With the rise in settler violence, are Israel's far-right groups actually militias?

Israel has a homegrown extremism problem

Cars burnt in an attack by Israeli settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Hawara.
Cars burnt in an attack by Israeli settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Hawara.

With the rise in settler violence, are Israel's far-right groups actually militias?

When hundreds of extremist settlers rampaged through the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Hawara in February in the wake of the murder of two settlers, Palestinian residents thought they were going to be burned alive.

The incident was not new as the town has been the target of frequent arson attacks orchestrated by groups of extremist settlers. But the scale of the latest raid was unprecedented.

Worse, a senior minister in the incumbent far-right led government, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, called for Hawara to be “erased”, while eyewitnesses said the inaction of Israeli police and soldiers was nothing new in the murky politics of the occupation.

It’s no wonder that the town’s residents are living in a state of fear. If you pay a visit a house there or other houses in the villages and towns encircled by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, you can easily spot Palestinian protective and precautionary measures: CCTVs, barbed wires and vigilantes.

At the scene of the crime, the houses’ walls have been scrawled with the words “price tag” in Hebrew. That’s the message the extremist settlers want to send to the Palestinians that they will pay a heavy price collectively.

Settler violence on the rise

The Hawara incident has cast light on Israel’s far-right violent extremists. Israeli extremists had killed Palestinians who did not present an imminent threat to life or of serious injury, including people praying in a mosque, members of a family with their 18-month toddler, a Palestinian teenager from occupied East Jerusalem, who was kidnapped and burned alive. They were further accused of attempting to bomb Al Aqsa Mosque.

Read more: Some takeaways from this year's Nakba anniversary

They are staunch supporters of the settlement project and want to seize more lands as deep as they can inside the Palestinian territories. Israeli settlements are illegal, and the occupation of the West Bank is unlawful under international law.

Today, more than 700,000 settlers live in nearly 300 settlements and outposts in the occupied West Bank. This is compared to around 120,000 settlers in the 1990s.

The extremist settlers further seek to undermine Palestinian ties to Jerusalem by taking part in an annual march through the Old City’s Muslim quarter, chanting racist and offensive phrases such as “Death to Arabs.”

According to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2022 was the sixth year of consecutive annual increase in the number of Israeli settler attacks and hate crimes in the occupied West Bank.

Extremist settlers launched more than 800 attacks on Palestinians and Palestinian properties last year, compared to an average of 200 attacks in 2009.

The violent acts include assault, throwing stones, issuing threats, torching fields, destroying trees and crops, stealing crops, using live fire, damaging homes and cars, and, in rare cases, homicide.

The rise in settler violence indicates that extremist ideology has hardened over the years. Their aim is to spark a religious war between Israelis and Palestinians as they believe that the Arabs have no right to live in what they consider "the land of Israel."

Hardened ideology

The violent settlers are inspired by some extremist clerics such as rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, who has advocated violence, incited racial hatred and called, in a 2009 book titled 'The King's Torah', for killing non-Jews, including children, if they posed a threat to the state of Israel and its people.

The Israeli internal security service, Shin Bet, has identified some of the far-right armed Jewish groups, who have claimed attacks in the two past decades against Palestinians and their properties in the occupied West Bank.

These Jewish supremacist groups include the Hilltop Youth, the Revolt, the Jewish Underground, Gush Emunim Underground, Lehava and Kach. They are committed to replacing the state with what they call a "Jewish kingdom."

Baruch Goldstein is a mass murderer and one of the public faces of these groups. In 1994, the Kach adherent killed 29 Palestinians and injured more than 100 in the Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron during the month of Ramadan.

There are no official Israeli statistics for the number of affiliated members and supporters of these groups. The Israeli authorities say they are the exception not the rule and often condemn settler violence.

In 2020, an Israeli court issued three life sentences against Amiram Ben-Uliel, a settler himself, after being convicted of killing a Palestinian couple and their toddler (the Dawabsheh family) in 2015 by firebombs.

Mob violence or militias? 

But Palestinian and Israeli rights activists accuse the Israeli army, which occupies and controls the West Bank, of condoning the repeated settler attacks, and when arrests take place, the suspects are often let off.

"The military avoids confronting violent settlers as a matter of policy, although soldiers have the authority and duty to detain and arrest them," said the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (B'Tselem) in a recent report.

"As a rule, the military prefers to remove Palestinians from their own farmland or pastureland rather than confront settlers, using various tactics such as issuing closed military zone orders that apply to Palestinians only, or firing tear gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated metal bullets and even live rounds.  Sometimes, soldiers actively participate in the settler attacks or look on from the sidelines."

A Palestinian girl and her mother stand behind a fortified window at their house in the town of Hawara in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

In an analysis for The Washington Post, Hannah Bagdanov, a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame and a doctoral affiliate of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, raised the question whether these ultra-nationalist groups are "mobs or pro-government militias."

She rejects the media coverage of the settler attacks as "mob violence" and argues that her research suggests these were organised efforts and premediated attacks, rather than random outbreaks of violence.

The researcher says that many of the recent settler attacks appear to be premeditated and "the work of known extremist groups. That runs against definitions of mob violence, as mobs form spontaneously and lack a clear organisational structure."

With a new pro-settlement government in power, there are concerns that the occupied West Bank will experience an uptick in violence in the months to come. The line-up has taken Israeli politics to the far right.

The National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, had himself joined the now-banned far-right party Kach, which was designated by the United States and Israel as a terrorist organisation. Last year, he brandished a gun in the face of Palestinains during a tour of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem and once hung a poster of Baruch Goldstein at his home in the settlement of Kiryat Arba.

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