In Israel, the Settlers on the Counter-offensive

Galvanised by an ultra-nationalist government, the Israeli colonists are intensifying all their efforts in view of a partial annexation of the West Bank of the Jordan. Their intention is also to provide support for Benyamin Netanyahu faced with the opposition of a large share of the population to his intended judicial reform, while the Prime Minister is also trying to overcome these decisions by launching attacks against Gaza, since these are approved by most of the opposition forces.

The ’March of the million’ near the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, 27 April 2023, in support of the ruling far-right coalition
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

The organisers had pulled out all the stops. The demonstration held on 27 April 2023 was dubbed ‘the march of the million’, some 7 million shekels (one and a half million dollars) had been raised and a thousand coaches chartered to bring Israelis from all over the country – and particularly settlers from beyond the Green Line – to Jerusalem. In the end, this high mass in support of the far-right coalition in power brought together, in front of the Israeli Parliament, some 150,000 to 200,000 people, hidden beneath a sea of Israeli flags. It was one of the biggest demonstrations by the right-wing for nearly two decades.

The crowd was mostly made up of practising Jews; many had brought their whole family. Groups of men in prayer stood apart. The demonstrators were not really the habitual Likoud voters, Benyamin Netanyahu’s conservative right-wing party, but rather did they represent the religious-Zionist movements from the colonies, some with a messianic tendency. In one corner, young people were handing out flags stamped with an image of the third temple which some extremist groups hope to rebuild on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, replacing the Dome of the Rock. On the other hand, the ultra-orthodox parties have forbidden their flocks from joining the demo. A photo shows an Israeli journalist in the crowd bearing a placard demanding the release from prison of Yigal Amir who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

This event was meant to be a show of strength in response to the crowds of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting each Saturday since the beginning of the year the government’s judicial reform, aimed at diminishing the powers of the Supreme Court. ‘Who governs this country? The people and our representatives or a handful of intellectuals who claim to know better than we do? I am pleased with this government, and I want them to know I am on their side’ said Yossi Bach, 30, come here with his wife and their five children from Otniel, a colony south of Hebron on the occupied West Bank. At the microphone, several ministers succeeded one another, including the finance minister, Jewish supremacist Bezalel Smotrich. When he took the floor, the crowd grew quiet, was more attentive.

Targeting the Supreme Court

‘Now that we have the government we want, we ought to be able to get what we voted for!’ demanded Moshe Salama, 53, a tourist guide who left Antibes in France ten years ago to settle in Jerusalem. Last November, he and his wife voted for Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Might), the party led by supremacist Itamar Ben Gvir, National Security Minister, convicted several times for incitement of racial hatred. Salama hoped the new government would extend its colonisation policy to the occupied West Bank. ‘We have 600,000 Jews in the disputed territories. We have never defined the statute of that land but OK, we must move forward now, support those people who have the courage to protect Israel’, is the way he summed up the situation. Behind this big shindig of the right-wing community was an organisation called Tekuma 23, led by one Beraleh Krombie and the Likoud MP Avichai Buaron, both pro-colonisation activists. The latter is known for his fight against the evacuation, in 2017, of ‘outpost Amona’, an unauthorised colony built on the occupied West Bank. Tekuma 23, founded following the first Tel Aviv protests, had already organised a pro-government demonstration on 27 March. But after an unprecedented strike that shut down the country, Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended the judicial reform.

Now, actually a majority of Supreme Court judges support colonisation and the eviction of Palestinians, in defiance of international law.

For example, in May 2022, they authorised the forced removal of 1,000 people in the Southern part of the West Bank, at Masafer Yatta. And yet the colonists still see the supreme judges as the main obstacle in the way of their ambitions – especially of annexation. ‘The judicial reform is the key, for even if this government makes its move, the judges will reject their laws. The Supreme Court has an enormous prejudice against the presence of Jews in Judea and Samaria’ (the Biblical name which most Israelis use to designate the occupied West Bank), Naomi Klein explained to Orient XXI. She is the head of the International Department of Regavin, an Israeli nationalist organisation, one of the settlers’ lobbies, cofounded 17 years ago by Bezalel Smotrich.

A few days before the demonstration, pro-colonisation groups broadcast a video showing Israelis evicted from various ‘outposts,’ and which repeated over and over the same message:"In 2015, we got the Supreme Court decision that the colony was to be demolished, Tamar Nizri, a former inhabitant of Amona tells us. ‘There wasn’t a single Arab there. Nobody wanted that place and yet the Supreme Court decided we would be done away with. If it weren’t for the Court, Amona would still be there.’

‘Those are the seeds we planted’

Since the new government took office, the colonisation activists have stepped up the pressure with the support of the members of the coalition. On 26 April 2023, Bezalel Smotrich celebrated Israel’s 75th anniversary1 in Homesh, a colony officially evacuated in 2005, at the same time as the Gaza colonies. Some 1,500 Israelis gathered to pray in the yeshiva, the institute for religious teachings there. Among them was Yossi Dagan, the head of the regional council of Samaria (the northern part of the West Bank), and two MPs, Limor Son Har-Melech of Otzma Yehud, a former inhabitant of Homesh, and Svi Succot, former leader of the ‘Hilltop Youth,’ a messianic movement of ultra-violent colonists. ‘Those are the seeds we planted,’ Bezalel Smotrich declared.

And indeed, early in the morning on 21 March 2023, the Israeli Parliament amended the 2005 disengagement law which had led to the evacuation of the settlers from Gaza, cancelling the ban on Israelis’ entering the West Bank areas where those colonies, including Homesh, had also been dismantled. On the other hand, they do not have the right to settle there. Two majority MPs, two women, feigning ignorance of this point, issued an outright call for people to settle again in the North of the West Bank but also in Gaza.

‘I don’t know how long that will take. Unfortunately, a return to the Gaza strip will result in many casualties just as the departure from the Gaza strip did. But in the end, that land belongs to Israel and one day we shall go back there.’ So spoke Minister Ori Strook in an interview for Arutz Sheva, an online media network, religious-Zionist and pro-colonisation.

The army to oversee the settlers

Ever since it was evacuated, groups of colonists have regularly attempted to resettle in Homesh, established at the end of the seventies on Palestinian private land, north of Nablus. In 2009, they succeeded in establishing a yeshiva there. After having evacuated it several times, the army finally allows students to go there. But they regularly destroy the shacks that the activists have put up to spend the night there. The place is primarily a gathering point: in 2022, thousands of settlers marched on Homesh – a show of force officially supported by the Defence Ministry which sent the army to oversee the operation.

The colonists and their government want to make sure that most of the many promises on the table will be kept. The coalition agreement signed with the Religious-Zionist Party states that Israel has a ‘natural right’ on all the territory and that the majority’s main objective will be to promote Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank – i.e., its annexation. Moreover, at the end of February, Bezalel Smotrich was appointed head of the Civil Administration, the military body in charge of managing the occupied Palestinian territory. Thus, this champion of racist colonisation has become governor of the West Bank. On 12 February Benyamin Netanyahu had announced the legalisation of nine ‘outposts’, and ten days later that of more than 7,000 colony dwellings. In the long term, the goal, as revealed by the conservative free daily, Israel Hayom on 28 January, ‘is to reach a million Israeli residents’ on the occupied West Bank, as against slightly more than 5000,000 today. To which must be added 200,000 colonists in East Jerusalem. Only ‘technical and bureaucratic’ difficulties could stand in the way of these plans, the article pursues, assuring readers that the settlers are not afraid of possible diplomatic reprisals.

Indeed, aside from the ritual press releases expressing concern or condemnation, US and European chancelleries have remained quite passive for decades faced with the steady advance of colonisation.

Occupying the ground

The colonists know this and practise the policy of fait accompli. They move in hoping the communities created thus will then be legalised by the Israeli authorities. Under international law, these are all perfectly illegal. Yet even after they have been evacuated, these " remain under the control of the army. Once they have been grabbed by the colonists, the Palestinians almost never get their land back. Thus, the colony of Evyatar, south of Nablus, founded ioutpostsn May 2021 and evacuated the following July, has become a military zone. It was there that the settlers chose to organise a grand march in which 15,000 Israelis took part, including seven ministers and several MPs. Pointing to the crowd for the benefit of a reporter from the pro-Israeli news channel i24, Boaz Bismuth, a Likoud MP, explained: ‘Those who built our country during the last century represent a certain continuity. [...] I brought my 10-year-old son with me, and I told him that when he is my age and will come back here, Evyatar [...] will not only be legal, but it will also be a city’.

These big shindigs provide the colonists with an opportunity to tell the government, ‘We are here, we elected you to do something. We can be patient, but don’t forget us,’ as Sarah Lisson summed up the situation. She used to live in Evyatar, now she has settled with her husband and their seven children in a colony called Rehelim, a few kilometres to the south. And she went on:

‘What is at stake isn’t just Evyatar but all of Judea and Samaria. Is this going to go through under our government? Are the nations of the world finally going to understand that this is Israel’s land? [...] We prayed to be able to return to our land, not just Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.’

At the same time, the activists move in, hoping that by multiplying their offensives they will win a few victories. Hundreds of settlers already came to Evytar on 25 February 2023, under cover of darkness to reconstruct the ‘outpost’ on land that belongs to Beita, a Palestinian village across the valley. They were evacuated peacefully the very next day. On the other side of the hill, since May 2021, ten Palestinians have been killed and 6,800 wounded defending their land. On 27 January, another ‘outpost,’ Or Chaim was also built on a slope below Evyatar, on the other side of the highway. Once again, the Defence Ministry decided to evacuate, resisting pressure from the coalition’s Jewish supremacist partners.

‘The changes can’t be made with a snap of the fingers’, Sarah Lisson sums up again. ‘The government can’t satisfy its supporters alone; not everybody in Israel agrees with the existence of the colonies. I can understand that the authorities choose to allow certain settlements and not others.’

‘Developing’ the Negev and Galilei

And yet however hostile they may be to the Supreme Court, the pro-colony movements are trying to use its jurisdiction to make the government back down. After more than a decade of court battles, Regavim finally got permission to forcibly remove the 200 Palestinian inhabitants of a Bedouin hamlet, Khan Al-Ahmar, located by the freeway connecting Jerusalem to Jericho. In that zone, dubbed ‘E1,’ Israel wants to extend its colonisation and isolate even more Hebron, the West Bank’s Holy City, attaching it simultaneously to the colony of Maale Adumim. However, the government has not yet put this decision into effect, preferring to play for time on this issue, which is bound to bring protests from the US and Europe.

It is easy for Benjamin Netanyahu to play the reasonable arbiter. Over the last four months since this government came to power, the balance sheet for the Palestinians is catastrophic: according to UN statistics, at least 89 Palestinians, including 17 minors, have been killed by the Army or by colonists since the beginning of the year2 which is an increase of 57% over 2022, already a particularly bloody year. Now, the Israeli settlers are the mainstay of Israel’s undertaking on the Occupied West Bank. Their violence is not an anomaly, it is part of a system aimed at driving the Palestinians off their land. And in fact, it is widely supported by the army, whose soldiers are present during the attacks when they do not actually take part in these themselves.

Thus, on 26 February 2023, in a coordinated assault on the Palestinian town of Huwara and its surroundings, South of Nablus, some hundred armed colonists were accompanied by a dozen soldiers according to eyewitness reports. One Palestinian was killed and 300 wounded. The settlers claimed to have been taking revenge for the death of two Israeli brothers, Hillel and Yagel Yamiv, 22 and 20, killed a few hours earlier in a Palestinian raid on the neighbouring colony of Har Bracha. Far from condemning this violence, Bezalel Smotrich aroused anger in Israel and abroad by declaring that the State of Israel should ‘liquidate’ Huwara. In the end, he apologised, pleading a misinterpretation ... before denying, a few weeks later in Paris, the very existence of a Palestinian people.

Because in the minds of the colonists and the Jewish supremacist parties, their undertaking is not limited to the occupied West Bank. The agreements between the members of the coalition provide for the development of projects for the ‘Judaisation’ of Galilee to the North of Israel and the Negev, to the South, two regions heavily populated by Palestinians of Israeli nationality – officially called ‘Israeli Arabs’ by the authorities to distinguish them from their compatriots on the other side of the Green Line. Yitzhak Yehudit, cadre of the Otzma Yehudt party was even appointed Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee to handle the project in those regions. Regavim had a share in designing the plan for the Negev. And at the beginning of February, Wasserflauf’s ministry gained a new department, assigned the task of helping with the regularisation of the ‘outposts’ on the occupied West Bank.

1According to the Hebrew calendar, the State of Israel was created on 14 May 1948, the date of the Nakba for the Palestinians: Around 750,000 of them were forced into exile, with no hope of return and over 400 villages were destroyed, especially to make it impossible for them to resettle there.

2At the same time, also according to the UN, fourteen Israelis, including three minors, were also killed. Eleven were colonists.