In West Bank, Settlers Sense Their Moment After Far Right’s Rise

The remains of Or Haim, an illegal settlement outpost, lie strewn across a windswept hilltop in the north of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Two dozen Israeli settlers erected a few flimsy huts there one night last month, and by morning, the Israeli Army had demolished them.

But the settlers plan to try again. The most right-wing government in Israel’s history, which includes settler leaders among its key ministers, entered office late last year, and the settler movement has been emboldened, sensing a window of opportunity to expand its enterprise faster than ever before.

“Now I expect things to go differently,” said Naveh Schindler, 19, a settler activist leading the effort to build the Or Haim outpost. “If I persevere enough,” Mr. Schindler said, “hopefully the government will build it themselves.”

Settlers like Mr. Schindler hope to build more Israeli settlements across the West Bank, which is illegal under international law, on land that Palestinians hoped would be the core of a future Palestinian state. Palestinians, meanwhile, are watching with fear and anxiety as the settlements expand, and as the number of attacks on Palestinians increase as more settlers come.

While previous Israeli governments and generals have built and protected hundreds of settlements, they have often opposed unauthorized outpost construction by settler activists. Now, open advocacy for settlements by government ministers and the growing ambitions of the settler movement, coupled with a recent surge of violence, are raising fears that it could help incite a coming explosion in the West Bank.

An unusually intense wave of settler violence against Palestinians and their property swept through parts of the territory last weekend. It followed a month of near daily Israeli military raids into Palestinians cities and towns that left at least 26 Palestinians dead. Palestinian violence against Israelis also continued to rise sharply, compounding the sense of a region on the brink.

A road leading to settlements and Palestinian areas in the north of the West Bank. The signs were written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, but the Arabic has been erased. Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times
Naveh Schindler, center, a settler activist leading the effort to build the Or Haim outpost, with friends this past week in Bruchin settlement. Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

United Nations officials documented at least 22 settler-led attacks and vandalism from Jan. 26 to Jan. 30, while Palestinian officials said the real number was roughly seven times higher. More than 70 settler attacks occurred throughout January, U.N. officials said — a rate that, if maintained throughout the year, would be the highest in at least a half-decade.

That capped a January in which the Israeli Army reported at least 59 Palestinian attacks in the West Bank, nearly twice as high as two months ago, causing several injuries but killing none. At least 35 Palestinians were killed during the same period, sometimes during those attacks. At least two were killed by civilian settlers, in circumstances that Israeli officials described as self-defense, but that Palestinians said was unclear.

A New Surge of Israeli-Palestinian Violence

  • A Turbulent Moment: The recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank has left seven Israelis and at least 14 Palestinians dead.
  • Balancing Act: Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, faces domestic calls for a harsh crackdown in response to the violence as well as international pressure to show moderation.
  • Fueling Tensions: The roots of the violence predate Israel’s new far-right government, but analysts fear the administration’s ministers and goals will further inflame the situation.
  • Home Demolitions: In response to the violence surge, the Israeli government is aggressively pursuing the policy of leveling the family homes of Palestinians accused of attacks as a deterrent.

Violence from both Israelis and Palestinians has long been routine in the territory, which was occupied by Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, in which Israel defeated several Arab states that were mobilizing against it. Hundreds of Israeli settlements have since been built there, impeding Palestinian hopes of sovereignty, and contributing to the creation of a two-tier legal system that tries settlers in civilian courts and Palestinians in military ones.

But now there are expectations of an even greater surge. Young settler activists, who believe the land in the West Bank has been promised to them by God, have been galvanized by the presence of their allies in the new government.

New groups of young Palestinian fighters have meanwhile emerged in response to the entrenchment of Israel’s occupation and the perceived corruption of their own leadership.

A surge of violence last week highlighted how ripe the situation was for further escalation. An Israeli Army raid in the northern West Bank killed 10 Palestinians after a gun battle erupted, before a Palestinian attacker shot dead seven civilians outside a synagogue in Jerusalem. Both episodes were the deadliest of their kind in years.

Less reported was a subsequent wave of settler attacks against Palestinians, in which settlers vandalized Palestinian shops, homes and cars.

Awad Abu Samra inspecting damage caused by settlers setting fire to a house this past week in Turmusaya, in the West Bank.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times
“It’s going to go from bad to worse, especially with this new government,” Mr. Abu Samra said.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

In one attack, surveillance footage showed three masked men inside the Palestinian town of Turmusaya late last Saturday night.

Video showed them jumping over a fence and walking toward a home, then out of view of the camera. Seconds later, flames erupted from underneath the house’s red terra-cotta awning and the men fled back over the fence.

“They believe they are the only ones who have a right to this land,” said Awad Abu Samra, 57, a Palestinian who rushed to the house — owned by a Palestinian-American — after the attack. “It’s going to go from bad to worse, especially with this new government,” Mr. Abu Samra added.

In the village of Jeensafoot, in the northwest of the West Bank, Wissam Eid, 29, woke up on Wednesday morning to find that all four tires of her family’s black S.U.V. had been slashed. At least seven other neighbors found their tires slashed as well, and residents attributed all eightepisodes to settlers.

For years, Israelis from a nearby settlement have entered the village a few times a year, slashing tires, breaking windows and writing racist, anti-Palestinian graffiti, including on the village mosque, residents and local officials said. But never in Ms. Eid’s neighborhood.

“I was frozen with fear,” she said after they discovered the vandalized vehicle. “They could have climbed up and entered the house.”

Ms. Eid decided not to send her children to school that morning, and hours later, she was still shaken, wringing her hands and fidgeting with her phone.

“Their goal is to make us scared,” she said. “They want to send a message: ‘Stay afraid, stay anxious.’ And I am.”

All four tires of Wissam Eid’s family’s S.U.V. were slashed this past week. At least seven other neighbors found their tires slashed as well, and residents attributed all of the episodes to settlers.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times
Ms. Eid decided not to send her children to school on Wednesday morning after she found the slashed tires.Credit…Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Settlers acknowledge that the violence takes place, but say that it is carried out by a tiny minority, almost always in self-defense, and that if there were no Palestinian attacks — like the one in Jerusalem last Friday — there would be no settler response. Some portray life in the West Bank as one of uneasy coexistence between two national groups, disturbed mostly by acts of Palestinian violence.

Palestinians killed nine Israelis in the West Bank last year, and 21 more Israelis and foreigners inside Israel. The Israeli military says it has given up trying to record the number of attacks by Palestinians throwing rocks at Israelis in the West Bank because the number is in the thousands.

“So many cases begin with an aggressive act by Palestinians against Israelis,” said Mr. Schindler, who added that he personally did not approve of violence. “Then we respond — but the media never covers it that way.”

But to Palestinians, Israelis have not only a monopoly on violence — more than 170 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank last year, most of them by the Israeli security forces, in the highest toll for more than a decade and a half — but also do not acknowledge the deep power imbalance the settlement enterprise in the West Bank has created, as well as the restrictions the occupation imposes on Palestinians’ daily routines and freedoms.

Israeli settlements often straddle private Palestinian land; require the mobilization of a huge Israeli military force to protect them; and have led to the legal system in which Palestinians are prosecuted in military courts with a very high conviction rate, while Israelis are charged in civilian ones, if at all.

Data released this week by Yesh Din, an Israeli rights watchdog that monitors settler violence, found that only 3 percent of Israeli nationalist crimes against Palestinians since 2005 had resulted in a conviction.

The new Israeli government’s statement of guiding principles, published late last year, began with a direct assertion of the Jewish people’s exclusive right to both Israel and the West Bank.

Another coalition agreement promised to formally annex the West Bank and to legalize dozens of unauthorized settlements in the territory. It also gave a settler leader, Bezalel Smotrich, nominal control over a Defense Ministry department that oversees West Bank construction and demolition.

“We’re hoping that a window of opportunity has been opened,” said Yedaaya Stein, 22, another settler activist leading efforts to erect Or Haim, the destroyed settlement outpost in the northern West Bank. “We are going to demand more and more building,” Mr. Stein added.

A blocked path that leads to where the Or Haim outpost was established.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times
“We don’t have to change everything overnight,” said Yisrael Medad, a veteran settler activist, at his home in Shilo, Israel. Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Under pressure from allies, including the United States, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has avoided carrying out parts of the coalition agreement in full. For now, he is acting to restrain Mr. Smotrich.

When Mr. Smotrich pushed to let Or Haim stay standing, Mr. Netanyahu overruled him. And though Mr. Smotrich wanted to demolish a strategically located Palestinian community east of Jerusalem, the government ultimately decided to delay its demolition this week, amid fears it might cause a wider Palestinian backlash.

Within the settler movement, that has caused friction. Younger activists generally want to use this moment to build even more settlement outposts, regardless of the local or international fallout. But some older activists feel that more can be achieved by working quietly in the corridors of power to give settlers more long-term control over the West Bank, enabling more building in the future.

“We don’t have to change everything overnight,” said Yisrael Medad, a veteran settler activist.

“With enough below-the-radar work in planning and strategic direction,” he added, “we can get a lot more done.”

But to young settlers like Mr. Schindler and Mr. Stein, now is the time to build new sites like Or Haim. Every crisis over a new settlement outpost will increase the pressure on the government to turn its pro-settler ideals into practice.

Any backlash is inevitable and therefore pointless to worry about, Mr. Schindler said.

“It’s a national war between two peoples,” he said. “The conflict is over land, there is less and less land to claim, and so the war over that land will intensify,” Mr. Schindler added.

The Palestinian village of Al-Sawiya on Road 60, which also leads to Yitzhar settlement in the West Bank. Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Gabby Sobelman, Hiba Yazbek and Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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