This government’s pyromania may be its downfall

Meron Rapoport

+972 Magazine  /  March 3, 2023

Huwara on fire is exactly what leading Israeli ministers wanted. But with the protest movement taking note, the next phase of their plan is no guarantee.

About a month after the election that brought Benjamin Netanyahu back to power, Ameer Fakhoury and I published an article on these pages about Israel’s new “second Nakba” government. On Sunday evening in Huwara, we caught our first glimpse of this vision in action: hundreds of Jewish settlers invading the Palestinian town, setting fire to homes, and an army that was “forced” to rescue residents from their homes. The next stage in the government’s Nakba plans is now clear. 

A few days before the pogrom, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was granted full governing authority over most elements of daily life in the West Bank, including planning, building, and infrastructure, effectively becoming the governor-general of the occupied territories. Smotrich calls this the “equal citizenship” reform, but he has made abundantly clear that “equality” applies to Israeli citizens only, meaning the settlers living in the West Bank. In South Africa, they referred to this regime of white supremacy as apartheid. In Israel, Jewish supremacy is called “equal citizenship.” One cannot deny that Smotrich has a sense of humor.

Transferring the authority over a territory under military occupation to a civilian minister has rightly been described as formal annexation. But in Smotrich’s eyes, and in the eyes of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, annexation is old news. “Applying sovereignty” — the right’s euphemism for annexing the West Bank — may include granting some rights, including the right to vote, to the annexed Palestinians. But this was never the main feature of the Jewish supremacist agenda. Among those close to Netanyahu, it is widely agreed that it was Smotrich who brought down Donald Trump’s annexationist “Deal of the Century.” 

What Ben Gvir and Smotrich want isn’t “sovereignty” over Palestinians; they want to end the conflict once and for all with an Israeli victory. Smotrich outlined this vision in his 2017 “Decisive Plan,” which offered Palestinians a choice between apartheid or Nakba. Ben Gvir spent his youth as a member of the Kahanist Kach movement, which officially advocates for the expulsion of Palestinians and revoking the citizenship of anyone who doesn’t accept Israel as a “Jewish state.” 

This far-right agenda of “resolving the conflict” played a prominent role in Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party’s election campaign. Ben Gvir said he would “bring back sovereignty,” “restore order” to so-called mixed cities, and show the Arabs [Palestinians]  who the real “lord of the land” is. The slate’s election success revealed just how powerful and popular the far right is. Netanyahu, with his policy of “managing the conflict” and creeping annexation, is the man of yesteryear.

This agenda is the central component of the coalition agreements Ben Gvir and Smotrich signed with the ruling Likud party. Short of controlling the army itself, the two are effectively in charge of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line — from the occupied West Bank to the Galilee to Jerusalem to the Naqab. 

The policy of bringing the Palestinians to heel is now being integrated with another of the new government’s goals: quashing the liberal elements in Jewish-Israeli society, chief among them the Supreme Court. Ben Gvir and Smotrich have a special fondness for the oppression and humiliation of the LGBTQ community, as well as for exacting revenge on whatever they deem the “left.” But in their eyes, these struggles are secondary. They need to crush the Supreme Court — which they view as the last bastion of defense of minorities in Israel — in order to pave the way for what is truly important to them: putting down the Palestinians for the final time.

Ben Gvir and Smotrich get what they wanted

To reach this resolution — and to enable a second Nakba — they need the whole country to go up in flames. Ben Gvir has been up to the task since his first day as minister, with his harsher vision for Palestinian prisoners, the increase in home demolitions, and his demand that police officers prepare a full-scale invasion of East Jerusalem. Smotrich, as per usual, is far more methodical, working to legalize nine outposts and approve the construction of 10,000 new housing units in the West Bank.

The rise in Palestinian violence against Israelis — both soldiers, and settlers — is not only connected to the actions of the new government. Under the previous so-called “government of change,” Israeli forces killed more Palestinians in the West Bank than any government in nearly two decades. 2023 is continuing that trend at a faster clip. That this government is run by unabashed Nakba supporters has certainly made things worse, particularly in the recent lethal invasions of Jenin, Nablus, and Jericho, which ended with dozens of Palestinians killed. The West Bank is burning, and that is precisely what Smotrich and Ben Gvir wanted to see. 

Now comes the next stage. The pogrom in Huwara was not coordinated by the government. Hundreds of settlers raided the town all at once, burning everything in their path. According to eyewitnesses, they divided the work among themselves: some broke windows, others set homes ablaze. “The town of Huwara needs to be erased today. Enough with talk about building and strengthening settlements,” wrote Davidi Ben-Zion, the deputy head of the Samaria Regional Council, on Twitter following the killing of two settlers in the town just hours before the pogrom. If in the past, settlers exploited Palestinian attacks to build yet another outpost or expand yet another settlement, today these reactions do not suffice. Settlers want to exploit the bloodletting in order to bring about another Nakba, or at the very least attempt a localized version of it.

Smotrich “liked” Ben Zion’s tweet, in what amounts to a clear endorsement of ethnic cleansing — setting off a media firestorm. When asked about his support for the ethnic cleansing of a Palestinian village during a panel discussion on Wednesday, Smotrich said: “I liked the tweet that called to wipe out the village of Huwara because I think that the village of Huwara should be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it [rather than the settlers].”

It took Ben Gvir 12 hours to respond to the pogrom. When he finally got around to it, the minister said that the settlers “must not take the law into their own hands,” as if the burning of the town falls squarely under the law. MK Zvika Fogel, from Ben Gvir’s extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party, said what his boss could not say out loud: “Huwara is closed and burned. That’s what I want to see … I view these results quite positively.” Fogel later said that his words were misunderstood and that he does not support burning villages. 

The comments and clarifications from Israel’s far-right overlords reveal the rules of the game for all to see: the militias attack, the ministers “condemn” but “understand the pain” of the pogromists, thus paving the path for another mass expulsion.

The battle has yet to be decided

The settlers had no doubt that the army would not stop them from rampaging in Huwara, and that it would likely defend them as they terrorized the town. At least in the West Bank, the military has become what Israeli sociologist Yagil Levy calls “a policing army” that is beholden to the needs and whims of the settlers.

And yet, despite its attempts to create the conditions for expulsions of Palestinians, this unstable situation may also sow the seeds of the Nakba government’s demise. While the military commanders in the West Bank may be in the pocket of the pyromaniacs, the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv likely sees things quite differently, particularly as more and more reservists are announcing their refusal to serve in the army due to the government’s anti-democratic revolution. It is difficult to know precisely how many of these soldiers will refuse when summoned, but there is no doubt that talk of civil disobedience and conscientious objection is putting pressure on the army. 

In this situation, the army may find itself facing a dilemma, perhaps even an impossible one: either continue protecting the settlers and allow them to set the stage for a second Nakba, or distance itself from them, so as not to risk identifying too much with the far-right government, which could only increase conscientious objection.

Perhaps most important is the fact that the Palestinians are simply not going anywhere — not from Huwara, not from Nablus, and not from East Jerusalem. In order to commit a second Nakba, Israel will have to take a step toward committing a full-scale genocide. Sadly, this too is not an impossibility. Yet a few hundred Jewish settlers and some army officers turning a blind eye will not be enough to carry this out. Another mass expulsion will require a decision by the state. 

Until that day comes, the Huwara pogrom should serve as a reminder for the hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters who, until now, have totally ignored the occupation. That the people pushing for the judicial overhaul are the same ones supporting pogroms and ethnic cleansing may make it easier for parts of the public to see the connection between democracy in Israel and democracy for Palestinians. The earliest harbinger of this potential change could already be seen among the demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, who chanted “Where were you in Huwara?” at police officers.

What happened in Huwara reflects not only the ambitions of the highest-ranking officials in the government, but a direct continuation of the very real steps they have taken to bring us to where we are today. But like their plans for judicial overhaul, pogroms and violence could very well backfire and bring about the government’s downfall. The resignation of the homophobic Avi Maoz, who thought he could bring about a religious fundamentalist revolution from inside the Education Ministry, signals that this government will have a hard time translating its pipe dreams into reality. For now, the battlefield is still wide open, and those cheering on the pogroms are hardly guaranteed to win.

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call