There are images that never leave your mind. The kind you can almost smell. And the images from the Israeli settler pogrom in Huwara on Sunday night, following the killing of two settler brothers in the West Bank town, are just that: they smell of soot, of horror, of rot. Our rot.
Over the past years, we have reported on the alarming rise of joint settler-soldier militias across the occupied West Bank as they murder, wound, and terrorize Palestinian communities. Those same militias left Huwara burning last night. According to eyewitnesses, immediately following the murder of the two settlers, the Israeli army shut down the two entrances to Huwara and allowed the settler mob to enter the town by foot, doing nothing to prevent the ensuing atrocity. In a TikTok video circulated last night, settlers were seen handing out food to the soldiers stationed at the town’s entrances, which the soldiers gladly took and warmly thanked them for.
As Huwara burned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video message asking Israelis “not to take the law into their own hands” and to “let the IDF and the security forces do their job.” He did not hesitate to remind them what that “job” entails, noting that the army had “eliminated dozens of terrorists” in recent weeks, alluding to the massacres committed by Israeli forces in Jenin and Nablus since January. President Isaac Herzog, too, made a similar plea to the settlers, insisting that violence against innocents is “not our way.”
Through their remarks, though, Netanyahu and Herzog unwittingly admit that collective punishment of Palestinians is already on the agenda of Israeli law enforcement authorities, yet for the sake of some social order, it ought to be the army, not civilians, who carry it out. In other words, when Netanyahu demands that the settlers let soldiers “do their job,” he is actually telling them to “let the IDF do the job for you.”
For above all the horrific legislation that this government will pass, the most important law in the Israeli books — which defines its identity and dictates its policy — is the law of Palestinian elimination. For this far-right government, this settler-colonial logic is a divine commandment; for the military, it is an operational duty.
The law of elimination has many faces, and many ways to be actualized. Last Friday in Hebron, Palestinians and anti-occupation activists marked the 29th anniversary of the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre, in which Baruch Goldstein — a personal hero of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers. The annual demonstration not only commemorated the massacre, but also demanded the opening of Shuhada Street, one of Hebron’s main thoroughfares, which the army has closed to Palestinian residents since the massacre; the road remains open, though, to the settlers who live in the city.
As we stood before Shuhada Street, the soldiers prevented us from advancing more than a few dozen meters before firing tear gas and rubber bullets at us. The process of erasing Palestinian presence in the heart of the largest city in the West Bank is such that even a protest is intolerable to the occupier.
The effectiveness of policies of elimination requires two conditions: mass killings and varying degrees of violence on the one hand, and a supportive or complicit public on the other. Israel has both.
The phenomenon known as “settler violence” is a daily and endless sequence of assaults, of which only the tip of the iceberg ever reaches the Israeli media. Under the banner of a “war on terror,” soldiers can commit intolerable crimes, many of which, too, are rarely reported. The mass of the crimes, their frequency, their pervasiveness, and the explicit endorsement of them by Israel’s leadership and public opinion, are all designed to produce a reality in which the law of elimination becomes a law of nature.
Israel’s leadership has always played the most significant role in normalizing the law of elimination. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, one of the most powerful ministers in the government, liked a tweet by Davidi Ben-Zion, the deputy head of the settler Samaria Council, who called to “erase” Huwara; hours later, he echoed Netanyahu’s and Herzog’s “softer” tone, simply urging settlers not to take the law into their own hands.
Meanwhile, MK Tzvika Fogel of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, who heads the Knesset’s National Security Committee, said he viewed the pogrom “positively,” adding: “A closed, burnt Huwara — that’s what I want to see. That’s the only way to achieve deterrence. After a murder like yesterday’s, we need burning villages when the IDF doesn’t act.” Likud MK Tally Gotliv refused to condemn the pogrom, saying she “could not judge people when they mourn.” Imagine the fate of a Palestinian who dared to write something similar about Jewish Israelis.
The fact that Israel’s leadership derives pleasure from instilling fear in the Palestinians is not only an indelible moral stain on us as Jews, but a terrible harbinger of things to come. Ahead of the new coalition’s swearing in, Amir Fakhoury and Meron Rapoport warned that this could be Israel’s “second Nakba government.” Yet even they may not have guessed the determination, bloodthirstiness, and speed with which the coalition would advance its agenda.
Since the start of the year, for example, Israeli forces have claimed the lives of more than 60 Palestinians in the West Bank — the deadliest in the territory in two decades — expedited plans for settlement expansion, and pushed through legislation that would revoke the citizenship and residency of Palestinians. During the Huwara attack, Knesset members pushed forward a bill to legalize the death penalty.
Several miles away, a state of fear grips the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who take to the streets every week to protest the government’s constitutional overhaul — and rightly so. But the Israeli regime, with its absence of limits, is measured not by what it is willing to do to Jews, but what it is willing to do to Palestinians. The pogrom in Huwara, and the reactions of the Israeli leadership, make it clear how far they are willing to go in their war of elimination.
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.