West Bank’s settler violence problem is a second sign that Israel’s policy of ignoring Palestinians’ drive for a homeland isn’t a long-term solution
Latest ArticlesOCD is so much more than handwashing or tidying. As a historian with the disorder, here’s what I’ve learned There’s no norovirus outbreak in the UK – so why is a sharp rise in patients being reported? This 17th-century portrait was given plumper lips years after it was finished – an expert explains why Holocaust comparisons are overused — but in the case of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel they may reflect more than just the emotional response of a traumatized people Seven original 1970s skateparks that show why these urban treasures should be protected Ukraine recap: western divisions an ominous sign for Kyiv as the aid funding tap begins to dry up Climate ‘tipping points’ can be positive too – our report sets out how to engineer a domino effect of rapid changes Boris Johnson at the COVID inquiry: sullen, evasive and a danger to democracy How bird feeders help small species fight infection Why Israel’s intelligence chiefs failed to listen to October 7 warnings – and the lessons to be learned
With violence and destruction raging in southern Israel and Gaza, there has been less attention on the worsening violence in the West Bank, the other half of the occupied territories.
Since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 2023, and the onset of Israel’s war in Gaza, Israelis and Palestinians have been thrust back into the headlines. Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7 and took more than 200 hostages; Israelis have killed at least 11,000 Palestinians in a response that has sparked a debate about whether what the world is witnessing amounts to war crimes, ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Before Oct. 7, West Bank Palestinians were already experiencing the highest level of settler violence since 2006.
Israeli settlers, empowered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, have increased their attacks on and harassment of Palestinian rural communities since the start of the war. This is often done with the backing of the Israeli military, as Israeli soldiers stand guard, preventing a Palestinian response. Sometimes, the attacks take place with the military’s involvement.
The United Nations has recorded over 200 settler attacks in the past month. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reports that since the start of the war, 16 villages and their 880 Palestinian residents have been completely displaced as a result of these attacks; 180 Palestinians have been killed and 64 injured. Over 2,000 Palestinians have been arrested. Videos of their mistreatment and torture have gone viral.
The escalation of violence in the West Bank is neither arbitrary nor disconnected from the violence in Gaza. Instead, as a political scientist who studies Palestinian politics, I believe it should be understood in the broader context. The proliferation of armed settlers in the West Bank, the expansion of illegal settler outposts and now the increasing violence and forced displacement all stem from the same underlying policy that led to the 16-year blockade of Gaza: an Israeli policy of ignoring Palestinian national claims altogether.
This policy disregards political solutions and pursues violent ones. The policy has not just taken hold in Israel but has been facilitated by American and Arab support.
Surrender or transfer
Israel’s policy entails building new settlements in order to “abort” the Palestinian state, in the words of influential right-wing cabinet member Bezalel Smotrich, a settler himself. This happens as the Israeli government facilitates fragmented governance between the West Bank and Gaza. The goal: Impose a “surrender or transfer” ultimatum on the Palestinian people.
The Israeli policy is to simply disregard any Palestinian claims to a national home and instead support settler violence to further Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land. It is a policy of nonengagement with the issues animating the conflict, relying on coercion to achieve Israeli goals of full annexation.
The surrender or transfer proposal in particular comes from Smotrich, who outlined these ideas in his 2017 Decisive Plan. The phrase “surrender or transfer” means Palestinians would have to give up the hope that they can have their own national identity, state or even equal rights. If they refuse to surrender to this reality, then they will be forced to leave. Palestinians in the territories, many of them already refugees, would be expelled into neighboring countries – not with the approval of anyone in those countries, however.
Smotrich’s 2017 proposal laid out his plans and worldview, and while the Israeli government has not officially adopted the “Decisive Plan,” Smotrich and his allies are now in government. This has meant that the plan has been a de facto adopted plan by key ministries in the government.
In particular, Smotrich, as retired Israel Maj. Gen. Yaakov Or wrote, can “allocate the vast resources necessary to put his plan into practice.” The results over the past two years are clear. Illegal outposts have been quickly authorized and large budgets approved for the creation of supporting infrastructure. When settlers engaged in pogroms in West Bank villages, Smotrich went on record that these villages should indeed be wiped out – not by vigilantes but by the state itself.
When the peace process is discussed, the Israeli government states there is no partner for peace and that the Palestinians are unable to govern themselves.
This narrative suits the overarching goal of ignoring Palestinian aspirations. Netanyahu and members of his cabinet have even referred to Hamas as an “asset” because it acts as a counterweight to other Palestinian political figures. Hamas’ ideological positions then lend credence to the idea that a peace process is impossible.
Spreading Smotrich’s ideas
Israeli human rights activist Orly Noy has recently warned that these ideas – ignoring Palestinian aspirations and dealing with the conflict only by force – have permeated Israeli society, calling it the “Smotrichization” of Israeli politics.
Many within Israel, Noy argues, believe that the conflict with Palestinians can be managed through sheer coercion. An “inferior, de-Palestinianized existence” was, until Oct. 7, “most Israelis’ chosen option.” Furthermore, Noy wrote in a recent magazine article, “Expelling Gaza’s population makes perfect sense to most Israelis.” Thus, Palestinian “refusal to submit to the might of the Israeli regime is perceived as an existential threat and a sufficient reason for their annihilation.”
As a result of Smotrichization, there is very little room or opportunity today for those who advocate for a peaceful future, a shared future or both.
A small minority of Palestinians hold Israeli citizenship, accounting for 20% of the Israeli population. These citizens have been uniquely targeted, facing a “severe crackdown on their freedoms of expression and assembly,” according to Adalah, an organization that provides legal representation to Israel’s Arab citizens. The Israeli left and critics of the government have also faced efforts to restrict their speech.
US and Arab role
The U.S. and its regional allies have also ignored Palestinian aspirations and meaningful progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Instead, they’ve opted for policies that sideline Palestinians and bypass the issues animating continued violence.
Normalization of diplomatic and trade relations between Arab states and Israel has become the focus of both the Trump and Biden Middle East policies. Such deals are the clearest manifestation of ignoring Palestinian aspirations, beginning with the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” proposal and the Abraham Accords, and then with the Biden administration’s Negev Summit and continued push for Israeli-Saudi normalization.
Unlike the Israeli government, U.S. administrations and Arab regimes likely want to avoid large-scale forced displacement of Palestinians, which would undoubtedly destabilize the region. Arab officials have made this clear in recent weeks, especially after Israel floated the idea of moving displaced Gazans to the Sinai Peninsula.
Nevertheless, normalization deals have provided the Israeli government with unspoken permission to continue aggressive settlement policies, without concern over international backlash.
These deals, touted by the U.S. and others as symbols of progress in a conflict-filled region, also strengthened the impression among Israeli society and politicians that Israel can continue to ignore the issue of Palestinians and their unmet national claims.
From the Israeli perspective, even Arab regimes had proven willing to ignore the Palestinian issue, normalize relations in spite of illegal settlement activity and suppress pro-Palestine sentiment in their own countries. There were no regional or international incentives for Israel to change the policy.
This thought process was made clear in a February 2023 interview with Netanyahu. No one, he said, should “get hung up on” the issue of peace with Palestinians.
His logic was clear: “I went around them (Palestinians), I went directly to the Arab states and forged a new concept of peace.”
This “new concept of peace” is not what regular people would think of as peace, which entails ending conflict. Instead, it’s what political scientists like me call “authoritarian conflict management.” This conflict management is described by scholars David Lewis, John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran as one that ignores genuine negotiations or constraints on the use of force, disregards the underlying causes of conflict and instead relies on state coercion to impose a new status quo.
So while the public has understandably been focused on the unprecedented destruction in Gaza, the deadly assaults by Israeli settlers on West Bank Palestinians are part of the larger picture. They should be understood as yet another manifestation of the dynamics driving recent trends in Israeli politics: a policy of nonengagement with Palestinian national claims.
Dana El Kurd is affiliated with the Arab Center Washington and the Middle East Institute.