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What role did Israeli officials’ incitement play in Huwara?

Jerusalem24 – 37-year-old Sameh Aqtash was killed and dozens of Palestinian homes, vehicles, and businesses were torched in Huwara on 26 February, when hundreds of Israeli settlers descended upon the town after two Israeli settlers were killed by a suspected Palestinian attacker earlier in the day.

Several days after the rampage, far-right extremist and Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said that the town of Huwara “should be erased” off the map.

Zvika Fogel, a Member of Knesset with Minister of National security Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party, told Israel’s army radio on 27 February that he “looks very favorably upon” the results of the attack.

In the week since, many in Israeli media have used the word “pogrom” to describe the attack on Huwara, with others adopting the word Kristallnacht (‘The night of broken glass’) to refer to the terrors the residents of Huwara and nearby villages experienced that night.

“Incitement to war crimes”

Ziv Stahl, executive director of Israeli NGO Yesh Din–Volunteers for Human Rights, tells Jerusalem24 that the use of the word “pogrom” (or any other qualification describing the night of 26 February) isn’t of particular importance since “this isn’t a singular incident of attacks against Palestinians”, despite officials and politicians overtly calling for retaliation and revenge on that particular day.

“What we need to do is look more at the context,” says Stahl. “The general atmosphere of the government is not condemning these events or trying to stop them, but – in a continuous way – trying to encourage these attacks.”

Officials in the government, military, and others are acting “as if they’re shocked”, she says. “But in real life, during offenses committed against Palestinians by settlers, the military is there and doing nothing to stop it.”

Israeli daily Israel Hayom quoted Israeli officials as saying Ben-Gvir and Smotrich actively encouraged settlers to carry out violent attacks against Palestinians in the occupied territories. Opposition leader Yair Lapid charged that Smotrich’s call to “wipe out” Huwara constitutes “incitement to war crimes.”

Silence sends a strong message

Stahl says it is difficult to measure the effect of such incitement and to say whether the attack on Huwara would have happened regardless. “But for sure it has an effect on the public.”

“I think they [officials] knew that there will be some violence, and knew what will happen – but not the magnitude of it.”

“I think the government adds another layer of incitement and racism, making it okay to attack Palestinians,” suggests Stahl. “The result is like what happened in Huwara on Sunday. I hope it is the last one, but I’m not sure about that.”

Stahl also believes that silence, just as much as overt incitement, sends “a very strong message”: “They didn’t condemn it full-heartedly or strongly while the attack was happening. We didn’t see the leaders of the settler public calling them to calm things down, and not harm anyone.”

No indictments

The day following the attack, twenty-two Israeli international law experts asked Israel’s attorney general to investigate Smotrich as well as two other Knesset members for “inducing war crimes.”

Although she believes the fact that Israel’s own AG opened an investigation is “very important”, Stahl is doubtful of the potential results. “Unfortunately I don’t think it will be ending with any indictment toward Smotrich, Fogel, or anyone else.”

The atmosphere in Israel, she says, “is very hard these days. In general, Israel is not very quick with charging for the offense of incitement, especially when it comes to people in the public.”

Yesh Din data shows that 93% of all Palestinian complaints against settlers are closed without any indictment, “which means the police is basically failing and neglecting to investigate these complaints.”

“The intelligence and military have the power to stop settler violence, but we’ve witnessed years of settler violence with no intervention from the leadership and officials,” she adds. “We now have Ben-Gvir in charge of the police, the Samaria [occupied West Bank] police – and that speaks for itself.”

This lack of enforcement against Israeli settlers stands in stark contrast to the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians in the same territory, she says.

“We know what Israel is capable of when it stops Palestinians from acting.”

While the Israeli officials have been facing internal calls for investigation, Palestinians are looking to the international arena, with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh saying on Wednesday that “Smotrich’s comments alone are enough to bring him to international justice”.

Stahl cautions she is not a legal expert, but doesn’t rule out such an outcome. “Legally speaking, I think is possible since he’s calling for violations of the rule of law and hurting innocent people, and calling for collective punishment.”

A brief history of incitement by Israeli government officials

“Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now, this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons; nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
“They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists.”
– Ayelet Shaked, then-Member of Knesset, 1 July 2014, one day before Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khudair was kidnapped and burned alive allegedly by six Israeli Jewish youths.

“Remember 48, our independence war and your Nakba… if you don’t calm down, we’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget… you will lose everything you have.”
– Yisrael Katz, Israeli Minister of Energy, May 2022

“Those who view themselves as Palestinian … will receive all the assistance they need from us to move to Gaza on a one-way ticket.”
– Eli Cohen, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, May 2022

Listen to the full interview on Wake Up Palestine.

Nadeen Alshaer

Alshaer is a Palestinian journalist, a Birzeit University graduate with a B.A. in TV and Radio Broadcasting Journalism. Alshaer has 6 years of experience in journalism. She currently works as a reporter, editor and presenter/producer for PBC-Palestine TV and Jerusalem24 radio. She’s a UN and Kelley School of Business alumna.

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