Israel: Legal scholars call for ‘war crimes’ investigation into Smotrich remarks

Lubna Masarwa

Middle East Eye  /  February 28, 2023

Letter demands attorney general hold MPs, including far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich, to account over support of deadly Huwwara rampage.

Legal experts in Israel have called on the attorney general to investigate pro-settler government MPs – including far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich – for “inducing war crimes” over their public support for violent riots in the occupied West Bank.

Signed by 22 legal scholars, the letter on Monday addressed Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and chief military prosecutor Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi and called for an immediate investigation into all those involved in the incidents on Sunday.

Hundreds of Israeli settlers, flanked by soldiers, attacked Palestinian towns and villages near Nablus on Sunday following a shooting that killed two Israelis in Huwwara town earlier in the day.  

The assaults left one Palestinian dead, nearly 400 wounded and dozens of homes and cars burned or destroyed.

Before and after the mob violence took place, several Israeli politicians seemed to encourage or support the settlers’ actions. 

Smotrich, the finance minister who is responsible for West Bank civil administrationliked a tweet that called for Israeli politicians to show no mercy and that the “village of Huwwara should be erased today”. 

The tweet on Sunday by David Ben-Zion, the deputy head of the Samaria Council that governs illegal settlements in the northern West Bank, has since been deleted.

Smotrich also took to Twitter while attacks were ongoing to promote a thread that recommended the “collective punishment of the terrorist’s family and environment as an effective and necessary tool in asymmetric warfare”.

The legal scholars argued that such remarks breached international law and “induced others to commit war crimes”. 

The letter cited the comments made by Smotrich as well as MPs Limor Son Har Melech and Tzvika Foghel. 

Eliav Lieblich, one of the letter’s signatories, told Middle East Eye the scholars were prompted to send the letter due to the unprecedented nature of the attacks and their support from government officials, as well as the military’s failure to prevent the violence. 

“You can understand if the army doesn’t know about one or two settlers building a new outpost, but how can an event this large happen and no one does anything to stop it?” Lieblich, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, said.

Settler groups publicly announced their intention to carry out “revenge” in Huwwara on Sunday and even shared the information on social media. The rampage lasted for at least five hours. 

“I don’t know if the letter will do anything but what Smotrich did was unprecedented,” Lieblich added. 

Legal experts told MEE that if the settler attacks are not investigated in Israel, there’s a likelihood the case could be taken to international courts.

‘Huwwara is closed and burned’

Har Melech, from the far-right Jewish Power party of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, joined settler crowds in Huwwara on Sunday.

She called the riots “the righteous cry of hundreds of Samaria residents who came out to protest and demand security”.

Samaria is the name some Israelis use to refer to the north of the West Bank. 

Foghel, also from the Jewish Power party, said on Monday he was pleased with the “deterrence” achieved through the riots. 

“Huwwara is closed and burned. That is what I want to see,” he said in an interview with army radio. 

“All the aforementioned remarks imply support in advance [in the cases of Ben-Zion and Smotrich], support in real time [Har Melech] or justification after the fact [Foghel], and amount to encouragement to commit similar attacks in the future,” the legal scholars’ letter said. 

The experts demanded that rioters be arrested and prosecuted immediately, and be treated the same way Palestinians are. 

The letter urged the military commander in charge of the West Bank not to differentiate between defendants based on ethnicity or race. 

“Such a discrimination may even establish, under certain conditions, suspicion of committing a crime of apartheid,” the letter said. 

At least 400 Jewish settlers are suspected to have taken part in the marches and riots on Sunday.

Israeli forces arrested only eight people for their alleged involvement in the rampage. All eight were later released. 

Lieblich told MEE the legal experts will wait for the government’s response to their letter before deciding the next steps. 

Settler violence 

Settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank – including the use of live fire, physical assaults, arson attacks and the uprooting of olive trees – has been on a year-to-year upward trend since 2016, according to the UN

Nearly 700,000 Jewish settlers live in more than 250 Jewish settlements and outposts across the West Bank and East Jerusalem in violation of international law. 

There were at least 849 attacks by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in 2022, with at least 228 of them leading to casualties, UN data shows. In comparison, 496 attacks were recorded in 2021 and 358 in 2020.

Out of last year’s total attacks, 594 led to damage to properties. According to the Jerusalem-based Land Research Center, 13,130 Palestinian-owned olive trees were damaged. 

Settlers are suspected of killing at least five Palestinians in 2022, including Ali Hasan Harb, who was stabbed to death while peacefully rebuffing an assault by settlers on private Palestinian land in Salfit.

This year at least four Palestinians have been killed by suspected settlers so far. 

UN experts previously accused Israeli authorities of being complicit in settler violence.

“Disturbing evidence of Israeli forces frequently facilitating, supporting and participating in settler attacks makes it difficult to discern between Israeli settler and state violence,” the experts said last year. 

Huwwara, a town home to 7,000 Palestinians and strategically located in the centre of villages south of Nablus, lies on the main north-south highway of the West Bank Route 60 which is used by settlers. 

The town, encircled by Jewish settlements, has been the scene of repeated attacks in recent months.

At least one-third of settler-related injuries suffered by Palestinians in 2022 was recorded in the Nablus governorate.