Since occupying the West Bank in 1967, Israel has misappropriated more than two million dunams of land (200,000 hectares) throughout the West Bank. Israel uses this land for its own purposes, including building new settlements, expanding the territory they control – including farmland and industrial zones – and paving roads that mainly serve the settler population.
West Bank settlements dominate hundreds of thousands of dunams [1 dunam = 1,000 square meters] to which Palestinians have limited access or none at all. Israel has taken over some of these areas using official means: issuing military orders, declaring the area “state land,” a “firing zone” or a “nature reserve,” and expropriating land. Other areas have been effectively taken over by settlers through daily acts of violence, including attacks on Palestinians and their property.
The two tracks appear unrelated: The state takes over land openly, using official methods sanctioned by legal advisors and judges, while the settlers, who are also interested in taking over land to further their agenda, initiate violence against Palestinians for their own reasons. Yet in truth, there is only one track: Settler violence against Palestinians is part of the strategy employed by Israel’s apartheid regime, which seeks to take over more and more West Bank land. The state fully supports and assists these acts of violence, and its agents sometimes participate in them directly. As such, settler violence is a form of government policy, aided and abetted by official state authorities with their active participation. The state legitimizes this reality in two complementary ways:
A. Legalizing land takeover
The state allows settlers to use land violently taken from Palestinians. Dozens of outposts and “farms” – settlements for all intents and purposes, which were built without authorization by the government and without plans that enable construction in them – receive support from Israeli authorities and remain standing. Israel has ordered the military to defend the outposts or paid for their security, as well as paved roads and laid down water and electricity infrastructure for most of them. It has provided support through various government ministries, the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization and regional councils in the West Bank. It has also subsidized financial endeavors in the outposts, including agricultural facilities, provided support for new farmers and for shepherding, allocated water and legally defended outposts in petitions for their removal.
In the past, the state announced its intention to enforce the law on outposts in the future and even gave the international community assurances to that effect. These promises were never fulfilled. In March 2011, the state changed its policy and introduced a distinction: on one hand, outposts built on land registered as “state land”, on land Israel declared as such, or on “survey land” (land whose status is yet to be resolved); on the other, outposts built on land recognized as privately owned by Palestinians – which are the only ones it intends to remove. This distinction, which has no legal basis, was accepted by Israel’s Supreme Court and ultimately, almost all the outposts have remained in place.
B. Legitimizing physical violence against Palestinians
Violence committed by settlers against Palestinians has been documented since the very early days of the occupation. It is recorded in countless government documents and dossiers, in thousands of testimonies from Palestinians and soldiers, in books, in reports by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations – including B’Tselem, from its inception – and in thousands of media stories. Yet this ongoing, comprehensive documentation has had almost no effect on settler violence against Palestinians, which has long since become part and parcel of life under the occupation in the West Bank.
The violent acts include beating, throwing stones, issuing threats, torching fields, destroying trees and crops, stealing crops, damaging homes and cars, blocking roads, using live fire, and, in rare cases, killing. Settlers from so-called farms violently chase Palestinian farmers and shepherds away from their fields, and from pastureland and water sources they have used for generations. They initiate violent altercations on a daily basis and use drones to scare flocks belonging to Palestinians into scattering.
The military avoids confronting violent settlers as a matter of policy, although soldiers have the authority and duty to detain and arrest them. Israeli security forces routinely enable settler violence against Palestinians and their property. As a rule, the military prefers to remove Palestinians from their own farmland or pastureland rather than confront settlers, using various tactics such as issuing closed military zone orders that apply to Palestinians only, or firing tear gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated metal bullets and even live rounds. Sometimes, soldiers actively participate in the settler attacks or look on from the sidelines.
Israel’s inaction continues after settler attacks on Palestinians have taken place, with enforcement authorities doing their utmost to avoid responding to these incidents. Complaints are difficult to file, and in the very few cases in which investigations are in fact opened, the system quickly whitewashes them. Indictments are hardly ever filed against settlers who harm Palestinians and, when they do, usually cite negligible offenses with token penalties to match. According to figures published by Yesh Din in January 2020, summarizing 15 years of monitoring investigations into settler violence, 91% of the files were closed without an indictment. Of more than 1,200 investigation files, indictments were served only in 100.
The Israeli apartheid regime and its representatives actively aid and abet the settlers’ violence as part of a strategy to cement the takeover of Palestinian land.
Settler violence has far reaching implications on living conditions in the Occupied Territories, as it has a lasting chilling effect, undermining the bedrock of Palestinian communities’ lives and diminishing their income. Residents describe how without protection, under the pressure of violence and fear and with no other choice, Palestinian communities abandon or scale back traditional vocations such as sheep and goat farming or various seasonal crops, which allowed them to make a dignified living and live comfortably for generations. Palestinian residents stay away from pastureland and water sources that once served their communities, and limit cultivation of farmland. In other areas, Palestinians dare not access their farmlands without accompaniment from Israeli civilians or the Israeli military. Some farmlands have been so badly damaged or neglected they barely yield crops, making the effort involved in reaching them unfeasible for the owners. The result is barriers scattered throughout the West Bank, which, though invisible, Palestinians know not to cross; otherwise, they risk being exposed to violence that may even be life threatening.
State violence – official and otherwise – is part and parcel of Israel’s apartheid regime, which aims to create a Jewish-only space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The regime treats land as a resource designed to serve the Jewish public, and accordingly uses it almost exclusively to develop and expand existing Jewish residential communities and to build new ones. At the same time, the regime fragments Palestinian space, dispossesses Palestinians of their land and relegates them to living in small, over-populated enclaves.
The apartheid regime is based on organized, systemic violence against Palestinians, which is carried out by numerous agents: the government, the military, the Civil Administration, the Supreme Court, the Israel Police, the Israel Security Agency, the Israel Prison Service, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and others. Settlers are another item on this list, and the state incorporates their violence into its own official acts of violence. Settler violence sometimes precedes instances of official violence by Israeli authorities, and at other times is incorporated into them. Like state violence, settler violence is organized, institutionalized, well-equipped and implemented in order to achieve a defined strategic goal.
The combination of state violence and nominally unofficial violence allows Israel to have it both ways: maintain plausible deniability and blame the violence on settlers rather than on the military, the courts or the Civil Administration while advancing Palestinian dispossession. The facts, however, blow plausible deniability out of the water: When the violence occurs with permission and assistance from the Israeli authorities and under its auspices, it is state violence. The settlers are not defying the state; they are doing its bidding.