The Guardian / February 28, 2023
It’s no accident that the Israeli army didn’t stop the violence in Huwara: such intimidation is key to how the state rules over my people.
Hundreds of Jewish settlers descended on Sunday night on the Palestinian town of Huwara near Nablus in the West Bank. They assaulted Palestinian civilians, shot one dead and set dozens of buildings and cars on fire. This rampage occurred in one of the most militarised territories in the world. Yet as far as we were concerned, the Israeli army, the strongest in the Middle East, was missing in action.
Witnessing such a violent rampage, many observers resort to calls for a “return to calm” in Palestine. But such feeble calls are no longer adequate – if they ever were. One cannot ignore the recurrent nature of settlers’ violence and the way it acts as a pillar of Israel’s rule over the Palestinians.
The infliction of violence with impunity, the army’s enabling of this violence and the denial of basic rights embody the existing order. Sunday’s rampage is thus a manifestation of the status quo in Palestine, not an exceptional occurrence or momentary disorder.
Even prior to the formation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent cabinet, informed observers noted that settler violence in the West Bank was state sanctioned. But this time the chief arsonists are in government. The settlers’ violence is now effectively encouraged by a government in which far-right, ultra-nationalist settlers are the kingmakers. The cabinet is intent on increasing the demolitions of Palestinian homes, and on expanding settlement activity. It is also leading a vindictive and heavy-handed policy against all Palestinians.
A recent example of this is the Israeli parliament’s enactment of a law, with an overwhelming majority, that empowers the interior minister to revoke the Israeli citizenship or residency status of political prisoners convicted of terror offences who receive financial aid from the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli national security minister, who is leading this campaign, was convicted in 2007 by an Israeli court of “incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organisation”.
But the clearest example came this week. In an agreement struck between the ruling coalition, the finance minister, himself a settler, received broad responsibilities over civilian matters relating to settlements in the West Bank. The reason this is significant is because the West Bank is supposed to be under a military administration. The new arrangement normalises the settlers’ status in relation to Israeli state authorities. They will be treated as if they were ordinary citizens, even though their very presence in an occupied territory is a war crime.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz called this agreement an advancement of “full-fledged apartheid”. Others called it an act of “de jure annexation”, and thus contrary to rules (recently reaffirmed in the case of Ukraine) that prohibit the acquisition of territory by force.
Although this bureaucratic reorganisation of Israeli rule over the West Bank does not amount to legislative annexation – which the Israeli parliament did in the cases of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – the impact on the lives of Palestinians is the same. The West Bank settlers who sit on the supreme court, in the parliament and in government are seeking to consolidate Jewish supremacy over all Palestinians. And this cabinet agreement merely accelerates the process of colonising Palestine. Slowly but surely it would eradicate the legal smokescreen of temporary military occupation that has hitherto disguised Zionist expansionism.
Even prior to the agreement, it has long been evident that the longest military occupation since the second world war cannot be regarded as a temporary occupation. Israel rules over all Palestinians between the river and the sea, does not grant them equal rights and denies millions of them the right to vote. Jewish citizens are systematically privileged over, and segregated from, Palestinians. The “iron wall” doctrine seeks to make Palestinians’ lives miserable so they would leave or acquiesce to their inferior status. Public figures who made threats to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians, promising them a “second Nakba”, are part of the mainstream discourse in Israel.
Is it sufficient to call for return to calm after decades of occupation and colonial annexation? In eastern Europe, a swift and unconditional international mobilisation has supported the Ukrainians in their fight against Russian occupation and annexation. Palestinians, too, need support to resist and achieve their rights. Instead of calling for a return to the status quo, we must fundamentally rethink the way things are to ensure freedom and equality for all.
Nimer Sultany is reader in public law at SOAS University of London; he is a Palestinian citizen of Israel