Settler violence in Israel opens a new split in Netanyahu’s government

REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a graduation ceremony for Israeli Air Force pilots at Hatzerim Airbase, in southern Israel, June 29, 2023.

JERUSALEM – The recent spate of settler attacks on Palestinian villages in the West Bank is deepening fissures in Israel’s right-wing government, with hard-line ministers pushing back on calls by military and security chiefs for a crackdown on Jewish extremists.

In the attacks, carried out over several days in revenge for the killing of four Israeli settlers by Hamas gunmen, armed mobs marauded through villages, torching homes and cars, cutting power lines and firing weapons. At least one Palestinian civilian was killed, according to health officials, and dozens have been injured.

The split over how to respond to the violence is just the latest example of tensions pulling at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fractious governing coalition as it struggles to remake the country’s judiciary and ease strains with the United States, Europe and regional powers. It pits the country’s security establishment against far-right cabinet members, who say the rampages are an understandable reaction to Palestinian violence and reject characterizing them as “Jewish terrorism.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader who heads the Religious Zionist Party, this week slammed Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for approving the summary detention of four settlers suspected of participating in attacks on the village of Luban a-Sharqia.

Israel regularly employs administrative detention to hold Palestinians without trial – more than 1,000 were detained in March, according to the Israeli prison service. But in a tweet, Smotrich called use of that mechanism against settlers “both democratically and morally repugnant.”

Gallant’s office declined to comment for this article. But a senior Israeli official said Gallant and other security officials had concluded that the risk posed by some settlers required the same approach they employ against suspected Palestinian terrorists.

“To hold four Israeli citizens without trial is very significant,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Gallant has decided he’s going to use any tool at his disposal to fight this, and the most significant one is the administrative detention order.”

This official said the military applied the same criteria against the four Israeli men that they use against detained Palestinians: There was clear and convincing evidence that they posed a threat to civilian lives. The policy would continue despite criticism from Smotrich and others, the official said.

“The entire security establishment is in line, working on the same policy, despite the pushback,” the official said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who, like Smotrich, has been questioned in the past by security agencies for involvement with anti-Arab terrorist groups, also condemned the detention of the four men and the criticism of rampaging settlers. “Most of them are sweet boys,” he said during a security meeting, according to reports in Israeli media.

Israel’s top security chiefs have been unanimous in their condemnation of the recent settler violence, despite criticism from rights advocates that they have failed to protect vulnerable Palestinian communities.

“These attacks contradict every moral and Jewish value,” read a rare joint statement by Herzi Halevi, chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces; Ronen Bar, director of the Israel Security Agency; and Yaakov Shabtai, the national police commissioner. “They constitute, in every way, nationalist terrorism, and we are obliged to fight them.”

In response, Orit Strook, the Israeli minister who oversees settlements, said in a radio interview: “Who are you, the Wagner Group? Who are you to make such a statement under the government’s nose?” Strook later apologized for comparing Israeli defense officials to the Russian mercenaries who engaged in a mutiny this month.

The public feud highlights the potential instability of Netanyahu’s government, a coalition that owes its four-seat parliamentary majority to far-right nationalist parties – including Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power – that were once relegated to the fringes of Israeli politics.

Netanyahu engineered the partnership to retake power in elections last fall, promising to rein in the parties’ extremist tendencies. But the coalition has been rocked by divisions from the beginning, including battles over how to resume its attempted overhaul of the judicial system, a push that sparked mass protests and strikes until it was temporarily shelved in March.

Disagreements over West Bank policy have been a recurring theme. Smotrich, Ben Gvir and other hard-liners have pushed to hasten settlement construction and deploy tougher military tactics against Palestinians, even as Israeli diplomats have assured foreign governments that settlement activity would be restrained and security leaders have pushed to remove some illegal outposts.

In March, Smotrich defended a settler rampage through the West Bank town of Huwara, an attack characterized by an Israeli general as an attempted “pogrom.” Smotrich said Israel should “wipe out” the community.

Smotrich gained additional authority this month when the cabinet voted to give him control of the Defense Ministry’s West Bank civil affairs division, in charge of settlement planning and construction.

The appointment, approved by Netanyahu, brings the clash of views between settler activists and security pragmatists to the top levels of the Defense Ministry.

“Smotrich and Gallant are going to be directly at odds,” said Miri Eisin, a colonel in Israel’s reserve forces and a former senior intelligence officer. “Smotrich is a very ideological person who views settlements and the West Bank in messianic terms.”

The most recent spasm of settler violence flared this month after Palestinian Hamas gunmen killed four Israelis, including two teenagers, at a gas station near the settlement of Eli. Calls for revenge went out on settler WhatsApp groups, and attacks erupted almost immediately. At least 30 cars were burned in the town of Turmus Ayya, where many residents are Palestinian American.

Human rights monitors accused the Israeli military of standing by during some of the attacks. Military officials denied allowing attackers a free hand, and soldiers intervened in several attacks, dispersing mobs and making several arrests, according to media reports and statements by the Israel Defense Forces. One off-duty soldier is under investigation for his alleged involvement in an attack in the village of Uum Safa, the IDF said.

Netanyahu condemned “vigilante” violence and “criminal elements,” saying that “all citizens of Israel are obligated to follow the law.” He did not use the term “terrorism,” although he offered support for the three security entities that did.

“Netanyahu is playing to everybody,” Eisin said. “His base cannot have it called ‘terrorism.'”

Amid the violence, the prime minister angered governments in Washington and Europe by announcing the approval of 1,000 new housing units in Eli, which would double the size of the settlement.

“Our response to terror is to hit it hard and build in our land,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

The State Department said it was “deeply troubled” by the move as an impediment to peace. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the spiraling violence threatened ongoing efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“We’ve told our friends and allies in Israel that if there’s a fire burning in their backyard, it’s going to be a lot tougher, if not impossible,” Blinken said Wednesday in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.