The pace of events in the West Bank over the past 10 days has been dizzying and has affected the foundation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shaky coalition, complicated Israel’s relationship with the US and forced the country’s military defenders to stretch the limits of their abilities. It’s also brought the issue of Jewish terrorism – so named by the heads of Israel’s military – to the forefront of the national discourse.
On 19 June, during an IDF, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Border Police operation in the Jenin refugee camp to arrest two terrorists, a Palestinian improvised explosive device wounded eight security personnel. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. During the ensuing rescue and extraction operation, IDF helicopters carried out an airstrike – the first in the West Bank since the Second Intifada. Seven Palestinians were killed during the operation, and 90 wounded.
On June 20, two Palestinian terrorists killed four Israeli civilians at a gas station near Eli. Hamas claimed that the assailants were its members, and called the attack a “natural response” to the IDF raid the day before.
On the night of 21 June, armed Palestinians fired toward the Jalama checkpoint, north of Jenin. An Israeli drone subsequently launched a missile at their vehicle, killing three Palestinians. The IDF said that the three were responsible for a number of shooting attacks in the West Bank.
On 26 June, Palestinians from the so-called al-Ayyash Brigades attempted to launch two rockets from the Jenin area toward Israel. Both fell short, with no damage or injuries reported.
From June 20 through June 25, Israeli extremists perpetrated 28 violent attacks against Palestinian villages across the northern and central West Bank. In total, one Palestinian was killed and 54 others were injured, while four Israeli citizens and one security officer were injured.
These included an attack by over 300 Israeli extremists on the Palestinian village of Turmus Aiya, northwest of Ramallah, on June 21; another rampage that evening in Orif, south of Nablus, against Palestinians, their property and other structures, including a school and a mosque; and more.
On June 24, security forces set up a roadblock outside the settlement Ateret after a vehicle with settlers who participated in the attacks entered it. Protesters gathered near the roadblock, and some violence ensued between them and Border Police officers.
On June 26, Col. Eliav Elbaz, the commander of the Binyamin Regional Brigade, was shouted at and called names like “murderer” and “traitor” when he went to pay a shiva call in Yad Binyamin at the home of Harel Masoud. Masoud was one of four people murdered by terrorists outside Eli last week.
During the night following the Eli attack, dozens of settlers, including members of Knesset from the coalition, reoccupied the evacuated outpost Evyatar. During the ensuing nights, at least seven other outposts were set up illegally. None had been evacuated as of Thursday afternoon.
On June 21, in response to the Eli terrorist attack, the government announced its plans to advance approximately 1,500 housing units, which include legalizing three outposts as new neighborhoods within the community’s municipal lines.
On June 26, Israel advanced plans for 5,700 settler homes in the West Bank, including the Eli units.
During a visit to Evyatar on June 23, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir called on the government to launch a large-scale military operation in the West Bank, saying security forces need to “demolish buildings” and kill “thousands of terrorists.” Ben-Gvir also encouraged followers to “run to the hilltops and settle them,” seemingly calling for illegal action.
That evening, Israel’s security chiefs said in a joint statement that the attacks against Palestinians were “against every moral and Jewish value and are also nationalist terrorism in every sense, and we are obliged to fight them,” adding that it “diverts the attention of the security forces from their main mission against Palestinian terrorism.” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said separately that he “strongly condemned the violence” perpetrated against residents of a Palestinian town, which included the burning of houses and vehicles. “This is not our way of life,” he said.
On the morning of June 26, National Missions Minister Orit Struck criticized the security chiefs for “issuing such a statement under the nose of the government,” and compared them to the Russian Wagner Force militia. The comment raised condemnations from ministers and opposition members. Struck later apologized for the Wagner comparison, but not for her criticism of the statement.
At the Knesset plenum on June 26, Netanyahu repeated his condemnation of the violence, but equated it to anti-judicial reform protests and riots in the Golan by Druze residents. “We’re a law-abiding country – in Judea and Samaria, in the Golan and on the Ayalon.”
Also on June 26, Finance Minister and Minister within the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich said, “Taking the law into one’s own hands is bad, harmful, and may lead to a loss of control and dangerous anarchy, and I call on everyone to refrain from actions that harm the settlements.” However, he added that “the attempt to create an equation between murderous Arab terrorism and actions against civilians, however serious they may be, is morally wrong and pragmatically dangerous.”
The verbal attack against Elbaz on June 26 was also condemned from both sides of the aisle, with Smotrich using his fiercest language yet, calling it a “disgrace.”
These are just some of the comments and actions by members of the government – and do not include many notable others by coalition Knesset members, not to mention condemnations by all of the opposition parties. On the other side, this also does not include leaders of “hilltop youth,” who justified the rampages in Palestinian towns on social media, arguing that the IDF was not acting to stop terrorism, and therefore they were the ones who needed to create “deterrence.”
The government's role in West Bank violence
WHEN LEADERS begin to argue about the semantics of “terrorism” versus “nationalist crime”; when they use comparisons between events that do not resemble each other; when they refrain from evacuating illegal outposts – and, in Ben-Gvir’s case, even seem to encourage illegal action – are they actually encouraging or turning a blind eye to the violence against Palestinian citizens? In other words, is Israel’s government, by inaction, hints or implied statements, planting the seeds of a vigilante movement?
The short answer is no, says Shalom Ben-Hanan, fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University, and a former senior Shin Bet official.
The violent group of “hilltop youth,” whose core numbers are a few dozen, do not care about Israel’s elected government. They are anarchists in the most basic sense – they do not accept the state’s sovereignty, its laws or its institutions, no matter who is in power. Some right-wing governments in the past were just as reviled as left-wing ones, and these youth are ostracized even by other far-right leaders in the settlements, Ben-Hanan argues.
However, there are two important issues that are relevant to the recent violence, he says.
The first, which Ben-Hanan says is a more general comment, is that the condemnations of the hilltops youth’s violence against Palestinian civilians have not been strong enough. The condemnation needs to be “louder, stronger, and far more significant and decisive,” in order to clearly demarcate the line between the vast majority of the settlers and this anarchist group.
The second is the “irresponsible” comments by politicians, some of which are listed above – calls to “run to the hilltops,” inappropriate criticism of the security establishment despite its incessant attempts to defend the settlers, and more. These comments definitely “contribute to the atmosphere,” but in Ben-Hanan’s opinion, their effect is exaggerated.
The violence of those settlers during the past week is therefore not different in essence from many other acts in the past – and is part of a wider phenomenon whose seeds were planted during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, and were not weeded out early enough, he argues.
“When you enable wild elements to grow for years, and you fail in preventing the phenomenon, and your voice is not strong enough against the phenomenon... it is natural that the escalation will keep on going,” he argues. This is true regarding extremist hilltop youth, but also regarding organized crime in the Arab sector and Bedouin crime in the South, he adds.
“I tell you unequivocally – if there is no treatment of the source of the problem – both by prevention and more fundamental, educational methods, it will continue to escalate, no matter who is in government,” Ben-Hanan says.
Yagil Levy, political sociologist and professor of public policy at the Open University of Israel, believes similarly that the Jewish extremist violence over the past few weeks is merely the evolution of an existing phenomenon.
According to Levy, Israeli governments’ de facto policy since 2002 – and increasingly since Netanyahu took power in 2009, effectively ending the possibility of a two-state solution – has been “creeping annexation” of Area C.
Levy argues that the state intentionally turns a blind eye to violence perpetrated by extremist settlers, as this violence serves the abovementioned policy. Citing the NGO Yesh Din, Levy says that indictments are handed down in only 7% of violent acts against Palestinian civilians or against their property, and convictions in approximately half of these – 3% out of all acts.
Still, the state, at least at face value, acts and speaks against acts of violence by extremist settlers against Palestinian civilians. These extremists thus operate under the radar, in covert acts known as “tag mehir” – “price tag.”
This changed in February, when, for the first time, extremist settlers shifted from covert acts of violence to an act in the open, under the eyes of the IDF. The fact that this repeated itself following the terrorist attack near Eli shows that the IDF is turning a blind eye, Levy claims.
Still, while these extremists may feel that there is more tolerance for their acts in the current government, this is not a paradigm shift – it is the continuation of a system that has existed under the radar for decades, Levy claims.
Rather than the change in tactics of extremist settlers’ violence against Palestinians, the effect of the current government may eventually be felt on a strategic level, for four reasons, Levy says.
First, under the current government, there is no talk whatsoever of entering any form of diplomatic engagement with the Palestinian Authority.
Second, under the current government, removing settlements is not an option. The government, and this was true already in the previous Netanyahu government, is acting to legalize illegal outposts. The fact that Smotrich has power over the Civil Administration means that although the defense minister still has the power to order evacuation of “fresh” outposts, none of the slightly older outposts will be evacuated under his watch, unless the High Court intervenes.
Third, despite this week’s announcement that Gallant placed four Jews in administrative detention relating to the recent revenge attacks and riots by West Bank Jewish residents against Palestinian villages, it is highly unlikely that under this government the IDF will undertake a high-profile prosecution as it did during the Elor Azaria case in 2015. The two soldiers from the Givati Brigade who were recorded beating left-wing activists in Hebron in November drew enough support from soon-to-be-ministers, and their punishment drew enough criticism from those same ministers, that in cases similar to Azaria’s, the IDF understands that it needs to tread far more carefully.
Fourth is the initiative to subjugate elements of the Border Police to Ben-Gvir. While this has not happened yet, the attempt to do so indicates that Ben-Gvir wishes to affect the behavior of these units – in a similar way he already is affecting the Israel Police, whether by statements, appointments or other means. Add to this a bill proposal by a member of Ben-Gvir’s party to grant immunity to soldiers for any acts committed while operating, and the message is clear, Levy claims.
Finally, Levy argues that the reason that the many acts of violence against Palestinian civilians largely remain under the surface is sociological: The children of middle- to upper-class secular Israelis who still control large parts of Israeli media, culture and politics no longer serve in large numbers in standard combat units, and therefore no longer encounter reality in the West Bank.
Minority groups, including religious soldiers, immigrants from former Soviet Union countries and from Ethiopia, Druze, and others, are overrepresented in the units that cycle in and out of the West Bank, and the “public eye” – which, in Israel’s case, often is the eye of the secular, middle- to upper-class Israeli echelon – looks increasingly less at the day-to-day realities on the ground in the West Bank.
Israel’s “public eye” will find it increasingly hard to ignore extremist settler rampages if they continue – and the eye of the international community is watching closely as well. Netanyahu cannot afford Jewish Israelis burning cars and houses of Palestinian civilians and terrorizing their communities, but neither can he afford to anger his coalition partners from the far Right. In order for the issue to die down, the prime minister must find a way to stymie acts of extremist, violent settlers, without fully utilizing the tools and complete freedom of action used to fight Palestinian terrorism.