New York Times op-ed: A Dangerous Shift Is Underway in the West Bank

A Dangerous Shift Is Underway in the West Bank

Mr. Nir is a former West Bank correspondent of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.

In April 1988, as a reporter for Haaretz, I attended the funeral of a 15-year-old West Bank settler, Tirza Porat, who was accidentally shot to death by a fellow settler. Ms. Porat was participating in a hike of teens from a settlement near the city of Nablus when, following a confrontation with Palestinian rock throwers in a nearby village, a young settler opened fire, mistakenly killing Ms. Porat.

At her funeral, settler leaders called for revenge. One scrawny settler, sitting on a big rock a few yards behind where I stood, repeatedly chanted, “Geirush! Geirush!” (Expulsion!) in a heavy American accent. Later, after the crowd dispersed, the settler told me he had recently emigrated from New York and that his dream was removing the Arabs from the Promised Land.

His chant has been resounding in my ears as I’ve followed the latest cycle of violence in the West Bank.

Last week, two Palestinian terrorists killed four Israelis and injured four others near the Eli settlement, escalating monthslong violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank. The next day, some 400 settlers descended on several Palestinian villages, including Turmus Aya, a prosperous town near Ramallah, where reportedly they torched cars and homes. The attack follows others this year, which as The Times noted in February, has marked “one of the most intense episodes of settler-led violence in memory.” Since January, there have been more than 440 settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

Indeed, it seems ever more clear to me that ultranationalist West Bank settlers today are pursuing the same objective espoused by that American settler in 1988: to drive Palestinians out. They are undoubtedly feeling emboldened by the new Israeli government — the most pro-settlement and anti-Palestinian to date — possibly even believing their apparent dream of wedging out their Palestinian neighbors is now official state policy. Geirush Now!

It is not hard to see how we arrived here.

In the last quarter century, the intersection of ever-expansive building projects in the occupied territories and greater permissiveness over settler violence has created a toxic brew of leniency and lack of accountability. In the process, more and more Israelis have accepted the view that areas in the West Bank inhabited by Jewish settlers have become a part of sovereign Israel.

Of course, not all West Bank settlers are ultranationalists who believe that living in the Land of the Bible is a religious edict. Most settlers, in fact, including hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, move there seeking affordable housing. While it’s hard to identify the ideology of the settlers involved in the latest string of attacks, it is likely that many, if not the majority, belong to the first group.

Yet even as the occupied territories have grown ever more occupied since the early 1990s, the idea of clearing the land of Palestinians was seen by all Israelis, including the settlers, to be about as attainable as the Messiah arriving on his white donkey. For many years, the ultranationalist settlers’ strategy was mostly focused on avenging Palestinian terrorism and maintaining their illegal outposts — proto-settlements built without government approval and in violation of Israeli law. Extremist settlers’ attacks on Palestinians were a way to hold on to those outposts; they helped to dissuade Israeli officials, who wanted to avoid an escalation of violence between the two groups, from following through on any attempts to dismantle the unlawful settlements.

Several times after the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, when an Israeli-Palestinian agreement seemed within reach, I asked ultranationalist settler leaders what their alternative vision was to a two-state solution or some other compromise agreement with the Palestinians. More than once, the reply was, “This is the land of miracles. We are praying for a miracle.” I took that “miracle” to mean that through divine intervention, Israel would be able to annex the land of the West Bank without its Palestinian residents.

At the time, such an aspiration could not be articulated or voiced due to the political climate, so these extremist leaders resorted to euphemism. But in the past few years, Israeli politicians, have spoken openly about their desire to annex most of the West Bank, including, at one time, Naftali Bennett before he became prime minister. Today, with a government that appears far more aligned with them, the extremist settlers seem to think that the white donkey is in sight.

The far-right Israeli cabinet minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has been a settler activist himself, is now the de facto minister of the West Bank. The new Israeli government has declared its commitment to a policy that strives to boost Israeli presence and diminish the Palestinian footprint in Area C. The area is envisioned under the Oslo Accords to be gradually handed over to the Palestinian Authority but remains under Israeli control. It covers 60 percent of the West Bank, and includes all of the Jewish settlements. The current government has just issued a new policy that will speed up the approval process for settlement construction and advanced plans for building more than 4,000 new settlements units there.

The Biden administration has issued welcome condemnations of settler violence and of Israel’s failure to confront it, as well as of the Israeli government’s settlement expansion policy. But judging by these public announcements, it may be missing the full importance of this dangerous shift in both the motivation behind the attacks and the government’s position. Washington is reacting to settler violence mainly as a failure of the Israeli authorities to enforce the law on violent settlers, and to settlement policies as an impediment to a future peace agreement. Both are correct, but they do not address the prospect of these policies and practices to drive out West Bank Palestinians.

Already, in May, the entire population of Ein Samiya, a tiny Palestinian community of about 200 people northeast of Ramallah, packed up their modest belongings and fled their homes following unrelenting attacks by neighboring settlers. “We decided to leave out of fear of the settlers,” Khader, a father of nine, told Haaretz’s Hagar Shezaf. “I left for my children. My youngest said to me, ‘I don’t want to live here — the settlers come and throw stones. Tomorrow they could kill me.’”

But even as the settlers terrorize their Palestinian neighbors with increasing frequency and ferocity, their actions have come with little consequence; Israeli authorities seldom prosecute or convict them. In some recent attacks, Israeli military and police officers have even been documented standing idly by as settlers stormed and burned Palestinian villages.

Last week, after calling on settlers to abide by the country’s laws, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would immediately advance plans to build 1,000 new homes in the settlement where Palestinian terrorists killed four Israelis, as a response to the attack.

This is a striking departure from the promises Israel made as settlers burned and destroyed buildings in several Palestinian villages in February. In the Aqaba agreement, the result of a summit in Jordan convened by the U.S., Egypt and Jordan that brought the Palestinians and Israelis together for talks for the first time in over 10 years, both sides “reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence.”

Building one thousand new homes for settlers is unlikely to de-escalate anything. The Biden administration and Israel’s Arab neighbors should not allow the Israeli government to go back on its word to contain violence enacted by its own citizens. Thirty-five years after Ms. Porat’s death, the vigilante justice crudely advocated by the settler at her funeral is becoming dangerously normalized.

Ori Nir, the vice president of public affairs for Americans for Peace Now, was the West Bank correspondent of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper between 1986 and 1990, and between 1994 and 1996.

This article was published in the New York Times on June 26th 2023