Israeli settlers are a cog in Israel's genocidal machine
"This recognition is an initial step in the right direction, but it is not enough."
This was a statement by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malaki in support of Israeli Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev who spoke of the need to tackle West Bank's settler violence against Palestinians.
Bar-Lev's statement was prompted by the spree of settler attacks on Palestinian villages across the occupied West Bank, following the killing of a settler by Palestinian gunmen near an illegal settlement outpost in the area.
Earlier in the week, Bar-Lev's position drew rebukes from the pro-settlement rightists within the government coalition. Much like former Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, who dared to criticise the settlers over the arson attack on the Palestinian Dawabsheh family in 2015, Bar-Lev was catalogued as a "leftist", a derogatory term in Israel reserved to those who dare to challenge the mainstream ideology.
"Indeed, as far as Israel's security is concerned, the settlements, inter alia, provide the geographically narrow Israeli state with a strategic depth"
Implicitly responding to Bar-Lev, PM Naftali Bennett was quick to paint the settlers as victims of Palestinian terror. Like Sharon and Netanyahu who saw the settler movement as the avant-grade of Zionism, Bennett unreservedly described the settlers as Israel’s "defensive bulwark" that must be strengthened and supported.
Indeed, as far as Israel's security is concerned, the settlements, inter alia, provide the geographically narrow Israeli state with a strategic depth. Deeper geography means Israel can absorb a first strike and maintain an offensive posture without compromising the internal security of its vital civilian, military, and commercial centres.
This is in keeping with Israel's former foreign minister, Abba Eban, who in 1969 suggested that the occupied territories represented the "Auschwitz border." That is to say, dismantling the settlements and withdrawing from the territory poses an "existential threat" to the Jewish people.
Up until a decade or so ago, Israel was the region's hub for space power, which allowed it to enhance the strategic depth it lacked on the Earth's surface. However, the increasingly easy access to high-resolution satellite imagery and drone technology not only by regional powers but also by non-state actors ushered a change in Israel's approach to security depth.
One way to maintain a strategic edge is to boost Israel's physical presence on the ground in the occupied territories, not merely by additional army deployment and further fortification, but also by unleashing the settlers to terrorise the local population and, therefore, assist the Israeli army in keeping them under control.
Incrementally, the settler violence has become strategic - although officially undeclared - arm for the Israeli state. The goal is to clear hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the rural 60% of the occupied West Bank designated as Areas B and C in the Oslo Interim Agreement between Israel and the PLO.
In Area C, the Israeli military and civil administrations have full control, whereas, in Area B, Palestinian security can operate only in instances where the perpetrators are not Israeli citizens and where the crimes are "not related to Israel's security interests."
Being an unofficial tool to terrorise Palestinians into leaving, or at least this is the theory, settler violence saves the Israeli state the convoluted bureaucracy designed to gradually dispossess the Palestinians.
Through the settlers, the state can exercise violence in a much quicker and blunter fashion yet without appearing officially or morally responsible for it or having to justify it before the international community.
The evidence is more in the statistics than in what is officially declared in Tel-Aviv. Up until November this year, according to the UN, 410 settler attacks against Palestinians, including four Palestinian deaths, were recorded. That, as opposed to 358 attacks in 2020, and 335 in 2019. Israel's internal security, Shin Bet, reported a 50% rise in settler violence since the beginning of the year.
Whilst the incremental increase in settler violence over the past years is irrefutable, so is the systemic and structural nature of the attacks. It might be that some attacks surge at a certain time in response to Palestinian violence or the Israeli government acting against unauthorised settler outposts.
In the majority of cases, the attacks do not seem reactive or provoked by certain events; but are an ongoing practice closely tied to the structural violence embedded in the belligerent occupation itself.
The Israeli government intends to add more housing units to existing settlements in the occupied territoryhttps://t.co/IgVO8cAlwK— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) December 26, 2021
However, what makes settler violence different from that of the Israeli military is its comprehensiveness. Settler violence has over the years taken many forms: from low-level verbal abuse and bullying to physical violence, shooting with live ammunition, torching crops and uprooting trees, killing livestock, home vandalism and theft, all the way to murder.
Of course, arson and vandalism do not belong in the same category as full-scale military operations, but they serve the same purpose: to create an atmosphere of fear and hardship as a means of advancing colonialist agendas. In a way, the settlers fill in gaps in the matrix of oppression that the Israeli military does not usually or, at least, systematically target.
Because the attacks happen mainly within Areas B and C, the settlers know that they are under the protection of the Israeli army and that Palestinian security, even if they could, are forbidden from acting against them. Prosecution, if at all happens, is subject to the Israeli criminal system, and very rarely does it lead to incarceration.
Between 2005 and 2019, Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din found that the Israeli authorities closed 91% of investigations into settler violence against Palestinians. Indictment was filed in only 100 cases out of a total of 1,200. Yesh Din's investigation doesn’t take into account the hundreds of attacks that go unreported.
"Whether through terror and intimidation or by living peacefully in settlements built on Palestinian land, the settlers remain the key dynamic in Israel's colonial logic of elimination"
The rise in settler violence is often attributed to the growth of the settler population, the diversification of their ideological and religious strands, and, for some, the feeling of betrayal after Israel's 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
The settler movement, for Israelis, is a nonhomogeneous and diverse group and, as such, settler violence is exercised by a minority of ultra-nationalist extremists - a "marginal few" that should not be taken to reflect the entire settlement movement, to quote PM Bennet.
For Palestinians, however, neither the circumstances that fuelled settler violence nor the diversity of the settler population is relevant. The settler movement is homogenous in its goals and the impact it has on their lives.
Whether through terror and intimidation or by living peacefully in settlements built on Palestinian land, the settlers remain the key dynamic in Israel's colonial logic of elimination: the displacement and replacement of the native population.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.