Pressuring Israel Works

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Written By Pinang Driod

After the October 7 pogroms, a small group of Jewish settlers seized the moment to unleash hell in the West Bank. In certain areas, they completed a process of land appropriation that had already accelerated since the rise of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government last December. Palestinians who had endured harassment for months were now expelled completely. (I wrote about one such village, Wadi al-Siq, in November.) Other Palestinians, such as the victims of an October 9 incident analyzed this week in The Washington Post, were shot dead, allegedly in acts of explicit “vengeance.”

But since October, hell has been brought temporarily to heel—and like all good news in the Middle East, this news is worth scrutinizing, both to see how it happened, and to see whether it is as good as it seems. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which tracks violence in the West Bank, counted 64 Palestinians injured by settlers in the month after October 7. The number dropped to 20 in the next month and to nine in the month after that. Its database includes a single casualty in the first week of January, and not one Palestinian death attributed to settlers since November.

On November 6, a little more than a week after Israel began its Gaza invasion, President Joe Biden had a call with Netanyahu. Netanyahu is a master cold-reader of the Israeli public, and he knew that his people were not in the mood to be rebuked over a handful of dead and wounded Palestinians in the West Bank, while the remains of hundreds of Jewish dead were still being picked bone by splintered bone out of the ashes of kibbutzim near Gaza. But Biden made settler violence a priority, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak on the record. The U.S. provided Netanyahu a detailed list of steps, symbolic and concrete, that would prevent the West Bank from becoming another front in the war.

The first step, a symbolic one, went roughly as a cynic might expect. Netanyahu was to denounce settler violence publicly. Two days later, he obligingly met with settlers and said, “We condemn [settler violence] and deal with it with all the severity of the law.” But he added that the accusations of settler violence are “​​baseless”—a slippery PR move that allowed him to fulfill the American demand while conveying to his Israeli base that he intended to pay minimal attention to this nonissue.

Friday prayer. Palestinian Muslims are prevented by Israeli military police from praying at the al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City. (Photographs by Jerome Sessini / Magnum for The Atlantic)

The second step called for an order from Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi to curtail military escorts of Jewish settlers intent on violence against Palestinians. The IDF has been cagey about its operations in the West Bank and has denied multiple requests to interview commanders in the region. It does not speak well of the Israeli military that such an order might be needed—although one should remember that the IDF has responsibility for security in the area, and that to some extent, its escorts are an effort to be present for conflagrations and manage them, rather than be absent or too late to do anything.

Palestinians perceive, for good reason, the IDF’s presence as blessing the seizure of their land. It does not help that many of the settlers dress and act like soldiers—or are soldiers. A substantial portion of the IDF soldiers deployed to the West Bank are from settlements. Biden apparently demanded not only that the IDF brass promulgate the order, but also that all units, all the way down the chain, confirm its receipt.

The IDF will not confirm that the order was actually given, but American sources say that the escorts have been reduced, and that illegal settler activity, although still more frequent than before October 7, has become subtler and less visible in metrics like OCHA’s, which track only violence. That is a modest improvement, and it demonstrates that pressuring Israel, even when it is least happy to be pressured, can change its behavior. Whatever the changes that have taken place in the past few months, they have irked the Israeli far right. A settlement-dwelling Knesset member told me that “no one in his right mind” would view settler violence as a problem, given the low death toll in the West Bank. The area is under military rule still, and he views the military as too easily pushed around by Biden. He viewed the IDF’s efforts to placate Biden as yet another sign that the settlements should have accountable rulers, instead of following the whims of unelected generals and foreign potentates. Placing settlements under ordinary Israeli administration, of course, would probably require the annexation of the West Bank, a welcome prospect for many of those settlers.

The changes were meant to advance the interests of the U.S. (which favors the creation of a Palestinian state, and opposes an Armageddon-like war) and save Israel from its own pro-settlement, pro-Armaggeddon faction. Further items focus on reorienting the IDF’s mission in the West Bank, from protecting Jewish communities to protecting the innocent, irrespective of identity.

Shuafat palestinian refugee camp
The Shuafat Palestinian refugee camp. (Photographs by Jerome Sessini / Magnum for The Atlantic)

But cynical observers have other hypotheses: that the violence has tailed off because it was successful in driving out Palestinians in October, so there are simply fewer left to abuse and displace; that the most violent settler-leaders needed a break and are just taking some me time before resuming their activities. The hiatus could end when the U.S. has less leverage over Israel, or has a president with less animus toward Netanyahu and his government. And officials and activists told me that settlers have kept building illegal outposts—just not in places that require forcible removal of previous occupants—and have started using cattle-rustling and other forms of agricultural sabotage to harass Palestinians.

Today in The Hague, Israel is being accused of genocide for its operations in Gaza in pursuit of Hamas, whose members are avowedly genocidal. Israel will argue that it is fighting not to exterminate a people but in self-defense against a terrorist group. In the West Bank, which has never been ruled by Hamas, Israel cannot excuse its actions by arguing that it is acting in self-defense. What Israeli settlers are doing in the West Bank—pushing out Palestinian peasants, and making it hard for them to harvest olives and tend their flocks—is not genocide, but it is a shame, and any pressure that helps replace Israeli policies with better ones deserves all the support it can get.

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