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Oren Ziv
Oren Ziv

Why Huwara

The Huwara pogrom on Feb. 26, during which hundreds of Israelis settlers killed a Palestinian, wounded dozens, and torched homes and cars, received a great deal of attention across the world. And although settler violence is commonplace in the occupied West Bank, this particular attack has, quite rightly, become a defining event.

From the evidence +972 and Local Call have gathered, the pogrom appears to have been planned ahead of time, with about 400 settlers organizing themselves into smaller groups — most of them masked, some of them armed — to rampage across the town and cause as much damage as possible. Israeli soldiers, for the most part, stood alongside the settlers, and in several cases fired tear gas at Palestinian residents who tried to protect their families and homes.

In the days following the attack, Palestinians whose property was seriously damaged complained that Israeli authorities did not come to collect evidence or findings on the ground. Meanwhile, only eight settlers have been arrested, two of whom were placed under administrative detention.

Huwara, which is a few miles south of Nablus, is located in “Area B,” where the Israeli army is in charge of security while the Palestinian Authority takes care of civil matters. It is one of the only places in the occupied West Bank where settlers and Palestinians use the same road — Route 60 — that runs straight through the town. This was originally the case with many West Bank roads prior to the Oslo Accords, after which the Israeli government began building roads for settlers only.

The fact that Huwara is located below the hilltops that have become home to some of the most extreme settlements in the West Bank — Yitzhar, Har Bracha, and Givat Ronen — has turned the town into a prime target for so-called hilltop youth. Hassan, a 70-year-old Huwara resident, told me that the town is attacked every time a settler is killed in a different part of the West Bank, or a rocket is fired from Gaza. “Everything that happens, we pay the price,” he said.

Settlers have also taken it upon themselves to remove Palestinian flags that were hung on businesses, electricity poles, and signs in the town. The removal of the flags, which was started by settlers then taken up by soldiers, has sparked responses by Palestinians. Amid this climate, confrontations in the area have risen over the past year, including by Palestinian attackers targeting settlers and soldiers, and others throwing stones at passing Israeli vehicles.

Last October, I was in Huwara when a group of around 15 settlers arrived in the town center after a stone had reportedly been thrown at an Israeli car, and began to attack residents and businesses — with soldiers present and doing nothing to stop it. The attack, which included stone throwing, pepper spraying, and a settler with an ax, lasted for minutes. Only when an Israeli police force arrived did the settlers slowly leave. Israeli security forces blocked Palestinian paramedics and firefighters from coming to the aid of those attacked.

The extent of the damage from the recent Feb. 26 assault, the sight of hundreds of burned cars and homes, the few perpetrators arrested, and the massive anti-government protests in Israel have turned the pogrom into a symbol. In demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against the government’s judicial coup, the slogan “Where were you in Huwara?” has become a popular one.

And yet, for all the pogrom’s horror and symbolism, the violence of the settlers and the army in the town is still routine. On the Saturday before the pogrom, settlers coming from the direction of the Givat Ronen outpost burned Palestinian vehicles and threw stones in the nearby village of Burin — again, in the presence of soldiers who did nothing to stop them. On the eve of Purim last week, soldiers danced alongside settlers in Huwara, while others broke out the windshields of a Palestinian car, wounding a two-year-old girl.

It is easy to focus on the violence of the settlers while ignoring that of the army — in Jenin, in Nablus, and any time they either passively or actively aid armed vigilantes. Since the beginning of the year, soldiers and settlers have killed at least 75 Palestinians in the West Bank, the highest number at the beginning of a calendar year since 2000. Around 78 percent of the killings have taken place during army raids inside Palestinian cities and towns, rather than Palestinian protests near settlements or attacks on soldiers and settlers. Will the Israeli anti-government protesters ever dare to chant “Where were you in Jenin?”