Israeli minister parties with settlers in West Bank city

Ilan Ben Zion

AP  /  March 8, 2023

Israel’s far-right national security minister has joined Jewish revelers in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron/Al-Khalil.

Israel’s far-right national security minister joined Jewish revelers in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday, dancing with residents from the hard-line settler community as they celebrated the holiday of Purim.

Itamar Ben-Gvir — dressed in a costume combining elements of various uniforms of forces under his command — danced, sang, and took selfies with party-goers and soldiers at an event in an Israeli settlement in Hebron. Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist politician in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, lives in an adjacent settlement.

It was the latest show of force by ultranationalist settlers in the occupied West Bank, who have been bolstered by Ben-Gvir and other allies in the new Israeli government. Overnight, settlers injured a Palestinian man in the same Palestinian town where a settler mob burned cars and houses last week.

Hebron is a contested city that is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site considered holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews. Hundreds of hard-line settlers live in fortified enclaves under military protection in the heart of a city of more than 200,000 Palestinians.

Tuesday’s celebration came under heavy security and passed from a settlement to the Israeli-controlled downtown area, where Palestinians have been evicted or forced to close shops over the years.

Ben-Gvir, who leads a small ultranationalist faction in Netanyahu’s government, has been a well-known face in Hebron for many years. Before entering office, he was arrested dozens of times and was once convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist group.

Until recently, he hung a photo in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, a radical Jewish settler who in 1994 killed 29 Palestinians during prayers in the tomb, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. The shooting happened on Purim that year.

Ben-Gvir, surrounded by bodyguards on Tuesday, is now a prominent figure in Israel’s government, which includes leading members of the settler movement. He held a child and shook hands with the crowd as he explained the significance of his costume. “We love all of you, members of the security forces,” he said.

The celebrations came at a time of heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians across the West Bank.

In fresh violence, Jewish settlers lightly wounded a Palestinian man in a flashpoint town Monday that was torched in a settler rampage last week, medics said.

On Feb. 26, a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli brothers in the town of Hawara in the northern West Bank, and in response, a mob of Israeli settlers set buildings and cars on fire.

There were conflicting accounts about what sparked Monday’s violence.

Initially, Palestinian officials said, a group of settlers came to the main Hawara thoroughfare in a van, blasting music in what they described as a “provocation.” Monday evening marked the beginning of Purim, which is typically celebrated with costumes and revelry.

Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, said several Israeli settlers attacked a supermarket. Paramedics said that one man was treated for a head injury.

Security camera footage from near the shop appeared to show Israeli settlers throwing rocks at it, and Palestinians hurling stones back. Outside, Israeli men dressed in black are seen hurling stones and pounding the windows of a car with occupants inside.

Local Palestinian residents protested nearby, shouting “God is great,” in Arabic. Israeli media said Palestinians also threw rocks at Israeli cars passing through Hawara, damaging four vehicles.

The Israeli military said there were “several violent confrontations” on Monday night, and that soldiers dispersed the crowds.

Amateur video footage appeared to show Israeli settlers dancing with soldiers on the main Hawara road, alongside a van with the words “Happy Purim” emblazoned on the side. The army said the soldiers’ conduct was “not aligned with the behavior expected” and that the incident was under review.

More than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, about half of them militants, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 14 Israelis, all but one of them civilians, during that same time. It has been one of the deadliest periods between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in years.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians seek for their future state. In the decades since, more than 500,000 Jewish settlers have moved into dozens of settlements, which the international community considers illegal and an obstacle to peace.