For people around the world, autumn brings cooler temperatures and bright orange leaves on trees. But for Palestinians in the Israeli occupied West Bank, autumn marks an uptick in the uprooting of their trees and raging fires destroying their crops. Autumn is Israeli settler terror season.
It was not always this way. For millennia, autumn brought the olive harvest in Palestine. After months of growing on the branches of storied olive trees, October and November marked a season of collecting the fruit. For many Palestinians, this remains a time-honored family tradition, connecting them with their roots, their ancestors and, most important, their land. For some Palestinians, it remains their main source of livelihood.
Israeli settler terrorists are emboldened to attack Palestinians on a regular basis for three primary reasons: absence of Palestinian capacity for self-defense; lack of accountability for criminal violence against Palestinians; and the backing and participation of the Israeli military.
Occupation and settlement expansion have always posed threats to Palestinians and their property. For decades now, the military closes zones, expropriates land, repurposes it for the exclusive use of Jewish settlements, and then expands these to yet more seized territory. Now, however, Israeli settler terrorists are the ones running amok, adding to the list of threats forcing Palestinians from their land.
The Structural Problem
Israeli settler terrorism is a function of a system deeply rooted in inequality and subjugation and cannot be understood separate from it. Despite being outnumbered in the West Bank by Palestinians, Israeli settler terrorists are emboldened to attack Palestinians on a regular basis for three primary reasons: absence of Palestinian capacity for self-defense; lack of accountability for criminal violence against Palestinians; and the backing and participation of the Israeli military.
Palestinians Denied Self-defense. The Oslo Accords of the 1990s created a security stratification in the West Bank that divided it into three areas, A, B and C. Area A, some 18 percent of the territory, covers the urban centers of most Palestinian cities and accords security functions to the Palestinian Authority. Area B, about 23 percent of the territory, is under Palestinian administrative authority but Israel maintains security. Area C, which envelopes all Israeli settlements, is the largest of the three and takes up some 59 percent of the territory. Israel has both administrative and security authority over Area C.
What this means is that only in Area A can Palestinian security forces operate. Even there, they regularly coordinate with the Israeli military. But in Areas B and C, which together make up more than 80 percent of the West Bank, Israel has exclusive security authority. So Palestinians in these areas who are being attacked or threatened can’t expect help from the Palestinian Authority’s security forces because they cannot operate there. Almost no settler terror takes place in Area A precisely because Palestinians have some organized capacity for self-defense in that space. In Areas B and C, however, settlers know they can attack Palestinians with little risk of being confronted. Exactly how this plays out reinforces the unfortunate lack of self-defense. Although it has happened from time to time, we rarely see Israeli settler terrorists attack the center of Palestinian villages. The reason for this is that they could be outnumbered there, cornered, held, or worse, by Palestinian villagers collectively acting in self-defense.
The most likely space where settler terror will take place is in the fields and open areas between Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements.
Instead, the most likely space where settler terror will take place is in the fields and open areas between Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements. Settlers can attack Palestinian land and crops, and sometimes Palestinians themselves who are more isolated, without having to worry about being outnumbered. They also can easily retreat to their settlements behind a guarded security perimeter. The olive harvest provides the optimal conditions for attacking Palestinians, because they go to their olive groves in groups during this time, putting more targets in reach of Israeli settlers.
Backing and Participation of the Israeli Military. Not only do Israeli settlers know that a Palestinian security force will not stop them in Areas B and C, but they also know that the Israeli military will directly or indirectly assist them during their attacks. Israel’s military response to a civilian-led chain of command and its responsibilities in the occupied territories include protecting Israeli citizens from Palestinians, who are non-citizens. Israeli soldiers are not trained, authorized, or encouraged to act as a police force to prevent crimes committed by Israeli settlers, which creates something of a lawless zone of impunity for the latter’s actions. Videos of settler terrorism actually show Israeli soldiers in the background protecting them, securing their perimeter, and ensuring that Palestinians will pay a heavy price if they attempt to resist attacks. Videos of settler terrorism have also shown instances where the Israeli military is participating in settler-led violence against Palestinians.
No Accountability for Settler Terror. Along with knowing that they will not be stopped by any Palestinian security forces and also knowing that the Israeli military has their back, Israeli settler terrorists can also rest assured that they will almost certainly never face legal repercussions for the crimes they are committing. In an analysis of settler crimes from 2017 through 2020, the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din said that of 60 police complaints filed over 63 incidents, authorities concluded investigating 38 cases without handing down a single indictment. The organization stated that this makes Palestinians “vulnerable to the explosive violence settlers use as an ideological tool,” and added that “[t]hese failures effectively award immunity to ideologically motivated crime by settlers. The message sent by the conduct of the Israeli authorities is plain to all.”
When one looks at these three different enabling conditions alongside the rest of the Israeli state’s activities in the West Bank—which include land expropriation and settlement expansion—a common thread is immediately apparent. In fact, a new report by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem argues that Israel’s expansionist goals and Israeli settler violence work in tandem. The report details five different case studies that show how Israeli settler terror “undermines the bedrock of Palestinian communities’ lives, diminishing their income.” Palestinians are being forced to abandon traditional vocations that have supported their society for generations and thus stay away from their land. “At that point,” B’Tselem’s report adds, “the state can take over their land for its own purposes.”
In the past, it was thought that settler terror was in fact separate from the state and sometimes even adversarial to it. Settlers have at times attacked Israeli military positions, personnel, or vehicles and have often assaulted Palestinians in response to Israeli government actions in so-called price tag attacks aimed at attaching a cost to any policies that would limit settlement expansion. But B’Tselem cautions not to fall for this false dichotomy:
The combination of state violence and nominally unofficial violence allows Israel to have it both ways: maintain plausible deniability and blame the violence on settlers rather than on the military, the courts or the Civil Administration while advancing Palestinian dispossession. The facts, however, blow plausible deniability out of the water: 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.
Who Will Protect Palestinians? The Political Dimension
Like discriminatory laws and treatment, settlement expansion, checkpoints, and extrajudicial killings and arrests, settler terror is an inseparable feature of the broader Israeli apartheid system. While the international community has often spoken out to some extent on issues like settlement expansion, far too little has been said about the persistent and growing phenomenon of Israeli settler terrorism.
Like discriminatory laws and treatment, settlement expansion, checkpoints, and extrajudicial killings and arrests, settler terror is an inseparable feature of the broader Israeli apartheid system.
Even if one is to assume that B’Tselem’s analysis is mistaken and that settler terror is fundamentally separate from state policy, there are many reasons to doubt that the Israeli government will make any serious effort to prevent it. Israeli settler terror is not new, and it has escalated in recent months. Israeli governments of different compositions have failed to effectively prevent this terror despite its easily predictable patterns, and current politics makes such an outcome even more unlikely, given the precarious nature of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government coalition and his history of heavily relying on the votes of religious nationalist settlers to advance his political career. Bennett is an unabashed annexationist who was a former head of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing Israeli settlements.
The United States has long had options with which it could attempt to address the issue of Israeli settler terrorism. But at this stage Washington is barely able to cobble together ineffective language to oppose settlement expansion and has made it clear that it will not prioritize engagement on the Palestinian issue. The Biden Administration is also constantly triaging an evolving set of issues that can contribute to tension in the US-Israel relationship, from negotiations with Iran, to the potential reopening of a consulate in Jerusalem, to the recent sanctions on Israeli cyber intelligence companies, to the designation of several Palestinian human rights groups terrorist organizations by the Israeli Defense Ministry. The White House is not inclined to add Israeli settler terror to this list.
For Palestinians in villages in Area B and C, like al-Mufagara village, for example, the threat of violent Israeli settler terror is ever present. Earlier this fall, settlers descended on the isolated village, injured dozens of Palestinians, and left a four-year-old boy hospitalized after ambushing a shepherd and killing several of his sheep. Israeli police said at the time that they arrested five Israeli suspects, but all have since been released.
The scariest part of this for innocent Palestinian civilians is not just the loss and injury that they suffer, but the idea that this can happen again and again, at any given moment; there is nothing to stop it. That’s precisely why it is terrorism. There is no doubt that the Israeli state is in on it.