Chris Sutherland warns that the relentless march of settlements and the dominance of right-wing ultra-religious Zionism points to the prospect of full-scale ethnic cleansing in the West Bank or the creation of many mini-Gazas.
The 37th government of Israel that has taken power following the November 2022 elections is one of the most extreme ever to take office. Three years of political deadlock have been prised open. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party took 32 seats. He was helped over the 61-seat line with the support of Israel’s most extreme right-wing ‘ultra-Zionist’ parties. His 64 seats are made up of Likud and five other parties – two ultra-Orthodox and three far-right religious factions. They include Bezalel Smotrich’s ‘Religious Zionist Party’ with 14 seats. The Likud list also included the notorious ‘Kahanist’, Ben Gvir, leader of ‘Jewish Power’, the Otzma Yehudit party with six seats.
Rabbi Kahane’s Kach Party was banned in 1994 for its extreme anti-Arab views, its slogan ‘Death to the Arabs’ ringing out from Israeli’s during the recent May Flag Day march through East Jerusalem, as 60,000 paraded through Palestinian streets. In 2004 the USA designated it a foreign terrorist organisation, but its modern proponent under Ben Gvir is now at the centre of Israeli politics and key to Netanyahu forming a new government.
Gvir has appeared at the head of the religious Zionist Settler movement, once sporting a pistol. His party openly calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank under the pretence of fighting terrorism. He regularly leads Jewish extremists into the holy compound of the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most holy site in Islam, calling for its demolition and replacement with a Jewish Temple. Between them, Smotrich and Gvir support the increasing settlement of the West Bank and the judaisation of East Jerusalem, with its flash points in Sheik Jarrah and Silwan. They don’t even attempt to hide their anti-Arab racism.
It led in December to Israel’s ex-military chief, Gadi Eisenkot and former Defence Minister, Benny Gantz to warn of unrest in the Israeli forces. Eisenkot warned: ‘we must not create a situation where soldiers do not want to serve in battle’. He was warning of the dangers of right-religious extremism alienating young conscripts and poisoning the image of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East. More especially the dangers of outright conflict between the majority Palestinian population of 2.8 million in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and over 800,000 religious Zionist settlers. These sentiments weren’t a sudden rush to the centre ground. Outright conflict, approaching war, is a much harder act to sell to the rest of the world, particularly their financial backers in the USA. They are worried that once the bullets start to fly the cash might start to dry up. The Israelis know they can’t survive without the support of western imperialism.
This is the line from the military hard-men who led the Israeli’s 2006 war in Lebanon, and Benny Gantz, the general who led the assault against Gaza in 2014, threatening to ‘bomb Gaza back into the Stone Age’ in which 2,310 Palestinians were killed (315 children), over 10,000 wounded, 7,000 homes destroyed and 89,000 damaged. Netanyahu’s new supporters were duly rewarded for keeping ‘Bibi’ in power.
Bezalel Smotrich is now the new Israeli Minister for Finance, with control of the purse strings for new settlements, whilst Ben Gvir was rewarded with the crucial position as Police and Border Minister, in charge of the notoriously brutal Border Police, the same police who battered the coffin cortege of the assassinated Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh.
Netanyahu has made clear his coalition’s aim to legalise all settlement outposts (most already are) widely seen as a move towards his ultimate goal of annexing the entire West Bank, stating ‘Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel’. It’s a reassertion of the shelved ‘Deal of the Century’, struck before the fall of Donald Trump, that detailed plans to assimilate 65% of the West Bank into Israel proper, in exchange for ‘land transfers’. Most commentators see this as subtext for population transfer, peaceful or not.
The transfers may already have started. In January 2023 the Irsaelis announced that 2,000 Palestinian prisoners were being moved to prisons in the Negev where temperatures regularly exceed 40C, cutting them off from their families and support base, including Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti.
Netanyahu also wants to give himself state powers to overrule Israel’s ‘independent’ judiciary – very convenient given his own trial on corruption charges.
So there we have it. The most extreme Zionist government in history, the fifth largest military nuclear power on the planet, with sights set on destroying Iran’s civil nuclear programme, regularly bombing Islamic targets in Syria having already illegally annexed the Golan Heights, and now engaged in territorial disputes in Southern Lebanon, a dispute over oil and gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean and warily watchful of fresh outbreaks of Arab struggle across the region. For all its talk of democracy, Israel is very comfortable dealing with dictators, whether in Egypt, Turkey, Russia, the Saudis or the Gulf States. The Arab masses have always been 100% pro-Palestinian, a taste of which was witnessed during the recent World Cup with the flying of Palestinian flags. Israel knows that the Arab working class is a sleeping giant that is waiting to be stirred. The example of events in Sudan might be a flame that ignites other Arab Springs across the region.
But there is now a new force to reckon with – the existence of large civil religious, right-wing militias of armed settlers, growing in number and confidence, backed by the Border Police and Israeli Defence Force (IDF), regularly attacking the majority, largely unarmed, Palestinian population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Every new settlement, every new settler represents a nail in the coffin of peace. We saw it during the May 2022 Flag March, armed settlers conversing and dancing with soldiers. We saw another side when bus-loads of armed settlers travelled to Israel on the Jewish-only road system linking the West Bank to the rest of Israel, at the height of the 11-day War in May 2021, to rampage through Palestinian areas, marking doors and attacking Palestinians, backed by Israeli police and troops. There are also reports of militias within Israel itself. One report describes:
‘… a network of violent militias, most notably the ultra-orthodox brigades in Beersheba and Naqab, and others in Lydda, Akka, Jaffa and other coastal cities. They are semi-official armed militias carrying out attacks on the Palestinian Arabs in these areas and their role is defined under the watch of the Israeli police, as an extension of the attacks by the settler gangs in the West Bank.’
It’s a warning to the two million Palestinians who still live within the Green Line (the ancestors of those they failed to ethnically cleanse in 1948), as to what to can expect if they don’t show more loyalty to the Israeli state. And by ‘state’, they mean the 2018 Nation State Law which defines ‘Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’.
Report after report has documented the ‘apartheid’ across the historic area of Palestine in all its various forms – B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Yesh Din, Al Haq, the UN Rapporteur. Israel and its western backers have ignored them all.
The entrapped population of Gaza already know what to expect – blockaded by Israel since 2006, some 2 million people caged in a 35-mile strip of land, less than 13 km wide with only 3 crossing points and restricted to 3 miles access to the sea. Bombing in 2021 and 2022, to add to the wars in 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2014 (what Israel refers to as ‘mowing the grass’) and more attacks to come. The West’s failure to confront the tragedy of Gaza is one of the unaddressed crimes of the 21st century. And it might get worse. The fate of Gaza may soon become the fate of many in the West Bank.
A taste of this came in October to December 2022 when the Israeli military effectively sealed off the entire area around Nablus and Jenin in the northern West Bank, in response to armed attacks by a new generation of resistance fighters. Barely a handful in number but hugely symbolic to an oppressed and occupied civilian population, groups such as ‘Lion’s Den’ (among others) were an amalgam of disaffected youth from all shades of Palestinian politics, including Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, coalescing into armed cells, lightly armed compared to the well-oiled machine of the IDF and Border Police, and mostly centred in the refugee camps.
The deliberate blocking of all democratic process within Palestinian civil society both by the Israelis and the incumbent Palestinian Authority (PA), means there is no accurate measurement of the state of Palestinian politics. The cancelling of democratic elections in the spring of 2021 left the majority of Palestinians disenfranchised, stifling the emergence of a new generation of leaders and ideas. All the evidence pointed to a Hamas landslide and the end for Mahmoud Abbas and his corrupt PA. This was a tragedy because it meant that political Islam has never received the political recognition it so craves. The new armed groups are a reflection of this impasse, set against the backcloth of a brutal and on-going occupation.
Israel’s response was to seal off the Huwara and Jenin refugee camps, which then extended across the whole of Nablus and Jenin, blockading 500,000 civilians for several weeks. This was the logic of fifty years of ‘cantonisation’, with the Palestinians forced into smaller and smaller areas, communities cut off, freedom of movement all but impossible and areas economically strangled.
As the settlements and military bases increase, so do the separation walls and check-points, along with the raids and security clamp-downs. Internment without trial euphemistically described as ‘administrative detention’; land confiscations, house demolitions, increased settler attacks, the licensing of more settlements, eviction of Bedouin from the Jordan Valley, the entire population of two cities, Nablus and Jenin, effectively imprisoned and unable to move. This is a process than can be replicated across the West Bank at the flick of a switch. Every hill-top settlement is an armed fortress. According to Peace Now, there were 496 settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank during 2021. The United Nations reported a record 660 for 2022.
In the occupied south, Israel has announced the clearing of Palestinians in the Masafer Yatta district with the destruction of 38 villages, home to 5,000 Palestinians to make way for a ‘military zone’. The declaration of military zones in the West Bank is usually a precursor for settlements.
Meanwhile in late December Israel declared Hebron a ‘closed military zone’ to prevent 30 human rights organisations from inspecting the area. Two weeks earlier they had sanctioned a demonstration of 40,000 settlers parading through what is still essentially a Palestinian city, in support of the settlements springing up in central Hebron, guarded by a battalion of troops.
Hebron was the place where the Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994 and left 128 injured. Israel proceeded to reward the local population by closing down its historic Arab market area and allow it to be settled by Jewish extremists, the holy mosque then split in two to allow for Jewish worshippers.
The defenders of the Haram al Sharif well understand this as Ben Gvir leads his settlers through the Al-Aqsa compound. A similar fate would inflame the whole of the Muslim world, not just in Palestine. King Abdullah II of Jordan warned of dire consequences if the Al-Aqsa was in any way compromised. Israel relies on a compliant Abdullah to secure its eastern border. It’s worth remembering that Jordan’s population is 60% Palestinian and a good example of how conflict in Palestine can destabilise surrounding Arab states which could rip apart the recent Abraham Accords.
Meanwhile, in Israel itself, Bedouin communities face eviction to make way for new settlers in the Negev desert region in the south of the country, again completely ignored by the western media. 10,000 settler homes were announced in June 2022 by Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked alongside increased home-building for Jewish Israelis in Haifa and Ashkelon. The Negev is home to 300,000 Bedouin. In December Haaretz reported that Ben Gvir as new National Security Minister was planning to transfer Border Police from the West Bank to the Negev to ‘strengthen governance in the south’. The new coalition announced that it wants to extend ‘judaisation’ into Palestinian areas in Galilee and the Negev. Galilee still has a majority Arab population.
No-one talks of a ‘Two-State’ any more. That was killed off years ago by the relentless and on-going settler colonialist project of the Israeli state, whose final goal has always been the incorporation of the entire West Bank. Gaza will remain blockaded. All the evidence points to more bombing atrocities and possible future military incursions into Gaza. The Israelis see Hamas very much as unfinished business.
The oppressive occupation of the West Bank will ratchet up with every new settlement. The emergence of an armed ‘hill-top’ settler force will only lead to more clashes, violence and counter-violence. In the unequal balance of military forces and ever-increasing seizure of land and territory, whether done under a veil of ‘legalese’ or by brute physical force, the prospects for the civilian Palestinian populations both within Israel and the occupied territories and for the people of Gaza, look extremely bleak for 2023. Peace is further away than ever.
Has a tipping point now been reached across the whole of historic Palestine? With the relentless march of settlements and the dominance of right-wing ultra-religious Zionism, are we now facing the prospect of full-scale ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, or the creation of many mini-Gaza’s whereby the indigenous population is literally imprisoned in their own enclaves? And what of the fate of Palestinians living inside Israel? All of these questions will hang unanswered as long as the West – Britain, the EU and the USA – continue their uncritical support for the current state of Israel.
The Palestinians are a proud people and will resist every step of the way but they are no match for Israeli fire-power. They need our support. This isn’t a warning from history, it’s a warning now!
Chris Sutherland is a lifelong socialist, living in St. Andrews. He is a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.