Israeli president Isaac Herzog > Elad Brami, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, today condemned “illegal and immoral” attacks by settlers on Palestinians, as the country’s security forces vowed a crackdown on “nationalist terror”.

What happened

  • A terror attack carried out by Hamas activists near the northern West Bank settlement of Eli last Tuesday in which four Israelis were killed sparked several days of rioting by extremist settlers.
  • The settlers – who have close links to the far-right – set fire to homes, cars and fields in Palestinian villages and towns, including Huwara, Turmus Ayya, Urif and Umm Safa.
  • Earlier in the year, settlers rioted in Huwara following a terror attack. The settlers, some of them masked, used live gunfire in several of the rampages, including at Umm Safa on Saturday. The Umm Safa Council said that four houses and 20 vehicles were set on fire, and another 15 houses were also damaged in the rioting.
  • A 27-year-old Palestinian, Ommar Qattin, was killed in Turmus Ayya in circumstances that were reportedly unclear. Palestinian media reported 30 homes and 60 cars set alight in the town, which is near Ramallah. In Urif, a video appeared to show masked settlers, accompanied by a dog, leaving a mosque, with one of them tearing apart a copy of the Quran in the street outside.
  • The IDF, which condemned the rioting, admitted on Friday it had “failed to prevent” the “ very grave incidents”.
  • Five suspects – including two minors and an off-duty soldier – were brought before the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court today following arrests. Four of the individuals were arrested in relation to rioting which took place before Saturday.
  • Herzog condemned the settler attacks. “These acts are illegal and immoral,” the president said. “There are Israeli citizens who found in the difficult and painful events [the terrorist attack outside Eli] a reason … for violent, cruel and unrestrained riots against innocent Palestinian residents.”
  • The president’s words were echoed by opposition leader Yair Lapid, who said the settler rioting was a “moral disgrace and a national security threat” which “crossed every red line”. “Setting fire to vehicles and homes of innocent civilians is not human, certainly not Jewish,” the former prime minister wrote on twitter. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must condemn this travesty and treat with utmost urgency.”
  • Labor leader Merav Michaeli urged the security forces to “deal with this Jewish terrorism with a heavy hand and root it out”. She had previously commented on twitter: “It’s time to stop the settler thugs. Night after night, gangs of violent settlers enter the Arab villages and burn houses, cars and businesses in a quest for revenge. There is no law, no justice and no order. Bullying for its own sake. This is what a bankrupt country looks like.”
  • Defence minister Yoav Gallant backed the IDF and called for it to “act to maintain order and prevent acts of uncontrolled violence by residents of the area”. “This is not our way,” he commented. Foreign minister Eli Cohen also condemned the violence, calling for the rioters to face justice, but refused to label the incidents as terrorism.
  • On Saturday, the Biden Administration defended Israel’s “right to defend its people” against terrorist groups, but also expressed “deep concern over the recent extremist settler attacks against Palestinian civilians and the destruction of their property in the West Bank”. It called for the rioters to be brought to justice and urged steps to restore calm, including a halt to “settlement activity”.

Security forces vow crackdown …

In a strongly worded and rare joint statement on Saturday, the heads of the IDF, Shin Bet and police vowed a crackdown on “nationalist terrorism in the full sense of the term”. “In recent days, violent attacks by Israeli citizens against innocent Palestinians have been carried out in the Judea and Samaria area [the biblical term for the West Bank],” the security chiefs said. “These attacks contradict every moral and Jewish value and constitute nationalist terrorism in the full sense of the term, and we are obliged to fight them.” The statement continued: “This violence increases Palestinian terror, harms the State of Israel and the international legitimacy of the security forces to fight Palestinian terror, and diverts the security forces from their main mission against Palestinian terror.” The security chiefs said they would send extra forces, increases arrests and utilise administrative detention against settlers who “act in a violent and extreme manner inside the Palestinian villages”. They also called on the settlers’ leaders and political representatives to condemn the rioters and “join the fight against them”.

… as IDF send in more forces

The rioting and precarious security situation in the West Bank led the IDF to announce on Sunday that it was deploying two additional battalions to the occupied territory. The IDF typically has 13 battalions in the West Bank, but a series of terror attacks over the past year, counter-extremist operations and settler rioting has seen that number increase to 25. In all, 28 Israelis, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in terror attacks this year, compared to 20 this time last year. Over 130 Palestinians – the overwhelming majority armed militants – have been killed in the same period. An IDF anti-terrorism operation in Jenin last Monday saw six Palestinian gunmen killed. The operation also led to the death of a 15-year-old Palestinian girl.

Far-right furies

  • Saturday’s comments by the security establishment has drawn criticism from the far-right, including its representatives in Netanyahu’s government. “The attempt to create an equivalency between murderous Arab terror and [Israeli] civilian counter-actions, however serious they may be, is morally wrong and dangerous on a practical level,” finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, said.
  • National security minister Itamar Ben Gvir told settlers “even in these trying times, when the blood is boiling, you must not take the law into your hands”. But he coupled his remarks with accusations that police had engaged in “collective punishment” of the settlement of Ateret. Ben Gvir also urged settlers to “head for the hilltops” to expand illegal outposts. His call earned him a rebuke from Netanyahu at Sunday’s cabinet meeting who called illegal landgrabs “unacceptable”.
  • A third far-right minister, Orit Strock, was forced to apologise on Monday after likening the security chiefs to Russian mercenaries. “Who do you think you are? The Wagner Group?” the settlements and national missions minister said. “You work for the government, you don’t issue messages under the nose of the government as you please and as you see fit,” Strock’s remarks were later condemned by Netanyahu. However, Lapid and National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said the prime minister should fire her.

Netanyahu to blame

The centre-left Haaretz newspaper today condemned Netanyahu’s handling of the situation, noting that “Mr. Terrorism didn’t have a word to say about the settlers’ rioting”. The prime minister “knows that his political survival depends on the hilltop criminals and their emissaries in the government. It’s no accident that he gave a racist, messianic settler, Bezalel Smotrich, civilian control over the West Bank”.