Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday warned settlement mayors about a “tiny handful of extremists” carrying out violence against Palestinians that could lead to an escalation in the West Bank, amid concerns from Washington over the phenomenon.
But within hours of issuing that statement, which went further than the premier had gone in the past in condemning settler violence, his office issued an additional quote from the meeting with Israeli mayors of West Bank towns in which Netanyahu also told them, “I told President Biden that the accusations against the settlement movement are baseless.”
“There is a small extreme minority that does not come from the settlement movement. We condemn them and will deal with them with all the severity of the law,” Netanyahu claimed to have told Biden.
While some of the Israelis carrying out attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank have indeed been residents of towns within Israel proper, the handful who have been arrested over such incidents have included settlers. For example, the suspect arrested for killing a Palestinian farmer last month is from the settlement of Rehelim in the northern West Bank.
In the initial statement issued by Netanyahu’s office after the meeting with settler leaders, Netanyahu is quoted as having said that the extremist Israelis targeting Palestinians in the West Bank “cause great damage to the State of Israel.”
According to that statement, Netanyahu said that while most of the half a million West Bank settlers are law-abiding people who contribute a great deal to the country, “there is a tiny handful of people… who take the law into their own hands.”
“We are not prepared to tolerate this,” he said, “and we will work against this in every way. It causes huge international damage to the State of Israel and does not represent the people sitting here.”
Since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas on October 7, there has been a spike in reported incidents of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank including multiple deaths.
The Yesh Din rights group said Friday that there had been over 172 incidents of settler violence and harassment against Palestinians in at least 84 Palestinian towns and communities in the West Bank since Hamas’s terror onslaught.
The issue has risen toward the top of the US agenda, with President Joe Biden and his top aides speaking out regularly in recent weeks about their concern over the phenomenon while also raising the issue in meetings and calls with Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that he received assurances from Israeli leaders that they would condemn settler violence, clamp down on it and prosecute those responsible.
But Netanyahu’s response appeared to reflect the limited degree of political maneuverability that he has to condemn the issue given the presence of hardline settlers and far-right nationalists in his government.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir tried to downplay the phenomenon of deadly settler violence when the head of the Shin Bet Ronen Bar raised concerns at a recent cabinet meeting, Channel 12 reported Friday.
Ben Gvir reportedly asked why so much attention needed to be given to the “graffiti” Israeli youth are daubing on Palestinian property.
According to Channel 12, Bar has alerted the war cabinet, wider cabinet, and the defense establishment about concerns of an eruption of violence in the West Bank, noting an increase in settler violence and clashes with Palestinians amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
Netanyahu’s decision to meet settler mayors on Wednesday before sitting down with municipal leaders from towns along the Gaza border who were attacked during the October 7 Hamas onslaught sparked fury among the latter group.
In an attempt at damage control, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying that he had already spoken with all of the southern town mayors over the phone and even met with some of them in person. Moreover, he will sit down with the group of southern town municipal leaders on Friday in a meeting that his office claimed was scheduled before the uproar over his meeting with the settler leaders.
Also on Wednesday, seven Democratic senators sent a letter to Biden urging him to further intensify Washington’s efforts to combat the uptick of settler violence, arguing that the deadly phenomenon threatens stability in the West Bank as well as broader US national security interests.
The senators who wrote to Biden acknowledged his administration’s efforts on the issue but asserted that more can be done due to what they said are the threats posed by settler violence.
“We urge your administration to enhance its diplomatic efforts to prevent further violence,” the US lawmakers wrote in the letter organized by Sen. Jon Ossoff and shared exclusively with The Times of Israel.
Also signing the letter were Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner, Senate Armed Services Committee chair Jack Reed along with Sens. John Hickenlooper, Martin Heinrich, Tim Kaine and Chris Van Hollen.
“As Israel confronts the atrocities of the October 7th Hamas attacks, and threats in Gaza and southern Lebanon, it is crucial that US and Israeli policy reinforce the stability and security of the West Bank,” the senators said. “Alarming incidents of violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians represent an acute destabilizing risk that must be mitigated to prevent wider conflict in the region.”
“If additional action to prevent these violent attacks is not taken, we worry that civilians and US national security interests will suffer grave harm,” the letter read, noting the likelihood of exacerbating anger in the West Bank and across the Arab world.