Masked settlers set fire to Palestinian fields. (Photo from Peace Now Facebook post)

Masked settlers set fire to Palestinian fields. (Photo from Peace Now Facebook post)

by Gabriella Goliger**

On Sept. 28, 2021, a group of 80 to 100 Jewish settler youth, masked and armed with clubs and stones, stormed into the tiny Palestinian village of Khirbet al-Mufkara in the South Hebron Hills. During the mayhem that followed, a three-year old Palestinian boy, was hit in the head with a rock while he was sleeping and had to be taken to hospital in Beer Sheva. In addition to injuries sustained by five other Palestinians, the village suffered much vandalism at the hands of the attackers, who were from the nearby illegal outposts of Avigayil and Havat Maon. Several of the settlers were also hurt when villagers threw stones in retaliation.

The attack on Khirbet al-Mufkara is one of the worst recent cases of settler violence against West Bank Palestinians, but is far from an isolated occurrence.

According to a report in Haaretz: “In the first half of 2021, 416 anti-Palestinian incidents were reported – more than double the figure for the first half of 2020 and more than all of 2019.”

The incidents included physical violence, arson and destruction of property.

The rising tide of settler violence is not just the action of a few hotheads and it’s far from spontaneous, says Peace Now. Instead, it is part of an organized campaign by at least part of the settler movement to accelerate intimidation of Palestinians and demonstrate settler will to the Israeli government. The thinking goes that the more the settlers “flex their muscles,” the harder it will be for any government to even think about resisting settlement expansion.

New kind of outpost

Much of the current wave of settler violence can be tied to the illegal livestock farms Jews are establishing in the West Bank. Settlers lay claim to a certain amount of grazing territory and if they deem Palestinians are infringing, go on the offensive. That’s how the violence in Khirbet al-Mufkara began. Settlers in the area attacked a Palestinian shepherd, villagers came to help him and the incident escalated.

In a recent webinar, Hagit Ofran, of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Program explained how the livestock farms are a new settler strategy to grab as much West Bank land as possible. Since 2018, settlers have established 46 pasture farms, most of them illegal. These outposts are cheap to set up because they require very little construction, usually only a few temporary dwellings. But the pasture land claimed can be quite extensive, while confrontations with Palestinians grazing their own animals in the area are nearly inevitable.

Israeli soldiers posted in the West Bank to “maintain security” tend to look away when Palestinians are under attack, but react forcefully if Palestinians retaliate. Moreover, when settlers are charged with crimes, the courts tend to let them off easily.

In effect, says Ofran, “the army protects settler violence.”

According to the Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din, 91% of investigations into ideological crimes against Palestinians were closed with no indictment filed.

Because of this biased system, many Palestinians are reluctant to report incidents. For example, 43% of Palestinians who contacted Yesh Din in the years 2018-2021 chose not to file complaints over violence with the police. The rate of settler violence is probably much higher than the official record shows.

The majority of settlers are not violent. But the lack of outcry against thuggery committed by fellow settlers makes the whole movement complicit. And this muted response to Jewish terrorism extends to the Israeli government and the Israeli public as a whole.

Wider consequences

Settler aggression has been a tactic for extending Jewish hegemony over Palestinian territory for decades. Among other things, settlers have used the threat of violent resistance as a way of undermining the two-state proposition. A recent paper by the Israeli institute Molad (which favours the two-state solution), points out that many Israelis fear bloody and traumatic consequences if their government attempted to remove thousands of settlers from the West Bank. Creating fear of civil war, the authors note, is one of the “important strategic successes of the settler movement in its fight to win over Israeli public opinion.”

Responding to this report Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, argues that Israeli policy must not be held hostage to settler threats.

Yoffie writes: “Zionism has always been about the creation of a Jewish and democratic [sovereign] state…. Those who defy that sovereignty are not really Zionists: they are hoodlums, and Israel’s duly elected government must treat them as such, when it comes to peace or to anything else.”

The Israeli government has a duty to protect its own citizens from terrorism, but also, under international law, a responsibility to shield Palestinians under its rule from terrorism by Israeli citizens.

Settler violence is not merely immoral but dangerous. It stokes tensions in a West Bank that is already politically fragile. And it runs utterly counter to Israel’s own-long term interests in a peaceful solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Resources on settler violence:

Americans for Peace Now webinar with Hagit Ofran of Peace Now and Lior Amichai of Yesh Din:

“Settler Violence from Price Tags to Displacement” – Article by Kate Sosland, Americans for Peace Now’s summer intern:

“Don’t let fanatic violent settlers take Israel’s future hostage” – Article in Haaretz by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

** Gabriella Goliger is the National Chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now