Are settler politics running unchecked in Israel?

While far-right settler sentiments have always existed, they seem to be having a louder and louder say in Israel today.

Israeli Knesset members Bezalel Smotrich, second left, visits a house in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem
Bezalel Smotrich, second from left, visits the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem on May 10, 2021. Plans are under way to evict Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah to give them to Israeli settlers [Sebastian Scheiner/AP Photo]

In Israel, the far right is increasingly influential in politics, with a government reliant for its existence on a settler movement driving an ever-more extreme agenda.

Analysts point out that settler and ultra-right-wing voices have come to dominate the cabinet, providing legal and political cover for even more expansion into internationally recognised Palestinian territory, and underpinning much of the ferocity of Israel’s war on Gaza.

And yet, despite that, and irrespective of the international criticism of Israel that continues to grow, the United States continues to fund it.

US lawmakers in the Senate voted on Tuesday, by an overwhelming majority, to transfer $17bn in military aid to Israel.

Celebrating the passage of the bill, House House Majority leader Chuck Schumer told the Senate: “Tonight we tell our allies: ‘We stand with you.’

“We tell our adversaries: ‘Don’t mess with us.’ We tell the world: ‘The United States will do everything to safeguard democracy and our way of life.’”

Settlers and politics

But in Israel, “democracy” and the system that Schumer and other US politicians back involves the illegal settlement of occupied Palestinian land, displacing the native population, and creating a dual system of governance, with Jews ruled under Israeli civil law, and occupied Palestinians under military law.

These settlements now dot much of the occupied West Bank, either gathering in established clusters, or in outposts that even the Israeli state deems illegal, but does little about.

As their numbers and political support have grown, settlers have become more confident, attacking Palestinian villages in well-armed and coordinated raids, occasionally with military support, and evicting Palestinian villagers.

In tandem with the expansion of the settlements has been a wider rightward drift across Israeli society, which saw the country elect its most right-wing parliament or Knesset in its history in November 2022.

Among its members are extreme-right provocateur Itamar Ben-Gvir – convicted of incitement in 2007 – who acts as national security minister, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose claims to Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank run counter to international law.

“The settler and far-right movements have been growing rapidly within Israel for years, to the point where forming a government is impossible without participation from right-wing parties opposed to territorial compromise with Palestinians,” Omar H Rahman of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs said.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, members of the right-wing coalition cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speak to a growing constituency characterised as “messianic” in its approach to Palestinians and their land, according to analysts.

A Palestinian man sits near a damaged house and damaged cars after Israeli settlers attacked the village of al-Mughayyer, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 13, 2024
A Palestinian man by a home and cars torched by Israeli settlers who attacked al-Mughayyir in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 13, 2024 [Mohammed Torokman/Reuters]

Settlers’ ideologies – which claim, among other things, a religious justification for their taking of Palestinian land – have been a growing political presence since the 1967 war, which resulted in Israel occupying the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

“The US has played a significant role in this rightward shift by ensuring Israel’s impunity for relentless illegal settlement building, thereby undercutting those within Israeli politics who warned of the consequences of unfettered expansionism,” Rahman said. “This demonstrated to the Israeli public there would be no penalty for supporting those in Israel who want all the land ‘between the river and the sea’.”

Israel has seemingly run a violent campaign in the occupied West Bank in parallel to its war on Gaza, which followed a Hamas-led attack into Israel in which 1,139 people were killed and some 200 taken into Gaza.

As of March of this year, 7,350 Palestinians had been arrested by Israeli forces across the West Bank, many without charge and with no hope of due process.

In the last few days, rights group Amnesty International has sharply criticised settler attacks on Palestinians and what it calls the established system of apartheid that reigns in the occupied West Bank.

In the days following the discovery of the body of 14-year-old Binyamin Ahimeir, himself from an illegal Israeli West Bank settlement, hundreds of settlers went on a deadly rampage between April 12 and 16, torching homes, fruit trees and vehicles.

By the end of their attack, four Palestinians lay dead, killed by either settlers or Israeli military forces, Amnesty said, including Omar Hamed, a 17-year-old boy from near Ramallah.

An estimated 487 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank in attacks by armed settlers, often supported by security forces according to witnesses, or by security forces in near-nightly raids on towns and refugee camps and in other incidents.

Israel’s war on Gaza has killed at least 34,262 people. The true figure is likely far higher.

Netanyahu and the settlers

While Netanyahu has officially rejected settler ambitions for Gaza, he does have two settler ministers in his cabinet and the movement is continuing to grow.

Expectations that prime minister Netanyahu might act as a check on settler ambitions have also proven ill founded. Since at least 2015, both he and his Likud party have been joining with the extreme elements of the right by running campaigns noted for their dog whistle racism, Eyal Lurie-Paredes of the Middle East Institute said.

a bronze statue inside an illuminated incubator outside a stone church
An installation by Rana Bishara and Sana Farah showing baby Jesus in an incubator in solidarity with the children in Gaza is displayed next to the Church of Nativity on December 24, 2023, in Bethlehem, the occupied West Bank [Maja Hitij/Getty Images]

“It’s not just about the present,” Lurie-Paredes added, “It’s about the future.

“Most political party, not just Likud, has ever really opposed the settlements. They’re a winning card. The main two sectors of the population of settlers – national orthodox and ultra-orthodox – have the highest birth-rate among Israeli Jews high birth-rates. Out of Jewish first graders, more than 40 percent belong to these groups.

Additionally, Israeli governments have created a more enhanced welfare state in the West Bank for Jews, offering them better infrastructure and cheaper housing – which or drive people to move there and increase their belonging to the settler movement” he added.

Referring to the years leading up to Israel’s founding in 1948, Tel Aviv-based analyst Dahlia Scheindlin said “Settler politics have always been there.”

“However,” she noted, “it had never really been especially religious. That element only really entered the political mainstream after the 1967 war. From that point, the idea developed that territorial expansion was part of messianic redemption took hold as a specific theology among certain religious Jews.

“In tandem to this was a state that was ready to facilitate settlements covertly. However, more recently, Likud’s own populist mandate has become indistinguishable from that of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, and now we have a government openly embracing settlers, the extreme right and their politics.”

The US and the settlers

The US says it opposes the creation of settlements and has recently sanctioned bodies involved with the movement, some known to be close to Ben-Gvir and said to be actively fundraising for the settler movement within the US.

The US government has also said it is considering sanctions against the Netzah Yehuda battalion, which operates within the occupied West Bank and draws its recruits from Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, on repeated allegations of rights abuses.

Nevertheless, while the US may oppose settlements on paper, the Israeli government publicly embraced the settler mission of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich in June of last year, overturning legislation that had stood for 27 years, and giving Smotrich effective control of the expanded and accelerated settlement-building process. Netanyahu himself has repeatedly rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, and has presented himself as a bulwark against Palestinian self-determination.

Other than a brief period under former President Donald Trump, when the United States supported the notion of settlements, Washington has regarded them as illegal since 1978.  In 1983, the census showed that the settler population of the West Bank was 22,800. It is currently estimated at 490,493.

And now, that dominance of the settler ultranationalist trend in Israeli politics threatens Gaza.

At a “Settlement Brings Security” conference in Jerusalem in January, around a third of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers, as well as up to 15 additional Knesset members, including members of his own nationalist Likud Party, walked past a large map of Gaza with a bold star of David emblazoned above it.

For Palestinians in Gaza, the threat of a new wave of displacement to make way for any such illegal settlement is real – championed by figures at the very top of Israeli politics.

Protesters project a banner reading 'Stop arming Israel'
Protesters project a banner demanding that the US ‘Stop arming Israel’ on the Brooklyn Public Library during a pro-Palestinian demonstration demanding a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, near the home of US Senator Chuck Schumer in New York City, the United States, on April 23, 2024 [Andres Kudacki/AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera