Violence in the West Bank is tragically nothing new. I have scores of Palestinian relatives living there who have shared the violence they have seen firsthand — some acts perpetrated by Palestinian militants, others by Israeli soldiers, and a growing number by radical Israeli settlers. But what happened last week in the town of Hawara was unlike anything they had seen before.
A mob of Israeli settlers — estimated by some in the hundreds — descended upon the midsize town chanting “revenge.” Their justification was the death of two settlers who had been appallingly killed by a Palestinian militant. The result was an hourslong rampage.
The scale of the carnage is as deeply alarming as some Israeli government officials’ response.
As the BBC reported, one Palestinian family had to be rescued by paramedics after becoming trapped in their house when settlers laid burning tires outside their front door. Other Palestinians shared how they hid in their house seeking cover from the armed settlers, noting, “The [Israeli] army did nothing to protect us.” When it was over, the terrorists had destroyed countless homes, torched Palestinian stores and a slew of cars, injured approximately 350 Palestinians and killed Sameh Aqtash, a 37-year-old blacksmith who had just returned from volunteering in Turkey for the victims of the earthquakes.
The scale of the carnage is as deeply alarming as some Israeli government officials’ response. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack, the very extremists he has emboldened cheered this horrific attack. Knesset member Zvika Fogel — whose extreme-right party Otzma Yehudit is part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition — stated after the deadly rampage: “A closed, burnt Hawara — that’s what I want to see.” He added, “That’s the only way to achieve deterrence.”
But the most dangerous remarks came from Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who called for wiping out this town of nearly 5,000 Christians and Muslims. “I think the village of Hawara needs to be erased,” Smotrich stated, adding, “I think that the state of Israel needs to do it.”
Smotrich is the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party and an open bigot. He has described himself as a “proud homophobe” and called the gay pride parade in Israel “worse than bestiality.” He has made racist comments about Arabs and has rightly been described as a “Jewish supremacist.”
Killing of two Israelis leads to unrest in West BankFeb. 27, 202303:50
He is also one the loudest supporters of constructing more Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank while adamantly opposing the creation of a Palestinian state. In addition, this far-right radical has called for deporting Arabs who are Israeli citizens — people like my fiancé and her family — unless they recognize that “the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people,” which as a practical matter means Christians and Muslims must accept being second-class citizens. This is the kind of person Netanyahu has welcomed into his Cabinet.
In response to Smotrich’s call for the Israeli government to wipe Hawara off the face of the earth, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price strongly condemned the remarks, saying, “These comments were irresponsible. They were repugnant, they were disgusting.”
The Biden administration, however, needs to do more than just condemn Smotrich’s words. This is not just about him. Settler violence in recent years has dangerously been on the rise. In fact, the State Department just last week released the agency’s annual report on terrorism, which noted “a substantial rise in such attacks during 2021,” both in number and “in severity and scale.” Alarmingly, the report explains that while in prior years “groups of four to five settlers typically carried out sporadic attacks, the UN documented attacks by groups of 20 or more settlers during the year.”
My family in the West Bank is not immune to settler violence.
B’Tselem — the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories — documents the nearly daily occurrence of settler violence against Palestinian women, men and children. In one such attack in January, a dozen settlers in the Palestinian village of ‘Aqra destroyed more than 100 olive trees of a Palestinian farmer and torched several cars. Over the years, these Israeli settlers have attacked Palestinians, their homes, businesses, mosques and Christian churches. The goal of this violence is explicitly to drive the Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the land so these extremists can have it all.
My family in the West Bank is not immune to settler violence. My cousin’s home in Ramallah has bullet holes in it from when settlers shot down at them from their hilltop settlement. In Battir, a small West Bank Palestinian village where my father was born, about 15 miles from Bethlehem, settlers erected a new outpost in 2022 on Palestinian-owned land that prevented the owners from being able to utilize their own property given that settlers tend to be heavily armed. Some of the more radical settlers have no qualms trying to literally steal Palestinian-owned land even today because they believe it should be exclusively occupied by Jewish Israelis. (My own grandmother’s land was taken by settlers decades ago for this very reason.)
Will these settlers' next target for violence be Battir, where many of my relatives live — some of whom are U.S. citizens? It’s very possible, given the extremists such as Smotrich that Netanyahu has invited to his governing coalition. The United States must leverage the billions of taxpayer dollars we provide on an annual basis to Israel to press them to protect the religious minorities under their control. Neither Palestinian Christians nor Muslims should fear for the lives of their families — or that their homes will be burned to the ground — simply because of their religious faith. It falls on the Israeli government to protect them and, if our tax dollars can’t ensure that happens, something needs to change.