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How the Israeli settler rampage was emboldened by the new far-right government

Settlers torched a Palestinian village. What that says about Israel today.

A burned-out four-door car beside a graffitied building.
Palestinians walk past a torched car in the occupied West Bank town of Huwara on February 27, 2023.
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

In the occupied West Bank town of Huwara on Sunday, hundreds of Israeli settlers torched the homes of 30 Palestinians and lit about 100 cars on fire.

The settlers attacked in Huwara and in villages nearby hours after a Palestinian man killed two Israeli brothers from the neighboring Israeli settlement Har Bracha. The apparent retaliation injured 390 Palestinians, most from tear gas and smoke inhalation, and one Palestinian was shot dead, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. Several prominent Palestinians and Israelis, including the opposition Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, likened the attack on Huwara to a pogrom.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the settler attacks, while key members of his coalition used incendiary language against Palestinians. Then on Monday, a suspected Palestinian gunman killed an Israeli American driving on a West Bank highway.

The violence in Huwara, escalating Israeli military raids on Palestinians, and the intensified Palestinian attacks against Israelis over the last several months reveal a new reality: The shape of Israeli government has moved to an extreme far right, further enabling the country’s most fringe elements and raising questions about whether more violence from either side can be avoided.

Settlements, or Israeli communities that are built on land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and that are considered illegal by the international community, have expanded over the last two decades. Today, more than 685,000 Israeli settlers live there, posing a major barrier to the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Settler violence has been surging for decades and rising in the past year. A United Nations office tracked more than 660 settler attacks on Palestinians in 2022, though watchdogs say the number may be significantly higher. “We don’t claim to have a full picture,” says Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem. “There’s just so much of it. And much goes unreported because it has become so routine.”

These tactics against Palestinians have long been protected by the army and other institutions. Israeli authorities “failed in the investigation” of 81.5 percent of the cases since 2005, according to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, and few of the investigations result in indictments of settlers. At the same time, Palestinian militant groups increased their armed resistance against Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank last year.

What’s different in 2023 is that Israeli settlers are now in the government and running ministries. Their presence — in particular, that of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who last week gained new powers over Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank — further emboldens an already powerful radical bloc of ultranationalist settlers.

“It’s not a coincidence that the radical violent settlers feel more emboldened because their fellow travelers are in power,” said Khaled Elgindy, a researcher at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington. “They don’t have to hide it anymore. They don’t have to feel defensive, they are on offense.”

The context of settler violence: A newly tense moment and deeply engrained systems of oppression

Earlier on Sunday, representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as well as Egypt, Jordan, and the United States, met in Aqaba, Jordan, for “frank discussions.”

Israel’s and Palestine’s governments had already reportedly been holding secret talks to calm tensions, after a 48-hour period earlier last month in which a terrorist attack in East Jerusalem killed seven Israelis and an Israeli raid on the refugee camp of Jenin killed nine Palestinians.

There have been no actual Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a Palestinian state since the end of the Obama administration and little prospect for any diplomatic progress. But in an attempt to move things along, the grouping put out a communique with eight commitments, the first being a reaffirmation of “the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence.” That didn’t even hold until the evening when settlers left burning wreckage across Huwara.

One of Israel’s leading columnists, Nahum Barnea, compared it to Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Germans destroyed Jewish shops and homes in a coordinated wave of deadly hate. “Kristallnacht was relived in Huwara,” he wrote. Though the scale of the violence in the West Bank was significantly smaller than that precursor to the Holocaust and involved less overt participation from state-affiliated groups, it’s noteworthy that such a prominent centrist Israeli thinker was horrified enough to make the comparison.

Decades of the Israel-Palestine peace process have sputtered out and have become inert. The Biden administration’s persistent talk about a two-state solution sounds remarkably empty and out of touch with realities on the ground. “Even in the midst of the worst violence of the Second Intifada, there was a political horizon that was to be had somewhere off in the distance,” Elgindy, who previously advised the Palestinian leadership in negotiations, told me. “You could point to constituencies in Israel on the Palestinian side, everywhere that were committed to this vision. Now that pretense is gone.”

Many Palestinians do not feel represented by the aging leaders at summits like the one in Jordan on Sunday. PLO Chair Mahmoud Abbas is 87, and he hasn’t held elections since 2009. It further contributes to the disenfranchisement of Palestinians.

And when there is settler violence, Palestinians have little legal recourse; it’s difficult and rare for institutions within Israel and the occupied territory to hold perpetrators of settler violence accountable. Just eight settlers who were arrested for Sunday’s rampage, for example; five were released and three are under house arrest, according to Israeli police. The United States has supported Israel in blocking United Nations Security Council resolutions and Palestinians’ attempts to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.

In response to all these factors, a new militant group called Lion’s Den has emerged in the occupied West Bank. Lion’s Den, Jenin Brigades, and other resistance groups have emerged in areas where Israeli settler violence is the most severe. They have carried out attacks on settlers and Israeli soldiers. The weekend Palestinian attack on two Israeli settlers from Har Bracha wasn’t affiliated with any of these groups but reflects this growing resort to violent resistance.

The violence against Palestinians more broadly across the West Bank is accelerating, as the Israeli government is also staging more intensive raids, including one near Nablus on February 22 where 11 Palestinians died and over 100 were wounded. The Israeli military has responded with near-nightly raids on suspected militant cells in the West Bank. “Many of the cases involving security forces spark serious concerns of excessive use of force and arbitrary killings,” said the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

At the same time, the extreme-right government of Netanyahu, which took office in January, is pursuing an unprecedented attack on the Israeli judiciary in an attempt to hollow out its independence. Tens of thousands of protesters have been demonstrating against what many experts view as a judicial coup. The precedent of the Israeli government trampling on the rule of law in the occupied territories for decades has created the conditions for the same to happen to the rights of Israeli Jews.

“Just to take a step back, the context has always been the apartheid regime,” said Haggai Matar, the executive editor of +972, an independent news organization that publishes critical journalism from Palestinians and Israelis. “I think it’s very easy, to a degree that’s troubling, to pin so much of this on Ben Gvir or on Netanyahu.”

This government does have more far-reaching plans than previous governments, with Ben Gvir and Smotrich “speaking openly about ethnic cleansing as policy,” as Matar put it.

Ben Gvir is pushing for more Palestinian home demolitions, his party advocates for the annexation of the West Bank, and he even calls Palestinian lawmakers in the Knesset “terrorists” to their faces. Smotrich on Sunday shared a Twitter thread in response to the attack on the two brothers that called for the “collective punishment of the terrorist’s family.”

But Matar emphasized that this government’s centrist predecessor, the Change government that was in office from 2021 to 2022, was also deeply involved in settlement construction, house demolitions, administrative detention, an increase of Palestinian deaths per annum, and a spike in settler violence.

The Hawara attack is “a critical moment,” he said, but must be placed on a “continuum of increasing attacks,” such as an assault on the Palestinian village of Mufagara in 2021 or an arson attack in the West Bank city of Duma in 2015 in which a baby and his parents died.

It’s both an exceptional moment and an expression of oppressive systems long in place.

Update, 7 pm ET: This article has been updated to include additional information about Israel’s response to the violence in the West Bank.

Correction, March 2, 10 am ET: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the two Israeli men were killed in Har Bracha. They are from that settlement.

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