TEL AVIV — The rise in the violence of settlers against West Bank Palestinians reflects the growing powers of far-right Knesset members within the Netanyahu coalition.
The radical Jewish parties Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced since forming his government seven months ago are biting the hand that feeds them. Having given them responsibility for national security and settlement expansion, these coalition members and their constituents are sowing discord and chaos in the West Bank, and protecting settlers who wreak them. And Netanyahu? He is mum.
In the latest such incident, Quasi Jamal Matan, a 19-year-old Palestinian resident of the West Bank village of Burqa, was killed Aug. 4 by an Israeli settler who was apparently injured by rocks Palestinians had thrown at him and his friends. Five Palestinians and two Israeli settlers have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the clash. One of the settlers was until recently a parliamentary adviser and spokesperson for Knesset member Limor Son Har-Melech of the far-right Jewish Power party.
After the incident, police allowed two Knesset members — one of them Zvi Sukkot of the Jewish Power faction — to meet the suspect in the Palestinian’s killing, while he was hospitalized. In general, Israeli Knesset members are not allowed to meet with detainees suspected of serious offenses during the initial stages of a police investigation against them. Sukkot's one-on-one meeting with the suspect lasted about 40 minutes.
"This is incredibly outrageous," a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "This is a meeting that could easily lead to evidence tampering and disrupt the police investigation. There was no reason to approve it. This is part of the anarchy that is taking over the rule of law system in Israel."
This event is the tip of the iceberg to which the Israeli ship is heading at full speed since the Netanyahu government launched its campaign to weaken the country’s judiciary, prompting a mass pro-democracy movement. Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar recently warned Netanyahu about a significant increase in the extent of Jewish terrorism in the West Bank. According to Bar, Jewish terrorism is one of the factors fueling and increasing Islamic terrorism against the settlers.
"This is a vicious circle of violence and murder," said the senior Israeli security source. "The Palestinians are carrying out revenge attacks for all the settler attacks against them, the situation is deteriorating rapidly and spiraling out of control. It will take us years to put this genie back in the bottle."
While Palestinian terrorism directed against Israeli citizens in the settlements and within sovereign Israeli territory is undoubtedly much more widespread than manifestations of Jewish terrorism against Palestinians, the settlers enjoy the protection of the Israeli military, police and Shin Bet security forces.
The Palestinians living under Israeli control, on the other hand, do not have significant defensive forces of their own and are forced to rely on the Israeli police force in the West Bank that is officially entrusted with their protection. But therein lies the problem, since the Israeli Police is under the purview of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the chair of the Jewish Power party.
“Itamar Ben-Gvir is now taking over the police in general, and the [West Bank] Judea and Samaria district in particular," a senior Israeli law enforcement source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "The police in the West Bank are completely lax, the district commander is ingratiating himself with the minister, who also represents the extremist settlers.”
This implicit official backing by Ben-Gvir encourages settlers who have set up illegal outposts, often on lands claimed by the Palestinians. “They roam freely among the Palestinian villages looking for revenge and friction. This powder keg will explode in our faces," the law enforcement official said.
Following Ronen Bar’s explicit warning to Netanyahu of an uptick in settler violence, the Shin Bet and the military commander of the West Bank came under vicious attacks by several right-wing lawmakers. Har-Melech, whose husband was murdered in a 2003 West Bank terrorist attack, was quick to harshly criticize the agency, while firebrand Likud party Knesset Minister Tali Gottlieb declared that "the leftist deep state has reached the head of the Shin Bet as well." It took Netanyahu more than a day to issue a statement backing up the Shin Bet chief, who is under his direct command.
"Sometimes, Netanyahu seems not to be there at all … disconnects himself from this dynamite," a senior Likud official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "He receives warnings not only from the head of the Shin Bet, but also from the army chief of staff and the head of Military Intelligence, but he does nothing about it. It is as if he had been taken prisoner by the far right. The Netanyahu that Israel knew for 15 years used to distance himself as much as he could from such flare-ups."
Asked whether Netanyahu was trying to lead Israel into war as a last resort to extricate himself from his political, public and personal troubles, a senior official in the Israeli political system warned that Netanyahu is now focused only on his political survival.
"I don't know if he wants war, I do know that he knows the risks and is indifferent to the possibility of a flare-up. This is true not only of the West Bank, but also of the northern front. The original Netanyahu would have done everything possible to calm these fronts a long time ago. The current Netanyahu is doing nothing and allowing his extremist partners to continue to pour gasoline on the entire arena. All that is missing is a match," the official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.