If what is currently happening in the Israeli-occupied West Bank took place before 7 October, our attention would have been fixated completely on that part of Palestine. The ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, however, has distracted us from the important events underway in the West Bank, which is now a stage for the most violent Israeli military campaign since the Second Palestinian Uprising between 2000 and 2005.
At the time of writing, since 7 October more than 360 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis in the West Bank, while thousands have been wounded. Thousands more have been arrested. These numbers exceed, by far, the total number of Palestinians killed in 2022, which was already designated by the UN as the most violent year on record in the occupied territory since 2005.
How are we to understand the logic behind the Israeli violence in the West Bank, given that it is already under a brutal Israeli military occupation and the joint “security” control of the Israel “Defence” Forces and the Palestinian Authority? And if the Israelis are honest in their claim that their offensive in Gaza is not genocide against the Palestinian people per se, but a war against Hamas, why are they attacking the West Bank with such ferocity, killing people from all different political and ideological backgrounds, and many civilians, including children?
The answer lies in the growing political power of the Jewish settlers, whose presence is illegal under international law. Historically, there are two kinds of Israeli violence meted out routinely against Palestinians: violence carried out by the Israeli army; and violence carried out by Jewish settlers.
Palestinians understand fully that they are intrinsically linked. The settlers often attack Palestinians under the protection of the Israeli army, and the latter often launches violent raids on Palestinians for the sake of the illegal settlers.
In recent years, however, the relationship between these two violent entities has started to change, thanks to the rise of the far right in Israel, which is situated mostly within illegal settlements, and their supporters inside Israel. Hence, it should not be a surprise that both of the most far-right ministers in the extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, are themselves settlers.
As soon as Ben-Gvir became National Security Minister, he began promoting the idea of establishing a National Guard. After 7 October, he managed, with direct support from Netanyahu’s government, to establish so-called civilian security teams. Israeli officials like Yair Lapid, for example, have described Ben-Gvir’s new armed group as a “private militia”. And he is right.
Although Ben-Gvir insists that the war in Gaza must continue, his actual aim from this — aside from the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population in the territory — is to use this rare opportunity to fulfil all of the wishes of Israel’s political extremists, all at once.
Remember, Ben-Gvir came to power based on the lofty promises of annexing the West Bank, expanding settlements and seizing control of Palestinian holy sites in East Jerusalem, among other extremist ideas. Al-Aqsa Mosque was a major target for him and his equally far-right followers, who believe that only by building a Third Temple on the ruins of Islam’s third holiest shrine would Israel be able to reclaim total control over the Holy Land.
Ben-Gvir’s bizarre political language could once have been dismissed as the extremism of a fringe politician
Not any more, though. He is arguably the most powerful politician in Israel, due to his ability to use six seats in the Knesset to make or break Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
While Netanyahu is behaving largely out of desperation to save his own political skin, his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant is fighting to redeem the tattered reputation of the army. Others, like War Council Minister Benny Gantz, are walking a political fine line so as not to be perceived as the ones who have broken Israel’s fragile political unity during a most decisive war.
None of this applies to Ben-Gvir. The man sees himself as the political descendant of the likes of the notorious late Meir Kahane; he is a fervent advocate of religious war. And since religious wars can only be the outcome of chaotic social and political circumstances, he is keen to instigate these very events that could ultimately lead to the war that he covets most.
One of the prerequisites is unhinged violence, where people are killed based on the mere suspicion of being “terrorists”. For example, on 18 January, Ben-Gvir told Israeli border police officers during a visit to a base in the West Bank, “You have complete backing from me.” He urged them to shoot at every “terrorist” — for which read “Palestinian” — even if they do not pose a threat.
Ben-Gvir perceives all Palestinians in the West Bank to be potential terrorists, the same way that Israel’s “moderate” President Isaac Herzog perceives all in Gaza as being “responsible” for the actions of Hamas. This essentially means that the Israeli security forces — soldiers and police — in the West Bank have the green light to kill Palestinians there with the same impunity as those killing Palestinians in Gaza.
Even though security and intelligence officials in Israel have warned Netanyahu against launching war on another front in the West Bank, the Israeli army has no other option but to fight that supposed “war” anyway. Why? Because it is already seen by a large constituency in Israel as a failure for its inability to prevent or respond successfully to the 7 October attacks, even after over 100 days of war in Gaza. To redeem their tarnished honour, senior officers are happy to fight a less challenging “war” against isolated and under-equipped Palestinian fighters in small parts of the West Bank.
Ben-Gvir, of course, is ready to manipulate all of this in his favour. And he is getting precisely what he wants: expanding the war to the West Bank, ethnically-cleansing Palestinians; torturing prisoners; demolishing homes; torching properties; and all the rest.
Arguably his greatest achievement so far is his ability to create a perfect amalgamation between the political interests of the settlers, the government and the security apparatus. His aim, however, is not merely to steal yet more Palestinian land, or expand a few settlements. His wished-for religious war will, he believes, lead ultimately to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, not just from Gaza, but also from the West Bank.
The war in Gaza is a perfect opportunity for these sinister goals to be achieved. For now, this genocidal war continues to create opportunities for religious Zionism to acquire new followers, and to lay deeper roots within Israel’s political establishment. A sudden end to the war, however, could represent the marginalisation of religious Zionism for years to come.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.