With Government Support, Violent Settlers Escalate Tension in the West Bank: APN Guest Commentary, ft. Ori Nir- January 12, 2024

With Government Support, Violent Settlers Escalate Tension in the West Bank 

By Ori Nir

Leaders and supporters of the ideological settlers in the West Bank are disputing the veracity of a leaked IDF report which shows a 54% increase in settler violence since the beginning of the current Gaza war on October 7th. One right-wing Israeli columnist called the report “a blood libel,” arguing that the data have been manipulated or even fabricated and that in actual fact there has been a recent drop in incidents of settler violence.

I follow reports by human rights organizations, both Israeli and international. I noticed that Israel’s Yesh Din organization, which documents settler violence, found that 2023 was a record year in settler violence. I am also closely familiar with the dynamics of settler violence and Palestinians’ tendency to avoid reporting such incidents for fear of retribution. I would be surprised if the figures are not significantly higher than the IDF reported.

But the debate about the numbers distracts from the important shift that we have been witnessing in the dynamics of violent attacks by settlers against West Bank Palestinians. The alarming trend is not only a matter of volume but also a matter of intent, a matter of the violent settlers’ agenda, the context of the violence, and most importantly, the results. The end result of the settlers campaign is Palestinian dispossession– Palestinians abandoning their homes and their flocks’ grazing grounds under violent pressure by settlers. 

Last month, on a Peace Now West Bank tour for international journalists, I saw the results of the settlers’ anti-Palestinian violent campaign. I saw abandoned bedouin villages and spoke with Palestinians who were violently displaced from their land by extremist settlers.

This trend – Palestinian dispossession under pressure of violent settlers – started well before the Gaza war. It gained momentum when the Netanyahu-Smotrich-Ben Gvir government was formed, and then went on steroids over the past three months.

Last Month’s Peace Now tour started at Ein Samiya, northeast of Ramallah, where members of the Ka’abneh Bedouin tribe used to live and graze their sheep. In May 2023, after months of violent harassment by settlers from adjacent illegal outposts, the 200 residents of Ein Samiya packed up their belongings, took their flocks, and left. At the site, parts of their homes, clothes, furniture, and children’s toys are still visible. 

Our next stop was slightly north, on the outskirts of the village of Douma. Here we met with several residents of Ein Rashrash, another small Bedouin village, whose residents fled shortly after October 7th. We spoke with Muhammad Suleiman Zawahra, a 34-year-old shepherd, who told us that residents of this small community (fewer than 100 people) were physically attacked and repeatedly threatened by settlers. According to Zawahra, on October 9th, settlers blocked the road leading to the village, prevented residents from traveling, and blocked vehicles, including a water tanker, from entering the village. Threatened and constrained, without access to water, Zawahra and the other villagers moved to Duma, a larger neighboring village. Duma Residents welcomed them, he said, but only temporarily. Now, he said, he does not know when – if ever – he and his family members would be able to return to Ein Rashrash.

 B’Tselem documented 22 cases in the months of October and November 2023, in which small Palestinian communities or parts of Palestinian communities in the West Bank were forcibly removed from their lands either by settlers or soldiers, or both. The number of Palestinians impacted is just over a thousand, which may seem minor. But the impact is immense when measured in terms of the terror it creates among Palestinians in the West Bank’s Area C.

Here lies the new character of settler violence in the past year, and particularly in the past three months, since October 7th. 

In the past, most acts of settler violence against Palestinians were either retribution for Palestinian terrorism, attempts to deter Israeli authorities’ enforcement actions against illegal outposts, or just random harassment. Recent settler violence, however, is much more strategic. Recent settler violence is harnessed to an agenda that the settlers’ leaders, including those in key positions in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, have been enthusiastically advancing. Indeed, violent settlers have good reason to believe that their violent actions serve the government and are aided and abetted by the government. 

One of this government’s key objectives is to solidify Israel’s hold over Area C of the West Bank, the area in which all Israeli settlements are located, which comprises more than 60% of the West Bank, and where Israel has both full security and civilian control. Benjamin Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner, Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Judaism party, devotes huge efforts and a hefty budget to the goal of de facto annexing Area C, in the hope of also annexing it de jure in the future. Smotrich authored a plan five years ago to do just that and has been waiting patiently to implement it. He started once he took office as the government minister responsible for non-military affairs in the West Bank. 

The implementation is two-pronged: Working to increase the Israeli footprint in Area C, while decreasing the Palestinian footprint there. Smotrich is working with other members of his party to advance both goals. While denying Palestinians the right to build, he is also advancing measures to dispossess them of their land, while administratively and financially encouraging settlers’ illegal outposts. Violent settlers in rogue outposts harass neighboring Palestinians to embitter their lives and push them out. That pattern gained momentum once Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist government took office, but reached a dangerous peak after October 7th.

A scandalous decision by the IDF to recruit and arm extremist West Bank settlers, shortly after October 7th, further emboldened violent settlers and solidified the sense of common purpose between them and the soldiers on the ground. A Haaretz investigative piece described the repercussions of this reckless move. As did this investigative story by the Washington Post.     

As Peace Now recently reported, there has been a surge in construction of illegal outposts and roads leading to these proto-settlements since October 7th and virtually no government action to enforce the law.

Only last week, Peace Now reported on one more illegal outpost, this one near the Palestinian village of Beit Awwa in the southern West Bank, near Hebron. This new outpost was constructed by settlers from an existing illegal outpost. The IDF, for its part, aided the settlers by blocking the road that leads to the new outpost, which also serves as a vital transportation artery for local Palestinian communities. 

All eyes are currently on Gaza and Israel’s northern border, but tension in the West Bank is high and surging. Netanyahu’s government, instead of reigning in the settlers to prevent further escalation, are facilitating illegal settlement expansion and anti-Palestinian violence. 

Will the post-war commission of inquiry look into the failed policies of the Israeli government in the West Bank? It may have to, if the government does not reign in the settlers’ provocative violence.


Ori Nir, our Vice President for Public Affairs, joined Americans for Peace Now following a 24-year career in journalism, which was mainly focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ori covered Palestinian affairs for Ha'aretz Daily, Israel's leading newspaper (1986-1990; 1994-1996) during the early years of the first intifada and through the implementation of the first phases of the Oslo Accords. Later, he covered Israel's Arab minority for Ha'aretz, (2000 to July 2002). Ori also covered the diplomatic efforts to advance Arab-Israeli peace. As the Washington correspondent of Ha'aretz (1990-1994) and of The Forward, America's largest and most influential independent national Jewish weekly newspaper, he focused on US Mideast policy. Ori earned a Master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where he also taught journalism (1997-2000). His Bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern history and Arabic literature is from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Ori is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic.