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Settlers, soldiers and Israel’s war in the West Bank

The West pushes plans for the Palestinian Authority to take control of Gaza after Israel’s war. But, says Sophie Squire, in the West Bank, where the authority is supposed to rule, it is mired in collaboration with Israel and humiliation for the Palestinians
Issue 2886
Map of the West Bank after the Oslo Accords

Map of the West Bank after the Oslo Accords

Abd al-Jawad Khalil and his son Nizar decided to trim trees and gather firewood at their family’s olive grove one Saturday morning near As-Sawiya town in the northern West Bank. While working they noticed 20 figures cresting a hilltop, heading their way. The father and son realised they were carrying firearms and iron rods. These were Israeli settlers.

The settlers approached, swearing and throwing stones at them. Abd al-Jawad couldn’t run—he was too old—so Nizar stood in front of his father, hoping that the stones would hit him instead. Unfortunately one stone did find its mark, knocking out Abd al-Jawad and leaving him bleeding on the floor.

Attacks like this are not rare in the West Bank. But every act of violence, murder and intimidation perpetrated against Palestinians by settlers in the West Bank is part of the Zionist project. The goal is to grab the maximum amount of land and reduce the number of Arabs on it.

Settlers are Israeli citizens who choose to live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Often, they are characterised as a fringe group of religious fanatics by the mainstream media. But the settlers’ invasion of the West Bank and their brutalisation of Palestinians is bought, paid for and backed by the Israeli state itself.

The West Bank is run by the Palestinian Authority (PA) which concedes to Israel to stay in power. But for ordinary Palestinians this means violence and land grabbing—that’s the reality of the myth of the two-state solution.

Grabbing land in the West Bank has been a political aim of the Zionist project for more than 50 years. Israelis started building settlements just after the 1967 Six-Day War. From that point the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been under Israel’s military occupation.

There were Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip until 2005, but Israel withdrew them. It encouraged the settlers to resettle in the West Bank following its military withdrawal from the area. United Nations resolutions have repeatedly stated, since 1967, that the military occupation and settlements are illegal under international law.

Yet Israel, backed by the United States, has unsurprisingly never been brought to heel for these violations. Israel spends around twice as much on each Israeli living in the settlements than on those living in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. 

Several non-profit charities in Israel and the US also fund settlers. Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that from 2009 to 2013, US charities funnelled over £175 million to Israeli settler organisations—many did it tax-free. The United Nations says that since 2012, the population of Israeli settlers has grown from 520,000 to 700,000 in 2022.

Settlers are now the state

Israeli leaders have given settlers even more confidence to murder, intimidate and dispossess Palestinians since Hamas’ 7 October attacks. But West Bank activist Hamed told Socialist Worker the state isn’t just giving settlers weapons. Settlers are increasingly becoming part of the Israeli state.

“With many soldiers once stationed in the West Bank now in Gaza, the Israeli forces have been recruiting settlers,” he said. “The police and the army are now made up of settlers. This means—that no one can challenge the rule of the settlers.

“I work for an international organisation. I used to drive up into the Hebron Hills three times a week. I’ve only been three times in the last month. It’s just too dangerous.”

‘Palestinians in the West Bank have no rights because they live under occupation’

Following the second round of the Oslo Accords in 1995, the West Bank was fragmented into three zones—A, B and C. Area A is the most populated area. The cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem are within its confines.

Area B comprises approximately 22 percent of the West Bank. In both Areas A and B, the PA has some partial governance on paper. Yet Palestinians in both places are not free. They still have to pass through checkpoints to travel and are subjected to attacks by the Israeli state and settlers. 

Israel maintains complete control in Area C, which makes up around 60 percent of the land in the West Bank. It is home to approximately 300,000 Palestinians who are surrounded by some 400,000 settlers constantly trying to push them out. 

Ehud Krinis is part of the Villages Group, a small group of Palestinian and Israeli volunteers who assist and support those living in two villages, Salim and Deir El Hatab. Both villages are partially located in Area C.

“Palestinians in the West Bank have no rights because they are people living under occupation. And there is a ‘quiet transfer’ going on in Area C,” he told Socialist Worker. “This is an attempt by the Israeli settlers and the army to make the life of Palestinians so hard that they will move to Area A or B.”

Ehud said that he had seen first‑hand the Israeli state’s brutal plan to push the Arab population out of Area C. “It plans to squeeze the Palestinians out in a coordinated way slowly,” he said. “It plans to isolate them and ensure they cannot plough the field or graze their herds.

“These plans began before 7 October. But now the situation is even more desperate. The people we are in contact with can hardly go out of their communities because settlers block the roads. The army will come into their houses, steal their money, damage their tools and break everything.”

Ehud explained that Israel wants to paint the problem as just a few radical settlers. “The US and the European Union have backed that view up when they tried to say that they’ll ban only ‘violent’ settlers from receiving visas,” he said.

“But it’s a false view. The government is behind every settlement. It legitimises the violence and supplies the settlers with everything they need, and the international community does nothing.”

Settlers’ parties are now at the heart of Israeli politics

A settler movement that is explicit about its aims has been growing rapidly inside the Israeli government in the last few years. Israel’s new coalition government is made up of a host of right wing and far right parties, with many making the seizure of land a priority.

One of the most prominent figures of the settler movement in the government is the current finance minister Bezalel Smotrich. Smotrich was born in Haspin, an Israeli settlement in the Golan Heights. In 2017 he released a detailed proposal about how the Israeli state should push for “victory through settlement”.

In February last year, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave Smotrich the role of supervising all Zionist settlements in the West Bank. But the increasing support for the settlements is not confined to a few figures.

The support of explicitly pro-settler parties holds the coalition together. The government gave the far right Otzma Yehudit party £55 million in its March budget to build settlements in the Negev and Galilee regions of the West Bank. 

The Zionist state has occasionally been met with some pushback from other Western powers about the settlements. The US offered some lukewarm opposition on several occasions.

State department spokesperson Vedant Patel said the White House was “extremely troubled” by a particular round of Israeli laws. These made it possible to restore illegal settlements in the north of the West Bank in March 2023. Sometimes Israel has tried to hide just how involved it is in backing the settler movement. Ehud explained that the way it has talked about settlements has shifted over the years.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, Israel approved every settlement,” he explained. “Then in the 1990s, there was an effort by the Israeli state to say it wouldn’t recognise some outposts legally, but it would still give the settlers everything they wanted. 

“Now there is a third wave where the Israeli government describes outposts as ranches. Then it says because they are just ranches, it doesn’t need to recognise them at all.” Ehud added that the movement, which some 20 or 30 years ago was marginal, is no longer standing on the sidelines.

“The settlers are really politically strong now, and I would say they are lauded by some sections of Israeli society,” he said. “Of course settlers don’t have one mindset. But I would say they are becoming more radical and extremist.”

Resistance defies oppression

Despite living under brutal occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank have always resisted. “For many, 7 October was a wake-up call,” Hamed said. “There’s lots of support for the resistance here in the West Bank, not always specifically Hamas, but all of those fighting back.

“People see the PA as a traitor. They are angry that it is waiting to take over Gaza if Hamas falls. The PA will pose as the only legitimate voice of the Palestinian people, but we don’t want it. In the West Bank our hearts and minds are with the resistance.”

In defiance of mounting repression by the Israeli state, there were large protests to show solidarity with those in Gaza in cities in the West Bank. Hamed added that no method used by the Israeli state to try and sedate the Palestinians has worked. 

“When Netanyahu came to power in 1996, he promoted an open market policy and for Israelis to take advantage of Palestinian labour. He said that Palestinians should be able to work in Israel, and should be able to go to college and have their own houses.

“He said you can have a nice car, but not for one moment can you have the right of return or liberation. Some Palestinians in the West Bank could have been persuaded to think that this life could be better. But ultimately, Netanyahu could not buy us or make us give up our fight for self-determination.”

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