The situation is clear and unmistakable. In the occupied West Bank, it’s now open conflict between the Palestinian inhabitants and Israeli settlers.
A year of continuous “anti-terrorist” raids by the Israeli army on Palestinian population centers, starting with Jenin and Nablus, with more than 200 Palestinians killed, and punitive raids and intimidation by settlers in villages near settlements have only fueled anger, frustration and armed militancy among the occupied. And now we’ve reached the point of the clash predicted by many in recent months between Palestinians and settlers, whose extreme right-wing government has been in power in Israel since December.
The conflict has been going on for days with attacks and counterattacks. The Israeli army’s February 22 raid in the old city of Nablus – resulting in 11 killed, including a number of civilians – resulted in retaliation on Sunday (at least that’s how the Palestinians explain it) by a gunman, now fugitive, who shot and killed two Israeli settlers from Brachá (two brothers, Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, ages 21 and 19; they were buried on Monday) near the village of Huwara (Nablus).
A few hours later, hundreds of settlers started a mass retaliation attack against Huwara, Burin, Zaatara and other villages, where they set more than 30 houses and dozens of cars on fire. A Palestinian, Sameh Aqtash, 37, from Zaatara, was killed by a bullet to the stomach – fired by the army, not by settlers, as his family said on Monday; dozens more were wounded, some seriously.
On Monday afternoon, another Israeli settler, age 25, was fatally wounded by gunfire aimed at his car near Jericho and died in the hospital. The town was surrounded and closed down by the army. The perpetrator of the attack targeted other Israeli cars as well, without anybody being injured, before fleeing. More than 60 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis have been killed since the beginning of the year.
What happened in Huwara cannot be described as mere “retaliation.” Settlers from the most militant settlements in the Nablus area and other parts of the West Bank enacted a revenge of exceptional violence, a giant collective punishment that is unprecedented in recent decades. Videos available on social media show the fires that enveloped many homes on Sunday with entire families inside, including children, who were miraculously unhurt.
What role the military played at the time is unclear. According to the military commanders, it managed to avoid the worst and keep the two sides apart. According to the Palestinians, however, at many points the soldiers allowed it all to happen and protected the settlers, not those being attacked. The aftermath of the attack could be seen in all its seriousness on Monday morning at first light: burned husks of dozens of Palestinian vehicles and buildings blackened by flames and partly destroyed.
“We risked death. We couldn’t leave the house because the settlers were there, and at the same time staying inside meant we could die in the fires,” a witness, Osama M. told il manifesto.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog himself strongly condemned “the violent and cruel rampage against the residents of Huwara … It is criminal violence against innocents.”
PM Netanyahu urged citizens (settlers) in the West Bank “not to take the law into their own hands,” adding that only the security forces could “avenge” slain Israelis. But 22 Israeli experts on international law, in a letter written to the attorney general, were explicit in pointing out that the Huwara events constituted a “war crime,” as well as incitement to violence by far-right political figures.
Their letter had no effect on majority deputy Zvika Fogel, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party and chair of the Knesset National Security Committee: “I want to restore security for the residents of the State of Israel. How do we do that? We stop using the word ‘proportionality’. We stop with our objection to collective punishment [just] because it doesn’t fly with all sorts of courts. We take the gloves off … A closed, burned Huwara; that’s what I want to see. That’s the only way to achieve deterrence. After a murder like yesterday’s [of the two settlers on Sunday], we need burning villages when the [army] doesn’t act.”
And, speaking for other far-right MPs, he said he was ashamed that the coalition he is part of was “stuttering” in its response to “Palestinian terror.”
The “security” agreements reached on Sunday between the Netanyahu government and Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian National Authority, brokered by the US, are a dead letter. The more concrete reality at the moment is a new Israeli military offensive like the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, which led to the reoccupation of Palestinian autonomous towns. Back then, there were many hundreds dead, and now there will be even more.