Israeli security forces say Jewish settler attacks on Palestinians are ‘nationalist terrorism’

The National  /  June 25, 2023

Army, police and domestic security service chiefs pledge to counter increase in violence by West Bank Jewish settlers.

Israeli security chiefs have pledged to counter increasing attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank, describing them as “nationalist terrorism”.

A surge of violence over the past week in the West Bank included rampages by settlers in Palestinian towns and villages that drew international condemnation.

In the latest attack, settlers torched at least two homes in Umm Safa near Ramallah on Saturday, after a Palestinian gunman opened fire at the nearby Qalandia checkpoint, wounding a security guard before he was shot dead by forces at the scene.

A joint statement by the Israeli military, police and domestic security service chiefs on Saturday said the settler attacks amounted to “nationalist terrorism” which they pledged to fight.

The military will boost its forces in the area to prevent such violence, they said, and the Israel Security Agency will enhance arrests, including “administrative detention” in which suspects can be held without charge.

This practice is largely used by Israel against Palestinian suspects, and has been denounced by rights groups.

The statement drew sharp rebuke from two members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist government.

“The attempt to equate murderous Arab terrorism with civilian counter actions, as serious as they are, is immoral and dangerous,” said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

He called on security forces to step up their efforts against Palestinian attacks and on settlers to refrain from “taking the law into their own hands”.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has prior convictions for support for terrorism and incitement against Arabs, echoed Mr Smotrich’s remarks on Sunday.

Mr Ben-Gvir demanded that police explain why they had blocked the gates to the settlement of Ateret to screen those coming and going and “tased a person who was standing nearby”.

Mr Ben-Gvir said he “opposes any violation of the law” but cannot accept “collective punishment” of settlers.

The military said it had detained a soldier suspected of taking part in a “violent confrontation” in Umm Safa, where bystander video showed two men aiming rifles in the direction of a Palestinian shouting at them in Arabic. Gunshots could be heard.

The settlers’ assaults this week followed intense gun battles in Jenin that left seven Palestinians dead, a Palestinian shooting attack that killed four Israelis and a rare Israeli drone strike against militants near Jenin.

On Friday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan expressed concerns about settler attacks on Palestinian villages in a call with his Israeli counterpart, hours after Mr Ben-Gvir called on settlers to expand their presence across the West Bank.

US-brokered peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, aimed at establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, collapsed in 2014 and show no sign of revival.

Most countries deem the Jewish settlements built on land seized in the 1967 war as illegal – a view Israel disputes.

Mr Netanyahu has sought to calm Western concerns about his ultranationalist partners, saying he would steer policy. But the veteran politician has raised US hackles with settlement building.

Last week he issued a general censure of rioting in the West Bank.

A member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party questioned the designation of the settler attacks as terrorism.

“I think the [rampages] are actions, nationalist actions — as they have been designated — taken against a nationalist backdrop, and that’s something that shouldn’t be permitted,” Energy Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio.

“Terrorism is something different.”