On Settler Violence, Biden, and Seeing the Whole Picture

9 February 2024

Last week, long-time columnist Roger Cohen wrote an important piece for the New York Times Magazine about violence–not in Gaza, but in the West Bank. “Settler evictions of Palestinians from West Bank villages have surged since early October,” he wrote, “generally with impunity. Livestock has been stolen, olive groves uprooted and burned.” The violence, he wrote, is “everywhere”. And the statistics, chronicled by NIF grantees like Yesh Din, Bimkom, and Haqel, are not hard to find. Between October 7 and November 20 alone, 225 incidents of violence committed by Israeli citizens were recorded in 93 West Bank Palestinian communities; nine Palestinians were killed by settlers with live ammunition. Other acts of violence include setting fire to homes and cars, cutting down olive trees, and vandalizing property, oftentimes with racist slogans. The annual Palestinian olive harvest, a major source of income for many, was essentially frozen this year due to the violence. 

With all eyes on Gaza, it can be hard to shift our attention to see even more, to include within our vision the larger picture and think about the West Bank violence (or the political repression of Palestinian and anti-war citizens of Israel, for that matter). 

But the bigger picture tells a fuller story–always–and can help us find more inclusive, holistic solutions. That’s always been our job at the New Israel Fund. It’s part of why we have so many different kinds of grantees, and so many different ways of giving grants. We have our eyes on the whole picture, all the time. 

It’s also why we believe that the only solution to this conflict must be a political one, and it’s why we’re relieved to see the Biden administration make a real decision, one with teeth, to curb settler violence. Last week, the Biden administration issued an executive order that will enable the U.S. to impose sanctions on individuals who target Palestinian civilians with violence, intimidation, property damages or terror. Through this order, President Biden said to the Netanyahu government: if you don’t do this to protect both Palestinians on the West Bank and a future of safety and democracy for your people, we will. Biden declared the threat of extremist settler violence a “national emergency,” saying that “these actions constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” His executive order appropriately calls settler violence “acts of terrorism.”

Netanyahu responded by saying that exceptional measures like special sanctions were unnecessary, because “Israel brings those who break the law to justice.” As our grantees have demonstrated, this is simply not true. According to Yesh Din, since 2005, only 3% of investigation files opened into ideologically motivated offenses by Israelis against Palestinians in the West Bank led to full or partial convictions. Already, the sanctions have been applied to four Israeli settlers, which means that their U.S. assets have been frozen and they are barred from entering the U.S.—and this week, Israeli banks followed suit. These are people who were involved in the pogrom in Huwara, who have been convicted of or are on trial for assaulting Palestinians and human rights activists with weapons like tear gas, stones and clubs. Biden’s sanctions amount to a clear message to the Netanyhau government and to violent settler extremists: there will be consequences for this violence. We know that the strategic framework that has guided Netanyahu and the Israeli right—the conceptzia, as it’s called in Hebrew—has failed. The idea that they could weaken the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank by propping up Hamas with Qatari dollars while increasing the power and number of settlers (like the ones now being sanctioned) in the West Bank in an effort to make a two state solution impossible, has been revealed to be a deadly dead-end. Israelis across the political spectrum, as well as policymakers in the United States, now understand this.

They are now saying what our grantees have been saying for decades: the only solution is a political solution, one that secures self-determination and safety for both Israelis and Palestinians, the very same kind of solution Netanyahu has resisted since the Oslo Accords. 

I’d like to return to Roger Cohen’s piece, which is worth reading in full. It offers perspectives from settlers, Palestinians in the West Bank, and a woman who was released in the first prisoner swap during the short-lived ceasefire in Gaza in late November. But one of the stories he tells demonstrates just how much the choices of people living in the West Bank affect everyone in the region. On October 5th, two days before Hamas’s brutal massacre in Israel’s south, a young Palestinian man in Huwara took a gun and fired on a settler couple driving down Huwara’s main street. The couple was unharmed, Cohen reports, but “in a reprise of the riot last February,” settlers descended on the village to carry out retaliatory attacks, backed by the IDF. The man who had taken aim at the couple was killed, as was a 19-year-old Palestinian, Labib Dumedi. When hundreds of Palestinian mourners gathered for a funeral procession for the teenager, MK Zvi Sukkot, of Finance Minister Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party, himself a settler who lives nearby, decided to build a sukkah (it was the holiday of Sukkot) on Huwara’s main street. Cohen quotes him in his piece, saying: As a member of the Knesset,” he said, “my role is to ensure security, so I put up the sukkah. Jewish presence anywhere is not a reason for violence. An Israeli couple had been attacked.” The direct result of this Sukkot provocation was that the I.D.F. abruptly moved a battalion from the southern border near Gaza to Huwara—on October 6th. 

For those of us who want to see a more equal, more progressive Israel, and hold up hope for any version of a two state outcome that makes those things more likely, it is essential to understand that what happens in the West Bank–the way that Israel’s government chooses to deal with violent settlers–matters. And that we always, always, have to keep our eyes wide open—and see the whole picture.