Following the murder of two Israeli brothers in the West Bank village of Huwara on Feb. 26, members of the Israeli settler community carried out what can only be described as a “pogrom” in the village, in the words of Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, head of the Israeli military’s Central Command in charge of the West Bank. Even though the settlers had published their intention to carry out a reprisal in the village in the social media, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) did not prevent the attack, and it took time before sufficient forces entered the village and managed to restore order. During the attack, dozens of homes and cars were intentionally set on fire, 387 Palestinians were injured and one Palestinian man was killed. Some of the few IDF soldiers who were in the village stood by while settlers went on the rampage. Officers from the Israeli Civil Administration were able to save Palestinians from burning houses.
The West Bank is occupied territory and the duty of the military to protect the local population there is beyond dispute. Apart from Article 43 of the Hague Regulations that places the general duty on the occupying power to maintain public order, Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention demands that members of the local population “shall be protected especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof.”
The Israeli authorities have never denied the existence of this duty, which has been stressed on a number of occasions by the Israel Supreme Court, but they have consistently failed to fulfil it. This failure has been documented in official reports, beginning with the Karp Report (1982) and the Shamgar Report on the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre (1994), and in a long series of civil society reports (for example, here and here).
In the present political context, since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline new government took office at the end of December this failure has become a matter of a grave and immediate concern. Warnings of a new level of threat are not based on a slip of the tongue by some politician. Rather they flow from the founding principles of the new Israeli government, and that government’s actions so far, which reflect “Israel’s Decisive Plan” of Bezalel Smotrich, the minister of finance who is also a second minister of defense in charge of the Civil Administration in the West Bank.
On the day of the Huwara pogrom one of the leaders of the settler community tweeted his support for the pogrom, stating that “Huwara must be wiped out.” Bezalel Smotrich, “liked” the tweet. When asked later why he liked the since-deleted tweet about Hawara, Smotrich said, “Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out.” He stated that he did not support private individuals taking action by themselves, but thought that the State authorities should destroy the village. Smotrich’s subsequent statement that his words had been misunderstood was hardly convincing as the TV interview in which he clearly called for destruction of the village is on record. Smotrich’s latest gem was his statement, while standing in front of a map of Israel that included Jordan, that the United States should understand that “there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people.”
Smotrich’s support for the destruction of Huwara was no isolated matter. The chairperson of the Knesset Committee on National Security followed suit, and called for burning more Palestinian villages. “A closed, burnt Huwara — that’s what I want to see,” he told Galey Israel Radio. “That’s the only way to achieve deterrence. After a murder like yesterday’s, we need burning villages when the IDF doesn’t act.” A member of the Knesset also joined the rioters in order to express support for their “protest.” On March 22, the spokesperson of this Knesset member released a video calling for the destruction of Huwara by the state, declaring that this was the right path for the state to react to those who are the enemies of Jews.
The persistent failure of the IDF to protect the Palestinian population and to enforce the law against the settler community is in itself a matter of extreme concern. In the present political context it becomes even more pernicious and worrying.
Smotrich’s “Decisive Plan”, published in 2017, lays out his program for ending, rather than managing, the conflict with the Palestinians. The first stage in the plan is to increase settlement in the West Bank by establishing cities there and encouraging more Jews to move to the area. That stage is to be followed by formal annexation of the territory. The Palestinians will then be offered the choice of remaining in the area as subjects of the Jewish state (as Smotrich conceives it) which will enjoy municipal autonomy, or of receiving help to emigrate. Those who choose to remain and use force to resist “the State of Israel’s right to exist as the state of the Jewish people” will be crushed with military might, “killing those who need to be killed.”
The agreements signed between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its coalition partners in effect adopt the Smotrich plan. These agreements state that “the Jewish people have the sole and unassailable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlements in all part of the Land of Israel, in the Galilee, Negev, Golan and Judea and Samaria.” This text reflects the first stage of the Smotrich plan. The government has also handed control over civilian matters in the West Bank to Smotrich himself, thereby opening the door for him to begin implementing other parts of his plan. In this context the Huwara pogrom, and Smotrich’s support for wiping out the village, would seem to fit in very well with the rest of the plan – the intention being either to “persuade” the Palestinians to accept their inferior status, push the Palestinians to leave the West Bank, or to crush them and “kill those who need to be killed.”
All these developments show that there is now an immediate threat to the future of the Palestinians in the West Bank, both individually and collectively, that is far greater than at any time since Israel occupied the area in 1967. These grave new dangers should force Israel’s security forces to take the organizational and command steps to do what they have so miserably failed to do until now. Both the IDF Chief of Staff and the Officer in charge of the West Bank have admitted their abysmal “mistake” in not preventing the Huwara pogrom. But will the IDF now take the steps needed to protect the Palestinian population? Since the current threats emanate from the government’s founding ideology, and the government continues its attack on the country’s courts and other democratic institutions aimed at restraining executive powers, one must doubt the IDF’s ability or willingness to do so. In this context it is important to stress the duty of all the states parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure respect for the Convention. As the ICRC explains in para. 153 of its recent Commentary on the First Geneva Convention:
The High Contracting Parties also have positive obligations under common Article 1, which means they must take proactive steps to bring violations of the Conventions to an end and to bring an erring Party to a conflict back to an attitude of respect for the Conventions, in particular by using their influence on that Party…. This obligation is not limited to stopping ongoing violations but includes an obligation to prevent violations when there is a foreseeable risk that they will be committed and to prevent further violations in case they have already occurred.
In this context it should be recalled that in Res 681 (1990), adopted unanimously, the UN Security Council called “upon the high contracting parties to the [Fourth Geneva] Convention to ensure respect by Israel, the occupying Power, for its obligations under the Convention in accordance with article 1 thereof.”
Now is a time of red alert, and the international community must be prepared to fulfil its duty to take the action needed to protect the Palestinians in the West Bank.