"We’ve proven to Netanyahu, Obama and Mitchell that we’re the bosses in Jerusalem." If we look at the situation on the ground today in the city, most of us will have to concur with this outrageous statement by ultra-right wing settler Ben Gvir, who marched on Silwan along with 50 other extremist Israeli settlers on April 25.
It has often been said and unfortunately it is all too true that the minority settler population in Israel calls many of the shots of Israeli government policy. Never mind that every single settler living in every single home in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is there illegally according to international law. To the Israelis, they are the de facto policy makers, the feared minority and the sector of society that wreaks the most havoc.
A perfect case in point is the Silwan march. The Israeli government was initially wary of giving the settlers a permit for the march because it coincided with US envoy George Mitchell’s visit. Apparently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to spare himself yet another embarrassment after the last fiasco involving US Vice President Joe Biden and the announcement of 1,600 additional homes to be constructed in an east Jerusalem settlement. He even tried to postpone the march as late as Saturday night, but Israel’s attorney general okayed it anyway. This was most likely a face-saving policy for Netanyahu who could then technically claim that "he tried" in case the situation gets out of hand later. Sadly, Israel does not consider the actual injustice of the action at hand (in this case the settler march into a Palestinian town) but rather the diplomatic backlash it might generate. The only option Israel’s government allows itself is to postpone the rally or the settlement construction, not to cancel it altogether.
In this case, the government kowtowed to the settlers yet again, granting them the permit to provocatively march through Silwan, carrying large Israeli flags and chanting slogans against what they called the "illegal construction" in the city –” that is, Palestinian homes, they say are built there without a proper license. The settlers also urged the government to demolish the homes. Whether their march embarrassed their own government or not was not a source of concern for these settlers who cockily reminded others that, ‘Mitchell is not the prime minister" and that they would march "even if Mitchell doesn’t like it."
Naturally, the settler demonstration hardly received a red-carpet welcome from the residents of Silwan. Instead, the townspeople took to the streets, throwing rocks and shoes at the settlers and setting fire to tires along the roads. Dozens of people were injured and arrested during the clashes as Palestinians tried to block the settlers from entering the heart of the town. Silwan is already being threatened with mass house demolitions by Israeli authorities. Around 88 homes have been handed demolition orders by Israeli municipal authorities to make room for the construction of the so-called King’s Gardens, an Israeli national park.
This is not the first time Israel’s settlers have gotten their way. While the Joe Biden fiasco caused Netanyahu some diplomatic discomfort so to speak, it did not stop the government from canceling the announcement. The 1,600 housing units will eventually be built in Ramat Shlomo, the illegal Israeli settlement on Palestinian land adjacent to Shufat.
What about the settler violence against Palestinians? While Israeli authorities claim to punish those who are caught in acts of vandalism, the overwhelming majority of attacks go unpunished or worse, under the complacent eye of the Israeli army. Just last week, over 300 olive trees were uprooted in the Ramallah-area village of Mikhmas by settlers from the nearby illegal settlement outpost, Migron. The villagers, who said this was not the first time settlers vandalized their property, have no real legal recourse and absolutely no protection from further attacks.
In the Nablus area, the assaults are even worse and much more common. The settlers of Yitzhar outside the city are infamous for their hostility and attacks on nearby Palestinians. Vigilante settlers have attacked Palestinians as they harvest their crops and pick their olives, sometimes beating them with sticks or the butts of guns. The Palestinians, who are unarmed and who do not have a strong military machine behind them, can only try and protect themselves and their properties as best they can. Israel’s army and legal system are no comfort to them.
The question is why does the Israeli government tolerate such lawlessness? It is not like the settlers are so acquiescing to government’s decisions. When Netanyahu announced the 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank (which was hardly a complete halt to settlement expansion), West Bank settlers decided to oppose the decision by taking out their rage on the Palestinians. Homes and mosques were vandalized and Palestinian cars stoned and burned, for what they called the ‘price-tag’ for the government’s freeze. Extremist settlers are even willing to violently clash with the army if it means remaining on Palestinian land they self-righteously claim was given to them by God.
The answer, if we look far enough is actually quite clear. Israel’s government may find the more extremist settlers a nuisance and would, if given the choice, confine them to a remote area in the Negev. However, the overall settlement enterprise in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is serving Israel’s long term purposes more than anything else. These colonies are swallowing up land – Palestinian land that may eventually become part of a Palestinian state. If settlers continue to live on it, confiscate it and claim it as their own, this means all the more land for Israel in general and less for us. Israel has always been about claiming as much land with as little Palestinians on it as possible. So, if tolerating a few wayward settlers means the realization of Israel’s ultimate goal of usurping most of Palestine, then Netanyahu just like all those before him, will gladly oblige.