By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg
As 2023 comes to a close, it is proving to be one of the deadliest years in that long and sanguinary conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Understandably the eyes of the world are on the war in Gaza; nevertheless, the situation in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem is escalating quickly, and threatening to become another accelerated phase in the government’s plan to further entrench the occupation toward annexation, while international attention is elsewhere. This situation has been brewing for years, and if not contained might end in prolonged and more intense hostilities between Palestinian armed groups and the Israeli security forces, and with this an intensification of the oppressive measures of the occupation and settler violence.
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the escalation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem precedes the war in Gaza, and throughout 2023 has been characterized “by heightened tensions, a substantial rise in Palestinian casualties, increased settler violence and demolition of Palestinian-owned structures.” This deteriorating situation of an increasing Palestinian death toll, and the displacement of Palestinian communities and consequently considerable loss of livelihoods, is mainly correlated with the formation early in the year of the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. This coalition includes in key positions representatives of the most extreme elements among the settlers in the occupied territories.
To some extent the increased activities of the Israeli security forces in the aftermath of Oct. 7 can be explained by their efforts to deter Palestinian militants from taking advantage of Israel being engaged in a war with Hamas in Gaza, and to a lesser extent with Hezbollah on its northern border. However, this argument can hardly explain Israel’s heavy-handed treatment of the entire population, especially in Area C which is under complete Israeli control.
And for allowing acts of criminal violence by settlers to spiral out of control with at least the tacit support of the IDF and in some cases with its actual involvement in protecting the attackers but not their victims. In one case last week soldiers were filmed singing and praying over a public address system from within a mosque in Jenin, showing utter disrespect. At least in this case the soldiers involved were reprimanded by the IDF authorities, but this is far from being an isolated case of soldiers’ improper, insulting and sometimes deadly behavior towards the local population.
It has been repeatedly argued that relations between Israelis and Palestinians will never go back to where they were on Oct. 6, and it is hard to argue with that observation. What happened on that day and since has proved to be a game changer not only vis-a-vis Gaza and Hamas, but for the overall outlook for relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
In an ideal world, or at least a rational one, this terrible devastation and loss of lives should have become a watershed moment in which a critical mass in both societies, led by a visionary leadership, recognized and internalized that there can be no military solution, only a political one for this conflict, otherwise the current tragic bloodshed and misery threatens to become the norm. Instead, there are those among the messianic-religious far right in Israel who see the current situation as an opportunity to harass and oppress the local Palestinian population as part of their grand plan to annex the West Bank and probably Gaza too, where they are already fantasizing about rebuilding Jewish settlements.
For those who support this apocalyptic “vision” there is no place for a Palestinian state, and there is hardly a place for Palestinians in their menacing mission of turning Israel into a Jewish Halachic theocracy. In previous times these views might have been dismissed as belonging to an insignificant number of aberrant characters who should not be taken seriously. Nevertheless, terrifyingly, the evidence now points in the opposite direction. For one thing, 50 years ago the prospect of more than 700,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in violation of international law would have been regarded as a complete incongruity, but this is the current reality. It has made the possibility of a two-state solution extremely difficult to achieve.
Moreover, probably only a year ago the notion that a far right, led by Meir Khanna disciples in its most loathsome and militant version would be at the heart of the Israeli government, would have been dismissed as scaremongering by Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents. But now these people are at the heart of the government, holding to ransom a weak prime minister who is desperate to keep them in his coalition in order to derail his corruption trial, while they dictate the most aggressive Israeli policies toward the West Bank’s Palestinians since the end of the Second Intifada.
Under these circumstances it is not that surprising, but nonetheless disturbing, that this year is seeing one of the most extensive Israeli military operations for more than two decades, one that by mid-December has cost the lives of 476 Palestinians, 276 since Oct. 7, among them 112 children. Moreover, since the beginning of October, Israel has arrested more than 3,000 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, of which the vast majority are not expected to face any charges but will still be detained for long periods with no due process, only because the occupiers have the power to do so.
Most disturbing is the nexus between the Israeli security forces and those settlers who are constantly taking the law into their hands with complete impunity. This type of abhorrent violence has escalated and accelerated since Oct. 7, including alleged killings of civilians and forced displacements of Palestinians from their homes, with the most vulnerable communities in the West Bank being targeted.
In contrast to most who have seen the events since early October as a terrible tragedy of unimaginable suffering, for the far right in Israel, and some Likud members as well, this unfolding calamity is seen as an opportunity either to brutally crack down on any resistance to the occupation in the West Bank, or worse to harass ordinary Palestinians.
In the meantime, settlers are being armed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, in moves to create what might end up as a militia at the disposition of those who oppose any political solution with the Palestinians, and instead could lead to the annexation of the West Bank, not only perpetuating the occupation but creating an apartheid state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This is no longer a far-fetched scenario, and the people of Israel and the international community should wake up and prevent this from ever happening.
• Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.