The settler state is conducting a war on Palestinians. This is the defining process of this ultra-extreme Israeli coalition, which is building ever more intensely on the crimes of its predecessors. A settler-dominated coalition is engineering what, for settlers, will be the full and final defeat of what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disparagingly referred to in a recent interview as the “Palestinian thing.” He said it like the Palestinians were irritating little flies to be squashed. The official military parlance for the streets in Hebron where Palestinians are forbidden to drive and walk is “sterile.”
Settler groups are engaged in their own sterilization process, with full state and army support. This has borne fruit in their warped view of the world. Palestinian rural communities are, according to the UN, increasingly succumbing to the coercive environments the settlers create. So far in 2023, at least 478 Palestinians, including 257 children, have abandoned their communities, unable to cope with the intense pressure, harassment and violence.
The latest community to leave was at Ras Al-Tin on Aug. 3. This was close to another that evacuated at Ein Samiya in May. The settlers at nearby illegal outposts were deliberate and calculated in trying to clear this land to the northeast of Ramallah. Before long, the settlements will hoover up these lands for their own inexorable expansion. With 22 of these illegal settler outposts legalized so far this year, expect ever more attacks on Palestinians as the settlers fast track the process of transforming a few caravans into major towns.
Palestinian residents have told me several times that the determining factor in such situations have been the children. The settlers know this and ensure that the children witness acts of violence against their families. Terrified, the children start begging to leave.
Who do the settler groups target? Let us be clear, the violence is not random. It has specific aims that differentiate it from mere violent thuggery and hooliganism. Specific areas need to be emptied — sterilized — in order for ambitious settlement projects to advance.
More than 200 Palestinian villages that the settler movement would like to see cleansed do not have access to piped water
Palestinian herders have long been a target. For settlers, these communities, which graze significant pockets of land, are a danger to their enterprise. With the help of the occupation authorities, their available land space has been deliberately shrunk through a variety of techniques, including the declaration of military zones and nature reserves.
Restricting water is another devastating tactic, with settlements seizing water and settlers taking over vital springs. I have met dozens of communities where the people all tell you how little land they have left to graze and how many sheep and goats they have been forced to sell just to survive. Their way of life has been rendered almost impossible in communities all over the West Bank.
Palestinian farmers are also in the settlers’ cross hairs. They tend to have more settled claims to the lands they cultivate, so settler groups have typically used violence and force. The burning of crops, including olive trees, is becoming ever more commonplace. The torching of vehicles and farm machinery exacts a punitive cost for already impoverished Palestinian farmers.
The Israeli state is not turning a blind eye. It is fully focused on advancing the settler project and ensuring settlers win this war. Palestinian land is confiscated, homes demolished and settlers protected. Palestinian land is often declared a closed military zone and, in some areas, Palestinian villages are emptied for several days so that Israeli soldiers can undergo military exercises. Crucially, the Israeli authorities deprive Palestinians of equitable supplies of water. More than 200 Palestinian villages that the settler movement would like to see cleansed do not have access to piped water.
What should happen is that the international community insists, backed up with telling penalties, that these communities that have been forced from their lands are allowed to return. They also must be allowed to live in safety and dignity, free from violent threats and intimidation and with proper access to services and water.
The US has belatedly started heading in the right direction, ahead of most of its European partners. It has begun to use the term “settler terrorism.” Major reservations about the overuse of the term terrorism are justified, not least around issues of definition. If a state or power can depict its opponents as “terrorist,” then all too often critical debate about the issue evaporates. Yet, by any reasonable standard, the use of violence for overt political purposes, violating international law against a civilian population living under occupation, must qualify.
Settler leaders who incite violence or participate in attacks should not be getting visas to other countries
When settlers torch cars, businesses and olive groves to push Palestinians off their land, surely these actions qualify as terrorist. When these actions are coordinated and enacted by specific settler groups, shouldn’t they be described as terrorist organizations, including their political wings?
As is so often the case, in Israel itself, the term terrorist is applied against settlers more often than in the international corridors of power. In June, Israeli security chiefs — at odds with their political masters — designated settler attacks as “nationalist terrorism.” How many international statesmen have dared to use this term? Contrast this with Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. Following the settler killing of a Palestinian in Burqa this month, he described those settlers who have killed Palestinians as heroes. Settlers can attack, Palestinians are not allowed to defend.
Flowing from this logic, settler terrorist groups should be proscribed. Why should they be allowed to operate internationally, raising funds and promoting the colonial exploitation of Palestinian land without consequences? Settler leaders who incite violence or participate in attacks should not be getting visas to other countries.
The second term that needs to be applied is “ethnic cleansing.” This has been a feature of the Palestinian Nakba throughout its 75 years. Palestinians have been consistently forced from their lands. What the world is witnessing today is a continuation of that process in plain sight. Establishing a coercive environment where Palestinians have no choice but to leave their homes and lands is unquestionably an act of ethnic cleansing and this needs to be stated, loud and clear, across the globe.
Absent significant action — and history does not give cause for optimism — this ethnic cleansing will not just continue but accelerate as part of this settler war. Settler bodies will milk every opportunity they can while this coalition is in power to intensify this act and squash Palestinians into ever more crowded and impoverished urban slums. Even then, many extremist settlers will be hoping to encourage as many Palestinians as possible not just to flee their villages but the West Bank itself.