Some peculiar but revealing phrases have dominated the internal Israeli discourse about the deadly wave of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians across the occupied West Bank in recent weeks. Speaking at an Israeli military base in the West Bank mere hours after bands of settlers rampaged through the Palestinian village of Turmusaya, which happens to be home to a large number of dual U.S. citizens, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant urged "my brothers, the settlers: Please don't take the law into your own hands. Let the IDF do what it does best—defend your security and carry out its mission."
The notion of taking "the law into your own hands" suggests that a pogrom against random Palestinian civilians, in order to take over their land, is entirely legitimate but only if it is carried out by the Israeli state.
Bezalel Smotrich, the Israeli settler leader-turned-finance minister, was far more explicit following another settler pogrom in the town of Huwara earlier this year. "I think that Huwara needs to be erased," Smotrich notoriously declared on stage at a business conference. "I think that the state of Israel needs to do it," he added, "but God forbid not individual people."
The Israeli military did not "erase" Huwara in the ways some might have feared, but it did impose a general closure on the town, which forced every business on its main drag to shutter their doors for a week following the settler rampage—collective punishment, or in other words, revenge.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the settler and Kahanist who was previously convicted of membership in a terrorist organization, and is now serving as Israel's national security minister, went even further last week. He not only encouraged settlers to "run to the hilltops" to create new wildcat outposts deep in the West Bank, but laid out his dark vision. "We have to settle the land of Israel and at the same time need to launch a military campaign, blow up buildings, assassinate terrorists," he said. "Not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands."
Israel has been trying to sell the narrative that these are vigilantes, troubled youth, or a few bad apples. But these are in fact paramilitary groups operating as Israeli government proxies.
- Michael Omer-Man
"It's really important to stress that this is a long-term policy," Ziv Stahl, the executive director of Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization that closely monitors and documents settler violence, told me. "It didn't start with Ben Gvir and Smotrich." Settler violence, she said, "started when the first settlement was established."
Indeed, revenge and reprisal raids against Palestinian civilians have been part of the unofficial Israeli security doctrine since the early years of the state, going back to Unit 101, the shadowy commando outfit led by Ariel Sharon that was formed in 1953 for just that purpose. Settler violence is not random vigilantism, but a critical part of Israel's settlement enterprise. And expanding settlements is an explicit state project, undertaken by every Israeli government since 1967, including those that were involved in peace processes with the Palestinians.
The current far-right government, however, wants to carry that project over the finish line. Justice Minister Yariv Levin has been quite clear that one central goal of his so-called "judicial reform," which has rankled the United States and other Western countries for different reasons, is meant to lay the groundwork for fully annexing the West Bank. Smotrich, who was recently given unprecedented powers to approve settlement expansion, speaks proudly of the plan he's implementing to double the number of settlers in a few years' time—which he has reportedly described as this government's "core mission."
"If you're going to put another half-million settlers in the West Bank, you need somewhere to put them," said Stahl. "To do that, Palestinians need to be removed, and the way to do that is with violence."
It's a tried and tested strategy.
Just last month, according to the United Nations, an entire Palestinian community of nearly 200 people in the village of Ein Samiya, outside Ramallah, gave in to years of settler and state violence, packing up and permanently abandoning their homes and grazing lands in search of safety.
"These families are not leaving by choice; the Israeli authorities have repeatedly demolished homes and other structures they own and have threatened to destroy their only school," the U.N.'s acting humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Yvonne Helle, said in a statement in late May. "At the same time, land available for the grazing of livestock has decreased due to settlement expansion and both children and adults have been subjected to settler violence. We are witnessing the tragic consequences of longstanding Israeli practices and settler violence."
Between 2017 and 2021, Israeli settlers established more than 50 new outposts in the occupied territory. Those 50 outposts, in just four years, resulted in the settler takeover of more than 25,000 acres of Palestinian land, according to a 2021 report by Yesh Din. "By building structures, grazing flocks in vast areas, taking over water resources and oftentimes perpetrating violence against the Palestinian residents," the report noted, "the settlers are able to take control of large swaths of land."
All settlements, of which there are nearly 300 in the occupied West Bank, are illegal under international law and comprise war crimes that full under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Of those settlements, more than half are considered illegal even under Israeli law because settlers established them without official authorization.
"There are actions that are against the law that the state can't carry out, but the settlers can," Stahl said. "Israel has made diplomatic commitments to not expand settlements, to not create new outposts, and of course, you have international law."
By allowing the settlers to do that dirty work for it, all the while casting them as lawbreakers, the Israeli government has demonstrated that it believes it can have it both ways. It can work toward its stated policy goals of annexing the West Bank and taking over as much land from Palestinians as possible, without directly implicating itself in the very steps it is taking, thereby minimizing the risk of any diplomatic consequences.
Yet both tracks—settlements established with official authorization as well as supposedly illegal "outposts"—rely on the use of violence to drive Palestinians out. And Israel's entire law enforcement and security apparatus—the military, police, prosecution, and intelligence services—are direct participants in both.
The state sponsors this violence in several ways, starting with its physical protection of marauding settlers. Sometimes, Israeli soldiers simply accompany the settlers as they descend on Palestinian villages to attack random civilians and farmers, hurl stones and Molotov cocktails at homes, uproot trees, destroy cars, and spray paint genocidal slogans on walls. Many times, the soldiers directly participate in the attacks, firing tear gas but also shooting at any Palestinian who dares defend themself or their property. Other times, the soldiers will simply declare the site of the settler attack, usually agricultural fields, a "closed military zone," which immediately accomplishes the settlers' goal of pushing Palestinians off their land.
Of course, on paper, Israeli soldiers have both the authority and the obligation to prevent and stop these settler rampages. In practice, the opposite is far more common.
And following settler pogroms, Israeli authorities give settlers almost complete impunity. "They don't treat settlers, even violent settlers, as criminals," Stahl said. In the 1,597 cases of settler violence against Palestinians that Yesh Din tracked since 2005 where the victim filed a report with Israeli police, only 107 cases (7 percent) resulted in indictments and only 46 (3 percent) resulted in convictions. Those figures don't include the many Palestinians who don't see any point in filing a police report after being attacked by settlers.
According to data collected by the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, since the start of 2008, Israeli civilians killed 39 Palestinians in the West Bank and injured 2,324 more. If you were to include Palestinians killed or wounded by Israeli military forces in the context of settler violence, the number is several times higher.
This isn't random, "illegal" violence, but a concerted, stated-backed campaign to "erase" Palestinians from the land, just as every Israeli government has sought in some form or another.
- Michael Omer-Man
Israel has been trying to sell the narrative that these are vigilantes, troubled youth, or a few bad apples—that they are beyond the control of the state and its vaunted security services. But these are in fact paramilitary groups operating as Israeli government proxies.
As the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem concluded in its 2021 report on settler violence, "When the violence occurs with permission and assistance from the Israeli authorities and under its auspices, it is state violence. The settlers are not defying the state; they are doing its bidding." This isn't random, supposedly "illegal" violence across the West Bank, but a concerted, stated-backed campaign to "erase" Palestinians from the land, just as every Israeli government has sought in some form or another.
Almost exactly 40 years ago, following the murder of a young Israeli man by Palestinians in Hebron, a band of Israeli settlers burned down the city's vegetable market. According to a news report at the time, Israeli soldiers watched the settlers destroy the market and did nothing. Israel's then-defense minister, Moshe Arens, urged the settlers "not to take the law into their own hands," vowed to "do everything in our power to prevent such acts in the future," and expressed hope that burning the market was an isolated act by "a minority of Jewish militants."
Instead, the Israeli government authorized expanding the Jewish settlement in the heart of the Palestinian population in Hebron, and also announced the creation of an Israeli research center and a rabbinical court in the city. Israeli governments have been rewarding and encouraging settler violence against Palestinians ever since.