ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Inside story

Israeli officials: Coalition’s West Bank policy, rhetoric harming US support for war

Sources lament that failure to address settler violence, steps to punish PA are ‘distracting’ Washington while Jerusalem needs its full backing

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

An image that appears to show masked settlers near the West Bank village of Qusra, October 11, 2023. (Screenshot, X used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
An image that appears to show masked settlers near the West Bank village of Qusra, October 11, 2023. (Screenshot, X used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in the West Bank have “infuriated” US President Joe Biden’s administration in recent days, “distracting” Washington from providing more full-throttled support to Israel amid the war with Hamas, two Israeli officials told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity as they criticize the government.

Speaking on Thursday, one of the officials pointed to the longstanding problem of extremist settler violence, which the government has rarely condemned and hasn’t spoken out against since the outbreak of the war with Hamas, even as the phenomenon has reared its head, risking of escalating violence and opening up an additional front in the West Bank.

“This isn’t just something being raised by the State Department. It’s gotten all the way up to the president who has talked about it publicly and privately in the middle of a war,” the Israeli official lamented, appearing to point his frustration at Jerusalem rather than Washington.

Israel’s Yesh Din rights group said last week that there had been over 100 incidents of settler violence and harassment against Palestinians in at least 62 Palestinian towns and communities in the West Bank since Hamas’s savage assault on Israel on October 7, and the beginning of Israel’s military campaign against the terror group in Gaza. These have allegedly led to the killing, of seven Palestinian civilians, as well as numerous instances in which Palestinians have been forced from their homes.

An off-duty IDF soldier was arrested by military police on Sunday on suspicion of shooting dead a Palestinian man who had reportedly been harvesting olives near the northern West Bank village of As-Sawiya on October 28. There have been no reports of other arrests.

According to Hebrew media reports, the Shin Bet security service has warned the government of its concerns of an eruption of violence in the West Bank if settler extremists are not reined in.

A video appears to show Israeli West Bank settlers in an incident near Nablus in which Palestinians say a settler shot dead a Palestinian olive farmer, October 28, 2023 (video screenshot)

Speaking in Tel Aviv on Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israeli leaders had assured him that they would condemn the ongoing wave of settler violence and take actions to curb the phenomenon and to hold perpetrators accountable.

“Extremist violence against Palestinians must be stopped,” Blinken told reporters. “We will be looking closely to ensure that our friends make good on that commitment.”

The other Israeli official who spoke to The Times of Israel highlighted Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s announcement earlier this week that he would not be transferring tax revenues belonging to the Palestinian Authority due to what the far-right lawmaker claimed was Ramallah’s support for the October 7 massacre by 3,000 Hamas and other Gaza terrorists, in which 1,400 people were killed in Israel, most of them civilians, slaughtered amid brutal atrocities. The cabinet ultimately rejected the idea and voted to transfer the funds amid pressure from Washington, but did say it would deduct what reportedly amounts to roughly $100 million to offset the PA transfers to Gaza.

Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan who backed the settlers’ version of events in the killing of Bilal Muhammed Salah, October 28, 2023. (Courtesy Samaria Regional Council)

“There’s a feeling in the administration that Israel over the years worked to weaken the [Palestinian] Authority at the expense of Hamas, and decisions like this only strengthen that claim,” the Israeli official said.

The official also pointed to tweets from far-right members of the government, such as Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu and Likud MK Galit Distal-Atbaryan, who have called for wiping out all of Gaza in response to the Hamas onslaught. These, he argued, have also caught the attention of the US and angered officials.

“We need the full support of the administration right now, and anything that takes away from that support harms Israel’s interests,” the Israeli official says.

The conduct of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has also caught the attention of Washington, with the Haaretz daily reporting that he infuriated Biden officials by holding a press conference in which he passed out American weapons to civilian security squads whom the government has been aggressively arming following the October 7 Hamas onslaught.

Following pushback, Israeli officials assured the Biden administration that weapons are only divvied out by police and the army, and not in political events, Haaretz reported.

The second Israeli official also pointed to the steps Ben Gvir has taken in recent weeks to intensify restrictions on Palestinian security prisoners, which some in the security establishment fear will spark a further deterioration both in and outside Israeli jails.

On Wednesday, the government appointed ultranationalist MK and radical settlement activist Tzvi Sukkot to serve as the chairman of the Knesset Subcommittee for Judea and Samaria, meaning the West Bank.

The appointment was condemned by numerous opposition MKs, as well as anti-settlement groups, who pointed out that Succot has a long history of radicalism in the settlement movement.

Knesset committees and subcommittees are tasked with reviewing and overseeing the government’s activities in the fields under their jurisdiction. The Subcommittee for Judea and Samaria generally deals with security issues in the territory as well as how the army functions in relation to Palestinian security threats and the IDF’s treatment of settlers.

Opposition MKs condemned Succot’s appointment, with Labor leader MK Merav Michaeli calling him “one of the most dangerous people in Israel, a racist, pyromaniac, terror supporter, Shin Bet target.”

Michaeli wrote on X (formerly Twitter), “This is basically a decision to accelerate the explosion in Judea and Samaria, which all the heads of the security establishment are warning would open another front and damage the war against Hamas.”

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