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Emboldened by government backing, Israeli settlers step up incursions and attacks against Palestinians

Jerusalem24 – Over two dozen members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme-right administration, including some of his most senior cabinet members, attended a settler march near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on Monday afternoon.

The march led to the illegal Israeli outpost of Evyatar which was established on the lands of Beita village, whose residents have been protesting the land seizure by the settlers for several years and who have suffered heavy losses during their weekly protests, with at least seven killed and hundreds injured by Israeli fire.

The outpost, illegal even according to Israeli law, was evacuated in July 2021 when the settlers signed an agreement with then-premier Naftali Bennett’s administration stating that the structures erected in the outpost would remain under Israeli military guard while the government determined whether the private Palestinian lands it was built on could be declared “state lands” – one of the more common tactics used by Israel to seize Palestinian lands.

The stated goal of Monday’s march was to pressure the current government into retroactively legalizing the outpost as per the coalition agreements signed between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Bezalel Smotrich’s ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, as well as Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party.

The march drew between 17,000 and 20,000 settlers, according to Israeli media reports. The same reports noted that bouncy castles were brought to Evyatar “to entertain children” during the march. An Israeli army battalion was redeployed, as well as 13 Israeli Border Police companies and additional police officers to “secure” the march.

The army attacked Palestinians protesting near the site as well as journalists covering the events, injuring 216, including 22 injuries from rubber-coated metal bullets and over 180 due to tear gas inhalation. Six Palestinians were hospitalized.

Three journalists were also injured when they were directly targeted by Israeli soldiers, including Roya journalist Mohammad Fawzi who was shot with a rubber-coated metal bullet.

A who’s who of ultranationalists

Some of the march’s most notable attendees are not only at the head of the current Israeli administration but also prominent figures in the Israeli settler movement, including far-right extremists Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

Ben-Gvir, who used the occasion (as he has multiple times during recent public appearances as well as on social media) to sell the idea of his “national guard” to an unconvinced public, declared: “We’re returning home to the Land of Israel and to the Temple Mount and Jerusalem. We legalized nine outposts and God willing we’ll legalize and build more. The answer to terror is to keep on building more.”

Smotrich, meanwhile, simply promised the outpost would be legalized in the near future. “Just like Evyatar will be formalized, so too will [other] existing settlement [outposts] and new settlements, since this is our land.”

Lawmaker Zvi Zukkot implied that with his and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party now at the helm of the Israeli Civil Administration (the administration dealing with civil matters in the occupied West Bank, previously under the purview of the Israeli military), further retroactive legalizations of illegal outposts were expected. A reported 70 illegal outposts are currently under consideration for legalization by Smotrich.

“We’re not afraid of America,” Zukkot stated at the event, in an apparent reference to the US’ longstanding position that settlement construction in the occupied West Bank is an obstacle to peace, and one of few criticisms successive US administrations have regularly leveled at their Middle East ally.

Several prominent religious leaders in the settlements were also present at the march, including Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who was disciplined for saying Jews shouldn’t rent or sell properties to Arabs; Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, who urged the Israeli government to ban Palestinians with Israeli citizenship from driving cars outside of their own towns in Israel; and Rabbi Dov Lior, who advocates for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and endorses the killing of non-Jewish babies.

Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan and Nachala settler movement leader Daniella Weiss (who recently suggested there was no need for a military presence in the occupied West Bank since settlers “have a lot of guns”) echoed Ben-Gvir’s claims that continued takeover of Palestinian land was a response to Palestinian attacks.

“The most effective way to deal with terrorism, as it has been throughout history,” said Weiss at the event, “is to establish new settlements.”

“A demonstration of Jewish supremacy”

Although the speakers ostensibly framed the march as a response to “terror” by Palestinians, in reality, settler activity in the occupied West Bank (including takeover of land, destruction of property, and physical attacks resulting in injury or death) has been on a steep rise for the past several years.

Most recently, settlers have been further emboldened by the anti-Palestinian rhetoric of the most prominent members of Israel’s newly-elected government.

Even the US Department of State has begun acknowledging in its annual “Country reports on terrorism” that settler attacks have “expanded in severity and scale”.

“Whereas in prior years groups of four to five settlers typically carried out sporadic attacks, the UN documented attacks by groups of 20 or more settlers during the year, indicating that attacks were likely preplanned,” its 2021 report reads. “Attacks were also more destructive and expanded into parts of the West Bank, such as Area A, that were previously not sullied by settler violence.”

The number of Palestinians injured by Israeli forces in incidents triggered by settlers has also risen significantly, with 2,081 injuries in 2022 – four times more than in 2021.

Israeli NGO Yesh Din, which monitors settler violence, called the march “a demonstration of Jewish supremacy, carried out to poke a finger in the eye of the Palestinians,” and said the participation of the ministers in the march “is another plank on the burning fire in the occupied territories, as its main victims are, as usual, the Palestinians.”

Holy days marred by settler violence

The march came on the fifth day of the Jewish Passover holiday, which this year coincides with Ramadan and Easter.

Extremist settler groups call for settlers to invade the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the old city of occupied East Jerusalem every year on the occasion of Passover. The compound was the site of an ancient Jewish temple, and the so-called “Temple” groups have called to destroy Al-Aqsa and rebuild a Third Temple in its place.

While dozens of settlers storm the courtyards of the mosque under the protection of Israeli forces on a near-daily basis, those numbers increase into the hundreds or thousands during Passover.

During the first six days of Passover, a total of 3,595 settlers stormed Al-Aqsa under heavy protection from Israeli forces who (often brutally) removed Palestinians from their place of worship in order to secure the settlers’ incursions, amid tightening restrictions on freedom of movement around the city preventing Palestinian Muslim and Christian worshippers from celebrating their own holidays.

Netanyahu’s office announced on Tuesday evening that Jewish incursions into Al-Aqsa would be forbidden during the last ten days of Ramadan, “on the unanimous recommendation of the Defense Minister, the IDF Chief of Staff, the head of the Shin Bet and the Police Commissioner.”

In the occupied West Bank, settlers also led dozens of incursions into the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque, as well as archeological sites in Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin, Yatta, and Hebron, to pray at what they say are sites of ancient Jewish significance. Resulting confrontations between the Israeli army and residents confronting the settlers have led to injuries and arrests of Palestinians.

During the same six days, Israeli settlers also carried out a total of 48 attacks against Palestinian persons and property, according to documentation collected by Jerusalem24.

The attacks – most of which took place in Bethlehem, Nablus, Tubas, Ramallah, Salfit, and Qalqilya in the occupied West Bank, with one in the old city of occupied East Jerusalem – resulted in at least nine Palestinians injured; over 30 vehicles, one commercial store, several agricultural structures, two solar panels, and three houses damaged or destroyed; 250 trees cut down; and 10 livestock slaughtered.

There were 26 instances recorded of settlers blocking roads and attacking vehicles, resulting in six injuries; nine attacks against people (including a 15-year-old boy shot with live ammunition in the arm); three attacks against inhabited homes, including one arson attack; and 10 attacks against other property (mainly agricultural).

And while the settlers may likely feel emboldened by ministerial support for their long-standing demands, Palestinians believe settler violence is actually an intended feature of the occupation.

“This is kind of the new strategy they use – using the settlers even – this kind of attack and harassment,” activist Rashid Khudiri tells Jerusalem24. “Settlers start entering our village, destroying our cars, destroying our water tanks… This is a whole policy. The Israeli goal is to displace the whole population from Area C to Area A.”

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