Opinion: A war on multiple fronts

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Opinion: A war on multiple fronts

As the war deepens in Gaza, so the dangers are growing of another front opening up in the West Bank, says Richard Miron, a former BBC reporter who was based in Israel

Palestinians inspect the demolished family home of Saleh al-Arouri, in the West Bank village of Arura, near Ramallah, on October 31, 2023.(FLASH90) via JTA
Palestinians inspect the demolished family home of Saleh al-Arouri, in the West Bank village of Arura, near Ramallah, on October 31, 2023.(FLASH90) via JTA

Like wheels within wheels, another smaller conflict is taking place adjacent to the battle the IDF is waging against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This one is being carried out by radical Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, with the agenda of using violence to intimidate, dispossess and provoke further conflict that will serve their extremist agenda. And left unchecked these activities could spin out control resulting in widespread bloodshed and political chaos.

The settlers have deliberately embarked upon this dirty campaign of action while the attention of many Israelis, and the international community is distracted by the increasingly intense fighting in Gaza.

Far from being rogue or isolated incidents, the settlers’ actions are – in many instances – assisted in word and deed by their ultra-nationalist patrons who occupy prominent positions within the Israeli government.

Itamar Ben-Gvir – the far-right wing internal security minister has described the deadly activities of settlers as ‘graffiti’ and is fuelling the fire even further by distributing weapons to his faithful to arm a new militia, in the name of protecting (Jewish) Israelis.

Israeli soldiers during overnight raid in the West Bank, September 19, 2023. Credit: IDF

The extremists in the West Bank – and their leaders – have become emboldened over the years by the weakness and – sometimes – complicity of the Israeli army to their renegade activities. I recall as a reporter going out with a Palestinian olive farmer whose trees had been cut down by settlers, in a typical act of intimidation and vandalism. Sitting on a ridge in the garden of his home overlooking the trees was a settler was dressed in an army uniform. When I asked him about the destruction of the trees, he dismissed me, saying that I was getting in the way of what he called his ‘pastoral view.’

The current conflict has extended a greater opportunity for the settlers to extend their view and their hold on the West Bank. In the past week alone, Dror Etkes, a well-known Israeli anti-settlement activist has recorded four new locations in the northern West Bank where diggers have been at work laying new roads, flattening land and bringing in trailers into place.

Even before the monstrous Hamas attack of 7th October, settler violence was proliferating. According to the UN, there were an average 3 incidents every day against Palestinians in 2023 prior to October (up a third on the previous year). In the past four weeks that number has jumped to 7 a day and included several murders of Palestinian civilians by settlers. In addition, an estimated 800 Palestinians have been displaced from their homes under threat of violence.

Richard Miron. Pic: Twitter

The settlers are also using political power along with brute force to achieve their objectives. A member of the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party, Zvi Sukkot, has just been appointed chairman of the Knesset subcommittee for Judea and Samaria (The West Bank), giving him significant powers to review and oversee activities in The Occupied Territories.

At the same time, Betzalel Smotrich, the Finance Minister (and member of the same party), has halted the transfer of Palestinian Authority funds that Israel holds. This money goes to pay salaries for PA employees, and withholding it deliberately generates frustration and anger among Palestinians.

Given all that is going on, the head of the Shin Bet – Israel’s internal security service, has expressed his worries about ‘an eruption’ in the West Bank.

But where there are realistic fears on the one side, there is dangerous fantasy on the other. Sukkot, Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and their followers are pursuing a fanatical dream of Jewish religious supremacy over all the land including Gaza and the West Bank, with as few Arabs as possible. The notion of a flourishing liberal democratic Israel and any accommodation with the Palestinians fills them with horror.

So, adding to the conflict rather than damping it down, serves their purposes. An explosion of Palestinian violence in the West Bank provoked by settler attacks, land expropriations and the threat economic collapse plays straight into their hands for even greater violence and dispossession.  That is why, as the war deepens in Gaza, so the dangers are growing of another front opening up in the West Bank.

Ordinary Israelis are facing extraordinary challenges at this time. They are fighting a perilous war in Gaza, while seeking the return of their kidnapped brothers and sisters, and grieving the loss of so many at the hands of Hamas. But added to that, they face additional dangers from the extremists within their midst which they cannot afford to overlook.

  • Richard Miron is a former BBC Reporter who was based in Israel. He was also the spokesman for the UN Secretary-General’s Middle Envoy in Jerusalem. He now runs a podcast consultancy in London.
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