. This number is a five-year-high. Demolition orders are often issued for dwellings constructed without permits. Haaretz reports that “between 2016 and 2020, Palestinians submitted 2,550 requests for construction permits, but only 24 of them were granted—a mere 0.9 percent. From 2019-2020 the rate of approved requests was even lower, at 0.65.” In contrast, permits were issued for the construction of 8,356 settlement housing units, 384 times the number of permits given to Palestinians in the same period.

Gonen Ben Itzhak, former Ramallah District chief, expressed hope about the new coalition’s ability to fight terrorism. “I see this government, and although I’m not happy with everything it does, I see people today that actually come to work,” said Itzhak. “They are very diligent in what they do, and I have full assurance that even if we will experience some hard times–and we might see some harder times in the coming future–this government will know how to overcome the situation.”

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