The road to Huwara

Jeffrey St. Clair 

 CounterPunch  /  March 3, 2023

 ‘If they could they would murder us all. But they want to uproot us. I say our answer is to strike at them and deepen our roots. We have made a series of decisions recently that in the face of international reality is not a simple one: to deepen our roots, to deepen our settlements and to expand our homeland. This is the battle in which we find ourselves’ – Benjamin Netanyahu, four days after Jewish settlers invaded and torched the West Bank village of Huwara

They came at dusk, wearing masks. They carried automatic rifles, pistols, knives and clubs. They swung chains. They hauled cans of petrol. They descended out of the Samarian hills bent on revenge, 400 riotous Jewish settlers. They came with the intent of making the villagers of Huwara pay for the deaths of two Jewish settlers, killed that morning on the road to the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha, a settlement built on lands seized from Palestinians in 1983. They came shouting slurs and “Death to the Arabs [Palestinians]”. They came to make Huwara burn.

The IDF knew they were coming. Shin Bet knew they were coming. Benjamin Netanyahu knew they were coming. None of them moved to stop the raid that was destined to happen, the mayhem and destruction members of Netanyahu’s own coalition government had called for. Hours before the raid, settler Davidi Ben-Zion demanded  “erasing Huwara today” and for showing “no mercy” to its villagers.

Not only did the IDF do nothing to prevent the rampage, but at least a dozen soldiers joined the mob as it gathered in the evening light and stayed with them deep into the violent night, through the shootings and beatings and arsons and looting. Rather than protecting them from the raiders, villagers say the IDF soldiers “fired tear gas at residents who were trying to defend themselves.” Nearly 100 Palestinians were treated for inhaling the toxic fumes that shrouded their community that harrowing night.

Dozens of Palestinian homes and shops were torched. Hundreds of trucks and cars and wagons and bicycles were smashed and lit ablaze. Fields were pillaged, olive trees chopped down, livestock killed.

Nearly 400 Palestinians were injured. Miraculously, only one has died–37-year-old Sameh Aqtash, who had just returned home from helping earthquake victims in Turkey, only to be gutshot by a marauding settler. After ransacking Huwara, the settler mob attacked other nearby villages, Zaatara and Burin, shooting two more Palestinians and beating another with an iron bar.

There have been no apologies. Netanyahu has coyly said only that the settlers should not take revenge into their own hands, implying that the IDF would exact it for them. One of his top ministers and advisors, Bezalel Smotrich, was more explicit, saying: “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it.”

The raiding settlers themselves showed no contrition, only regrets that more Palestinians hadn’t died, more buildings hadn’t been reduced to ashes. One described the raid as a “very moving experience.” When told of Aqtash’s death, Daniella Weiss, a long-time settler militant, said coldly: “If he was killed, he was killed.”

Only eight of the rioters were arrested. All have been released. This is the logic of apartheid. The settlers act with impunity, while Palestinians–even children–are seized without charges and held for extended periods without trial. There are now 144 Jewish settlements and another 100 Jewish “outposts” in the West Bank, all of which have been deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice.

These illegal settlements are now populated more than a half-million Jewish settlers on Palestinian land in the West Bank and another 250,000 in East Jerusalem. In the past, Israel has periodically made performative gestures to restrain the expansion of the settlements, but those pretenses have been dropped under the new rightwing government, whose leaders, such as Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, want to “flood the zone” with a rapid expansion of settlements to drive Palestinians farther and farther away from the Israeli border. This is all part of the new Netanyahu government’s plan to deal with Israel’s “demographic crisis”: first, strip Palestinians of rights inside Israel itself, then dispossess them from their lands in the West Bank.

This malicious strategy also encourages the militant settlers–and their paramilitary gangs–to start doing much of the dirty work once done by the IDF, like home demolitions, so that Israel’s official security forces won’t be caught on camera running over people with bulldozers, as they did Rachel Corrie. Now they’ll just be glimpsed on the periphery of rampaging settlers, spraying tear gas as Palestinian villagers flee their burning homes.

Some Israelis are beginning to see their government in the mirror for the first time, as the illusion that it is–or ever has been–a democracy dissolves before their eyes. Even one conservative Israeli political commentator, Nahum Barnea writing in Yedioth Ahronot, denounced the raid as “Kristallnacht in Huwara,” a reference to the 1938 pogrom against the Jews in Germany orchestrated by the Nazi Party at the Hitler government’s behest.

Some Israeli liberals say they’ve never seen anything like this. But such statements reveal a kind of herd immunity to their own history.

The road to Huwara began in 1982 at Sabra and Shatila, where IDF forces under the command of Ariel Sharon supervised the slaughter of  as many as 3,500 Palestinians in two refugee camps, the killing largely committed by Lebanese Phalangist paramilitaries in revenge for the assassination of Lebanese Bechir Gemayal two days earlier. What the government can’t–or won’t–do on its own, it finds others to do for it.

But only a few days before the rampage at Huwara, the IDF itself was spilling blood just a few miles away in the West Bank town of Nablus. Under the cover of grenades, tear gas and automatic weapons fire, the IDF raided a suspected safe house, looking for three suspected members of the Lion’s Den Palestinian militant group. The raid turned into a slaughter of civilians. At least 11 Palestinians were killed including a 72-year-old man carrying bags of bread from the market, a 66-year-old man who died from breathing tear gas, a 62-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy, both of whom were shot. More than 500 Palestinian civilians were injured, 80 of them with bullet wounds. The Nablus massacre, the deadliest raid in the West Bank since 2005, came only a few weeks after a similar raid in Jenin killed 10 Palestinians. Already this year, 65 Palestinians have been killed by the IDF, 13 of them children.

The US government never hesitates to tell other countries what to do–except the ones, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, it arms and subsidizes the most lavishly. With them, suddenly, it’s impotent. Any other nation that engaged in the atrocities we’ve seen in Israel these recent weeks would immediately be placed under sanctions by the State Department. But the US can’t even turn off the spigot of aid, never mind impose any penalties that might change the Israeli government’s outlandish behavior. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the US supports the rampages in the West Bank and the steady confiscation of Palestinian land into the terrorizing hands of Jewish settlers.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch