Settler Violence in the West Bank Undermines Israel's Security

A relative grieves as the bodies of Ibrahim Wadi and his son Ahmed Wadi, two of four people killed by Jewish settlers the day before, are taken from the hospital for burial in the town of Qusra, south of the West Bank city of Nablus on Oct. 12, 2023. Credit - Zain Jaafar—AFP/Getty Images

For the past few weeks, in the wake of Hamas’ brutal massacre of 1,400 Israelis and kidnapping of over 200 more, Israel has been teetering on the brink of a multi-front war. The threats are easy to grasp, as they typically take the form of Iran-backed terror organizations. But falling under the radar are events in the West Bank, arguably the most complex sphere of the ongoing conflict, and certainly one of the most consequential.

The West Bank has seen a significant increase in violence since Oct. 7 in what has already been the deadliest year since the Second Intifada. Since the outbreak of the war, at least 100 Palestinians and one Israeli have been killed in the West Bank. From Israel’s perspective, the most obvious threat emerging from the West Bank is Palestinian violence—including terror attacks against Israeli civilians—which had already claimed the lives of over 30 Israelis between January and September 2023. The Israel Defense Forces claims to have foiled several Palestinian attacks in the past three weeks through raids and even drones and other aerial strikes on militant cells in Palestinian cities.

Read More: As War Rages in Gaza, Violence Surges in the West Bank

It’s easy to see Israel’s challenge in the West Bank as merely an extension of Israel’s fight against terror organizations in both Gaza and in Lebanon, where the IDF and Hezbollah are engaging in clashes that have reportedly killed over 50 Hezbollah militants and 8 Israelis so far. But that is only part of the picture. The ongoing war has emboldened far-right Israeli settlers in the West Bank, who have escalated their attacks and provocations against Palestinian civilians.

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Perhaps the most shocking and sickening example of this phenomenon occurred in the West Bank village of Wadi as-Seeq, located near Ramallah. In Haaretz, Hagar Shezaf recounted the unrelenting abuse and torture three Palestinians there endured from several IDF soldiers and settlers on Oct. 12. The Israelis handcuffed, beat, stripped, and photographed them, and subsequently urinated and extinguished cigarettes on them. One soldier reportedly attempted to insert an object into one of the victims’ rectum. The perpetrators also handcuffed and threatened to kill leftist Israeli activists present at the scene, including a minor.

According to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, settlers attacked Palestinians in the West Bank on 100 different occasions and in at least 62 locations from Oct. 7 to 22 alone. Settlers have killed at least six Palestinians during this period. In particular, Palestinian shepherding communities have borne the brunt of these attacks, which have caused them to flee their homes in Wadi as-Seeq, nearby Ein ar-Rashash, Ein Shibli in the Jordan Valley, and other communities. Settler extremists have themselves adopted shepherding and farming as a method of taking over large swaths of land.

While threats and attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank have spiked this month, they are hardly new. According to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 12% of Palestinian herding communities had fled their homes as of September, primarily due to Israeli settlers attacking them and preventing them from accessing their land. An average of three incidents of settler violence occurred per day during the first eight months of 2023, an uptick from two per day in 2022. This rise can at least be partially attributed to far-right figures ascending to power in Israel, including Bezalel Smotrich, who has defended setters who commit violence, and Limor Son Har-Melech, who railed against security officials who speak out against the settler movement. Violently driving Palestinians to flee their homes is a tactic in the so-called war for Area C—the 60% of the West Bank under direct Israeli administration—where many of the small Palestinian hamlets facing the most acute threats are located.

IDF soldiers rarely act to prevent these attacks, and, according to that recent Haaretz report, sometimes even collaborate in them. Soldiers serving in the West Bank are often themselves settlers, a trend heightened by the recent IDF reservist mobilization. Many settlers also receive arms reputedly for self-defense, especially in far-flung, hardline settlements that see frequent friction with Palestinians. All of this sends the message that they can violate the law with impunity—whether by building illegal outposts or targeting their Palestinian neighbors. The IDF often opens investigations into high-profile incidents of settler violence, as it did for the Wadi as-Seeq case, but rarely do the perpetrators face legal consequences.

While Israel is focused on their justified fight against Hamas in Gaza, it cannot neglect addressing what is happening in the West Bank, where settler violence threatens the integrity of Israel’s democracy and security. A responsible Israeli government would approach Israel’s challenge in the West Bank as the two-front battle that it truly is: against Palestinian and Jewish violence alike.

But this problem transcends Israel’s current political reality. Just as this war is prompting Israelis to question long-held assumptions about how Israel should navigate the challenges posed by Hamas in Gaza, it should also spur a reckoning about the unnecessary and avoidable security burden posed by the settlement movement.

When the war broke out on Oct. 7, 70% of standing IDF troops were stationed in the West Bank, and most of that 70% were protecting isolated settler enclaves in overwhelmingly Palestinian areas, not keeping Israelis safe within the country’s sovereign borders. Military operations against militant Palestinian cells is a partial and woefully incomplete remedy for Israel’s chronic West Bank migraine. While now may not be the time for more substantive political conversations about the future of the settlement movement and the West Bank in general, the first step is to uphold and enforce the rule of law for West Bank settlers, for the good of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

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