Militarization of Settler Groups Threatens to Open a West Bank Front

Mobs of masked, weapon-wielding men descended upon the Palestinian villages of al-Mughayyir, Duma, Deir Dibwan, Beitin, and Aqraba throughout the month of April, killing four civilians, burning homes, torching cars, and slaying cattle. That string of violence came following the disappearance and death of a 14-year-old Israeli boy, Binyamin Ahimeir, from the illegal settlement of Malachei Hashalom located northeast of the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 12. Israeli soldiers were seen standing by and failing to intervene during these attacks.

Such incidents extend far beyond a few extremist vigilantes. They are systematic attacks by groups of settlers who are routinely mobilized and operate often alongside Israeli forces in an effort to terrorize Palestinians. While there has been a documented annual increase in these violent attacks in the West Bank since 2005, a notable spike since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza has displaced more than a thousand Palestinians in the area and turned entire villages into ghost towns. This situation has been exacerbated by availing gun permits and arms to 100,000 Israelis following the decision last October by the Minister of Internal Security Itamar Ben-Gvir to distribute weapons to Jewish citizens.

As of June 13, at least 545 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank by settlers and Israeli forces since October 7. A March 2024 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report revealed that some 5,000 others were injured since the start of the Gaza war. This is partly due to Israel’s ramping up of military raids on Palestinian towns and cities since October 7 in what Israel calls ‘counterterrorism’ operations. If left unabated, settler movements’ increased militarized behavior and their coordination with Israeli military units are likely to create a second war front in the West Bank as Israel’s attacks on Gaza continue without an end in sight.

Security as Justification for Expelling Palestinians

The Oslo Accords, signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel in 1993, divided the West Bank into three areas: A, B, and C. Areas A and B comprise all major Palestinian cities and jurisdiction is divided between the governing Palestinian Authority and Israel. Area C, which includes the Jordan Valley and border, falls under full Israeli security and administrative control. Within the branches of the Israeli military, Israel operates an infantry army that consists of several brigades whose battalions are stationed across the West Bank. One of the largest , the Kfir Brigade, described on the website of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as “at the forefront of the war against Palestinian terrorism,” is at the heart of US findings of human rights violations in recent weeks. A substantial portion of the Kfir Brigade’s role in the West Bank has been to conduct frequent raids on Palestinian cities and towns, actions that Israel claims is an effort to suppress militant groups. The five units included in the Department of State’s 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices report were accused of subjecting Palestinians to extrajudicial killings, torture, and physical abuse. A recent investigation by the Washington Post also revealed that an IDF unit carried out summary executions of residents during an April 2024 raid on the West Bank town of Nur Shams.

A substantial portion of the Kfir Brigade’s role has been to conduct frequent raids on Palestinian cities and towns

Even more troubling is growing evidence of these Israeli military units’ coordination with armed settler groups. It is worth noting that all Israeli settlements and outposts are considered illegal under international law. While many Jewish Israelis move to the settlements for affordable housing subsidized by the government, a large portion is drawn by an extremist religious ideology that espouses the seizure of Palestinian land and expulsion of all non-Jews from the occupied territories, called by the Israeli government Judea and Samaria. Through funding from the Israeli government and assistance from various American Zionist organizations, the settler population in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) has grown to about 700,000 (as of March 2024) in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich had vowed in May 2023, when the number was just over half of this, to increase the number to a million settlers.

Apart from fatal threats against Palestinian civilians, settlers deploy various tactics of displacement, including forcibly hijacking village water sources; cutting off Palestinian towns’ electricity grids; attacking agriculture by burning crops and killing farmers’ livestock; and vandalizing buildings with racist anti-Palestinian messaging. Additionally, in East Jerusalem, settler organizations have been able to systematically displace Palestinians through drawn-out court cases based on vague historical documents alleging land ownership rights dating back to the mid-20th century. Most alarmingly, in settlers tirades, the lines between settler and soldier have become increasingly blurred. Armed settlers have reportedly been seen donning Israeli military fatigues and video evidence shows incidents in which settlers were seen standing next to Israeli soldiers, instructing each other where to shoot.

Hilltop Youth and Desert Frontier

A majority of extremist settlers recruited into the IDF’s Desert Frontier—a military unit created in 2020 to recruit radicalized settler youth—hail from the Hilltop Youth. These young Israeli extremists espouse violence against all non-Jews in order to attain Jewish supremacy across the land of Israel and the OPT. The origins of this ideology can also be traced back to the teachings of Rabbi Meir Kahane who in 1971 moved from Brooklyn to Israel. During his time serving in the Knesset, Kahane rebelled against the idea of a democratic-inclusive Israel, arguing that this would eventually turn Jews into a minority threatened by the native Arabs, whom he often referred to as “dogs.” Although Kahane’s party Kahane Chai was barred from the Knesset in 1988 and he was assassinated in New York City in 1990 by an Egyptian immigrant, his virulent rhetoric lives on today in the form of National Security Minister Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power Party that regularly refers to the ideology of Kahanism.

Additionally, Kahane’s sentiment can be found in the teachings of radical yeshiva offshoots across settlements in the West Bank. Most notably, the settlement of Yitzhar, located outside the Palestinian city of Nablus, is the epicenter for radicalization and an “incubator for Israeli settler violence” as  in the case of the Hilltop Youth Group’s membership. An Israeli security official stated in a +972 investigation into Desert Frontier that the unit was created to “rehabilitate” young, radicalized boys such as from Hilltop Youth by making them soldiers—the contradictory nature of which is almost undeniable. Rightwing newspaper Israel Hayom has reported that the group will not be disbanded but simply relocated outside of the West Bank. The close coordination of Israeli military units in the West Bank and armed settler militants was also reflected in the Biden administration’s December 2023 decision to delay a sale of 20,000 US-made rifles to Israel over concerns the arms would end up in the hands of extremist settlers.

Netzah Yehuda and Israel’s Escape from the Leahy Law

The case of the 97th Netzah Yehuda Battalion draws parallels to the Desert Frontier project for religiously devout young men. The battalion was created in 1999 specifically for men of the Haredi faith, an orthodox form of Judaism, to give them a place where they could serve their country while comfortably maintaining their religious practices. The unit is accused of committing gross violations of human rights and is still allegedly under review by the US government. A report by the US-based NGO Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) into the unit noted it had committed war crimes of “shooting and killing unarmed civilians, torture, physical assault, beating, and sexual assault,” in violation of both international law and international human rights law. The DAWN report also outlined how Israeli military officials still have not enacted any meaningful punitive measures against the unit’s soldiers or their commanders. The group was forced onto the US radar in 2022 with the murder and torture of Palestinian-American Omar Assad, who was detained at a checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Ramallah by Israeli soldiers and later died in the battalion’s custody.

The forces responsible for Assad’s death were never prosecuted due to an Israeli medical official’s claims of a lack of evidence linking his death to the soldiers’ conduct and claim that Assad had underlying health issues. The Biden administration’s hesitancy to implicate the battalion paints a wider picture of exceptionalism in the case of holding Israel accountable for war crimes. It is worth noting that the United States is Israel’s largest supplier of weapons, providing approximately $3.8 billion along with billions of dollars of weapons sales each year, and especially since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza in October. Under the Leahy Law, the United States is prohibited from providing US funds for assistance to foreign military forces credibly suspected of gross violations of human rights. The Leahy Law also gives the Department of State the power to conduct investigations into the use of US military weapons and arms abroad. On May 10, the Department released a report on Israel’s use of offensive US-provided weapons in Gaza and in the OPT, concluding that “it is reasonable to assess” that Israeli security forces used US-made weapons to violate international humanitarian law. But the report fell short of making any legal determinations regarding Israel’s conduct.

Unproductive US Sanctions

Irrefutable evidence of Israeli settlers’ brutality in recent years even forced the Biden administration to break its “ironclad” defense of Israel in early February by announcing financial sanctions on four settlers. Following investigations by the Department of State, the Biden administration accused four individuals of assaulting Palestinian civilians and Israeli peace activists. A subsequent round of US sanctions came in mid-March against three more settlers and two settler outposts in the West Bank, Moshe’s Farm and Zvi’s Farm.  The United States says these locations had been used to plot attacks against Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been swift to reject these sanctions and to defend West Bank settlers as “law-abiding citizens.”

Additionally, the Biden administration announced findings in April that five Israeli military units had committed “gross violations of human rights” in the West Bank. After backlash from Netanyahu, however, the Department of State said that Israel had conducted “remediation” in the cases and that the administration was not taking punitive measures against the units. The Department also stipulated that the units would still be eligible for American military aid. One of the most notoriously brutal Israeli military battalions mentioned, Netzah Yehuda, had been under investigation by the department since 2022 when the group was found guilty of the torture and murder of 78-year-old Palestinian-American Omar Assad. The unit is still currently under US review.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu and his far-right nationalist cabinet has shown zero interest in combatting any forms of Israeli violence against Palestinians or to hold perpetrators accountable. From 2005 to September 2023, only three percent of Israeli investigations into documented settler attacks ended in a conviction. As just one illustration of the extremist violence inside the Israeli military, the IDF was forced to suspend the operations of Desert Frontier in December 2023 after an overwhelming number of reported abuses by the unit.

Netanyahu’s government has shown zero interest in combatting any forms of Israeli violence against Palestinians.

US sanctions on the accused settlers have not gone nearly far enough to deter the militarization of Jewish extremist groups in the West Bank. In fact, reports on the sanctioned individuals have shown that the Biden administration’s punitive measures have only emboldened settlers, who in recent months have raised thousands of dollars through alternative avenues like community crowdfunding to finance escalated land-grab operations. In addition, Israeli officials have intervened to mute the sanctions’ effects, in one case by providing the sanctioned settler Yinon Levi with access to his funds only two months after they were frozen. Most troubling is the continued provision of US military aid to the five Israeli units that the Biden administration accused of human rights violations. Not only has the Israeli government made no plans to investigate these military units further, but the Biden administration also has not prohibited any type of funneling of money to the battalions from US-based private donors and nonprofits. Furthermore, many such groups, as Friends of Nahal Haredi, a US-based nonprofit that provides direct military assistance to the Netzah Yehuda unit, are tax-exempt because of their “charitable” status in the United States.

Former Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has stated that any post-war plan for Gaza must include plans for the occupied West Bank as well, and that the two territories cannot be dealt with separately. This is in addition to calls by the United States, European Union member states, and Saudi Arabia for the establishment of a future Palestinian state (within the two-state solution) in order to end Israel’s war on Gaza and create a viable long-term plan for peace.

Yet the two-state solution has never been more distant. Israel continues to ramp up new settlement construction under the fog of war as militant settler groups, along with IDF troops,  continue to kill and terrorize Palestinians with impunity. It is evident that Israel is rapidly militarizing settler groups and making a second war front possible in the West Bank, a development that realizes the stated motivations of many of the nationalist politicians currently serving in Netanyahu’s cabinet to annex the entire territory. If it treats these extremist groups as non-state armed actors by enacting harsher sanctions and cracks down on all US-based funding for settlement projects and Israeli military units, the United States can salvage the vestiges of a two-state-solution before more  violence breaks out.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors. 

Featured image credit: WAFA