Less than a fortnight ago, The National reported from the occupied West Bank on a wave of vandalism perpetrated by extremist Jewish settlers against rural Palestinian villages. Such attacks on property and vital infrastructure not only make life intolerable for Palestinians living on their own land, they also antagonise donor countries – often allies of Israel – who have spent hundreds of thousands on providing besieged communities with electricity or clean water.
The patience of some of these countries is being increasingly tested. French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne, speaking after a meeting on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, said settler attacks in the West Bank must stop, adding that “it is of utmost importance to refrain from any action, decision or statement that might spark violence” in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on four Israeli settlers in an executive order that targeted those who undermine “peace, stability and security” in the West Bank. The executive order builds on December’s State Department visa restrictions aimed at extremist settlers, and gives the Treasury and State departments the authority to freeze the American assets of those under sanction. Mr Biden’s order also prohibits American citizens and companies from doing business with the radicals and bars them entry to the US.
Ominously for those who actively support the settlement movement, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller added that Washington could take additional action in the future.
Worryingly, the war in Gaza seems to have only increased the intensity of the violence in the West Bank, as radicals take advantage of the chaos and distraction to pursue their agenda. Last month, Israel NGO Peace Now issued a report on what it called “an unprecedented surge in settlement activities”. These include a “record number” of new outposts in three months, 18 illegal roads paved or authorised by settlers and a new phenomenon of settlers closing Palestinian traffic routes against Israeli military orders.
As if the attacks on vulnerable homesteads and repeated expropriation of land were not bad enough, the violence meted out to individual Palestinians by well-armed settlers, sometimes in full view of Israel’s security forces, has struck fear into a community that often feels no one is on their side.
Sadly, a significant section of Israel’s political leadership remains in thrall to the settlement ideology. A large event in Jerusalem on January 28 – attended by several Israeli ministers – heard calls for a return of illegal settlements to Gaza, whose settler population was evacuated amid acrimonious scenes in 2005. The city has also been the scene of repeated attacks on its Christian minority by radicals who have watched and learnt as the settlers’ strong-arm tactics in the West Bank are met with indifference by the Israeli authorities.
The displeasure at the settler-linked violence expressed by the US and France – both significant and influential allies of Israel – should be a wake-up call to the fact that the continued presence of and support for settlers not only undermines hopes for a Palestinian state and locks Israel’s security forces into an unending occupation; it also calls into question any good faith on the part of an Israeli government that, by tolerating this unjustifiable project, is sowing the seeds of future conflict.
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