Police minister clowns around with settlers for Purim in flashpoint Hebron

Wearing costume combining uniforms of various security branches, Ben Gvir cuts loose with fellow hardliners in divided West Bank city amid roiling tensions

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, center, dressed in a costume combining elements of various uniforms of forces under his command, celebrates the Jewish holiday of Purim, in the West Bank city of Hebron, March 7, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, center, dressed in a costume combining elements of various uniforms of forces under his command, celebrates the Jewish holiday of Purim, in the West Bank city of Hebron, March 7, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir joined Jewish revelers in the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday, dancing with residents from the hard-line settler community as they celebrated the holiday of Purim.

Ben Gvir — dressed in a costume combining elements of various uniforms of forces under his command — danced, sang, and took selfies with party-goers and soldiers at an event in an Israeli settlement in Hebron. Ben Gvir, an ultranationalist politician in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, lives in an adjacent settlement, and usually attends Purim celebrations in the city.

Hebron is a contested city that is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site considered holy to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Hundreds of hard-line settlers live in fortified enclaves under military protection in the heart of a city of more than 200,000 Palestinians.

Tuesday’s celebration came under heavy security and passed from an Israel-controlled enclave where settlers live to the downtown area, also controlled by Israel, where Palestinians have been evicted or forced to close shops over the years.

Ben Gvir, who leads an ultranationalist faction in Netanyahu’s government, has been a well-known face in Hebron for many years. Before entering office, he was arrested dozens of times and was once convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terrorist group; he was not drafted for mandatory military service because of his extremist activities.

Until recently, he hung a photo in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, a radical settler, who in 1994, killed 29 Palestinians during prayers in the tomb, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. The shooting happened on Purim that year.

On Purim in 2016, Israeli soldier Elor Azaria shot dead a disarmed Palestinian assailant in Hebron, in an incident that drew widespread condemnation. He was later convicted of manslaughter and jailed. A year later, Ben Gvir dressed as Azaria for Purim while partying in Hebron.

Surrounded by bodyguards, Ben Gvir on Tuesday held a child and shook hands with the crowd as he explained the significance of his costume. “We love all of you, members of the security forces,” he said.

The celebrations came at a time of heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians across the West Bank.

As Ben Gvir partied in Hebron, at least 6 Palestinians were killed Tuesday during an Israel Defense Forces raid in Jenin, among them the alleged terrorist who gunned down two Israeli brothers in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26.

In response to the killings last week, a mob of settlers set buildings and cars on fire on February 26. Fresh violence erupted in Huwara on Monday night as settlers re-entered the town, leaving a Palestinian man injured.

There were conflicting accounts about what sparked Monday’s violence.

Settlers attack a Palestinian vehicle in Huwara on March 6, 2023. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Initially, Palestinian officials said, a group of settlers came to the main Huwara thoroughfare in a van, blasting music in what they described as a “provocation.” Monday evening marked the beginning of Purim, which is typically celebrated with costumes and revelry.

Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, said several settlers attacked a supermarket. Paramedics said that one man was treated for a head injury.

Security camera footage from near the shop appeared to show settlers throwing rocks at it, and Palestinians hurling stones back. Outside, Israeli men dressed in black are seen hurling stones and pounding the windows of a car with occupants inside.

Local Palestinian residents protested nearby, shouting “God is great,” in Arabic. Israeli media said Palestinians also threw rocks at Israeli cars passing through Huwara, damaging four vehicles.

The Israeli military said there were “several violent confrontations” on Monday night, and that soldiers dispersed the crowds.

Amateur video footage appeared to show settlers dancing with soldiers on the main Huwara road, alongside a van with the words “Happy Purim” emblazoned on the side. The army said the soldiers’ conduct was “not aligned with the behavior expected” and that the incident was under review.

Settlers celebrating Purim are seen dancing with IDF troops in the West Bank town of Huwara, March 6, 2023. (Screenshot/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

More than 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, about half of them fighters, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 14, all but one of them civilians, during that same time. It has been one of the deadliest periods between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in years.

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