As the war in Gaza escalates, so, too, has the forcible displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank. Is Israel’s approach to the two regions linked?
A little more than three weeks ago, Hamas fighters murdered fourteen hundred people after crossing into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Since then, much of the world’s attention has been focussed on Israel’s relentless bombing campaign in Gaza, which has already killed thousands of Palestinians. But the West Bank, where millions of Palestinians currently live, has also seen increased violence, with more than a hundred Palestinians killed in raids conducted by Israel’s military and clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli settlers—often with the support of the Army—have also kicked scores of Palestinian families off their land.
I recently spoke by phone with Hagai El-Ad, an Israeli activist and the former executive director of the nonprofit organization B’Tselem, which works on human-rights issues in the occupied territories. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what October 7th did and did not change in the West Bank, how the process of removing families from their land occurs, and Israel’s long-term plans for the West Bank.
What has been happening in the West Bank since the attacks of October 7th?
The Israeli goal of cleansing as much of Area C as possible from Palestinian communities is not a new goal. Area C is just over sixty per cent of the West Bank—basically, all of the West Bank outside of the major Palestinian population centers and towns. All of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank are in Area C. The major Palestinian population centers are like holes in Swiss cheese, where the cheese itself is Area C, engulfing everything: the Jordan Valley, the South Hebron Hills, part of the northern West Bank.
These Palestinian communities have been under threat and pressure of military violence and settler violence and whatnot for years already. The legal phrase that describes it is creating a “coercive environment” so that the Palestinians will leave of their own volition—that they will just eventually, one day, collapse under this ongoing pressure. And this is not new.
What has happened since October 7th is an escalation of this process. The Israeli state, through its settlers, is trying to take advantage of the fact that all eyes are on Gaza and is intensifying dramatically the pressure on Palestinian communities. I would assume from the Israeli perspective this has been a success. Thirteen Palestinian communities have basically fled in horror in the three weeks since October 7th.
When you say “Palestinian communities,” I know that can refer to groups of different sizes. What is meant by a community?
Sometimes it can be the home of a few families, maybe some fifty individuals who live in a place, and then bigger communities. Think of a small village: around a hundred or two hundred people, who have been living on the land for decades, trying to make a living. Some of the communities in the South Hebron Hills, what they’re really doing is making the desert bloom. They’re working, trying to make a living from agriculture, in very difficult environmental conditions. And Israel systematically deprives them. I mean not only everything they’ve destroyed already but, for instance, depriving them of running water, from being connected to the grid, from being connected to electricity and basic services.
And also just to be very clear, everything that I’ve been describing, all of these various mechanisms that the state has been using, are backed by Israeli courts, and backed by the Israeli legal system. This is not some random phenomena that is happening uniquely to a single unlucky community far from the eyes of the state. On the contrary, this is part of an ongoing Israeli state project of trying to push, to cleanse, as many Palestinians out of Area C, using all available state mechanisms in order to accomplish this goal. They refuse to give building permits for Palestinians there. And you should think of what is making the headlines recently—settler violence—as one of those tools that has been used by the state when other tools, again, from their perspective, haven’t proved effective enough.
There have been reports that the Israeli Army has assisted or stood by as these settlers have ejected Palestinian communities. When we read that settlers are moving Palestinians out of an area, what does that look like? How does that operate and what specifically is the role of the state?
First try to imagine a reality in which already, for years, you are living in this situation in which you can’t get a building permit because Israel just doesn’t give many to Palestinian communities. So you’re under constant threat of home demolition, and sometimes not only the threat. Sometimes the bulldozers show up. You’re not allowed to have running water or electricity; maybe you have electricity from solar panels that were donated to you by a European humanitarian agency. And even those solar panels sometimes get confiscated by the Army with the excuse that they’re not legal. Sometimes the Army comes and trains on your field. Sometimes settlers show up and rough up some people, beat them, threaten them. Sometimes soldiers come and do that.
There are checkpoints. There are threats. And all this goes on for years. And yet somehow you managed to stay on the land and make a living and try to raise a family under these conditions. And that in and of itself is horrific and criminal and appalling, and also happens in broad daylight. Everything I’ve been talking about now and describing has been documented for years already by Palestinian, Israeli, and international human-rights organizations. But Israel never relented and never stopped because, as I said, it’s part of the state’s goal to accomplish that. What has escalated in recent weeks is that you have repeated reports of masked men showing up in the middle of the night. Armed, masked men.
Maybe they are settlers, maybe they’re soldiers, maybe they’re a mix. And they openly threaten the people in the community and tell them that they have twenty-four hours to leave, and if you say otherwise we would wipe you out. You asked me specifically about the involvement of soldiers, if anyone is now shocked that Israeli soldiers are involved in this. You should have been shocked five years ago. You should have been shocked twenty years ago. Because the involvement of soldiers has been also documented for years, not only with testimonies but also with video footage.
There will be a group of armed settlers who come to the outskirts of a Palestinian community and attack the community. There are soldiers with them who almost always protect the attacking settlers and sometimes join them in attacking the Palestinians. And of course Palestinians, if they try to act in self-defense, will almost always have that used as an excuse to frame them as terrorists and to use lethal force against them. It cannot be overstated how exposed the lives of Palestinians are in the West Bank under these conditions. This is the reality that Palestinian communities all over the West Bank are always facing.
What’s your understanding of what the Israeli government is doing here? And I don’t mean to make a moral distinction necessarily, but I’m just trying to understand how this operates. Is this the Israeli government, the Israeli military, pursuing an active policy of helping settlers uproot Palestinian communities? Or is it your sense that there’s vigilantism among Israeli soldiers and the Israeli government is fine with that going on?
Some readers might think that there is a distinction between potentially “bad settlers” and the Israeli state. The question is to what extent is the state effective in handling these “bad settlers”? This is the wrong way of thinking about it. The uprooting of Palestinian communities all over the West Bank is not a project of the settlers, the bad ones, the good ones, or the other ones. It is a state project. All of these policies have been in place in a variety of ways. There are legal mechanisms that the state has been using to take land from Palestinians and settle Jewish communities on it instead. It’s so cynical, it’s really unbelievable. But that is the way things have been unfolding in the West Bank for more than half a century already. There are announcements of new state land. Who’s the state in the West Bank? It’s the Israeli state. So land that’s announced as state land is public land, and then cannot be used for the benefit of the Palestinian population. It’s used by the state for the purpose it wants to advance, which is Jewish settlement, right? And the regime issues building permits for Jewish settlements and issues demolition orders for Palestinian communities.
All of these things that I’ve been describing are official bureaucratic mechanisms backed by government ministries, the Army, the Israeli courts, all of these entities working jointly to achieve the same goal, pushing out Palestinians, taking over their land. When these official mechanisms fail and Palestinian communities show perseverance to stay on the land, then what you have is that other mechanism, the one that tends to make more headlines. You might catch sight of a violent settler torching a Palestinian’s field or using weapons provided to the settlers by the Army.
But a coercive environment rather than forcible transfer is more beneficial for the Israeli state. All of those boring, bureaucratic, complicated mechanisms that I’ve described, the balance there is that, on the one hand, you need patience because you’re making the lives of people a nightmare for a long duration of time. But the upside is that maybe after five years, maybe after ten years, they will just give up. And, if they give up, then you don’t end up with sensational TV footage that might create alarm internationally.
What we’ve been seeing since October 7th, after all these years of suffering and orchestrated bureaucratic violence, are direct threats and direct actions against these communities. It happens very quickly, but it does create international friction, and that is the balance that Israel has been playing with, trying to accomplish as much displacement of Palestinians as possible while paying the minimal international price.
My understanding of the Netanyahu government’s approach to the Palestinians before October 7th was that Gaza, at least rhetorically, was largely ignored, but that many extremist officials would talk openly about the need to expand settlements in the West Bank. Has that changed? How much is this rhetoric about Israelis taking more land in the West Bank happening out in the open and how much is it quietly taking advantage of a situation when everyone’s attention is focussed on Gaza?
The displacement of Palestinians and the growth of settlements—these are two processes that go hand in hand. This is not about this government, this is not about Netanyahu or his ministers. This is an Israeli project that has been unfolding under left, right, and center governments. Each and every one of them have been doing exactly this since 1967. Let’s not be ahistorical. That is a key part of understanding what is unfolding here. Because if there’s a sense that somehow this is about, as I said before, “bad settlers” or this is somehow about a specific individual who has been Prime Minister for a long time, then we’re missing the bigger picture.
I asked about the current government because I’m interested in how they have rhetorically handled what has been going on in the West Bank during the last three weeks.
There is almost zero media coverage in Hebrew in Israel about this. One of the only news outlet that professionally addresses this is Haaretz. Almost no one else discusses it. And to the extent that it is being discussed by other outlets, it is in a very specific context, not about the brutality and the sickening efforts to try and take advantage of the current situation in order to destroy Palestinian communities. It is only discussed in the context of what is perceived to be the Israeli interest of trying to limit the military conflict to Gaza, so that there won’t be another front that opens in the West Bank. So you would have commentators on TV saying, “This is bad for us because if this continues maybe we are risking an uprising of Palestinians in the West Bank.” Forcible transfer is a war crime, plain and simple. This is brutality against innocent civilians that are trying to have a life on their land. It’s not discussed in that way.
I’m very cognizant of what you said. But we have heard over and over again that this is the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. In the first nine months of this government’s existence, before the current war, was the situation in the West Bank different at all?
I think it was indisputable that the situation was escalating, absolutely. But the situation was not new. These processes that I’ve been describing have been unfolding for years already, and the differences from one decade to the next, one government to the next, have been in the pace, but not in the over-all trajectory. Even right-wing governments, when they feel international pushback, would take a step back for a month or two until attention moves somewhere else.
Then they would pick up the pace again. In that sense, it’s always heading in the same direction. This is how Israel accomplished getting more than two hundred and fifty settlements and more than seven hundred and fifty thousand settlers into the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. One step at a time, always trying to fly below the level of international outrage that might trigger a real response. Think about a memorable moment from this government, the pogrom by Israeli settlers in Huwara. Many dozens of settlers were involved in the pogrom. That caused a lot of outrage because of the statement Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, made about wiping out Huwara and so on. That’s like a large-scale pogrom. I wouldn’t say that this didn’t happen before, but it wasn’t a frequent occurrence. So that was definitely a moment of escalation under this government.
How come so many settlers thought that they could be involved in that and get away with it? That there would be no consequences? They have been enjoying this kind of impunity for decades. Not just in recent months but also under previous governments that were more internationally digestible.
What happens to these Palestinian communities who are kicked off their land? Is there any sort of infrastructure to help them? What’s a typical journey like for a Palestinian family who’s been forced to move?
There are international agencies, and obviously they’re doing their best, but what is not happening is the rebuilding of those communities on their land. People will be typically forced to move to other villages, other Palestinian communities, which is exactly as the Israelis desire. And Palestinians will be told openly by Israeli officials, by settlers, that their future is in Area A, not in Area C. Area A is twenty per cent of the West Bank—the large Palestinian population centers.
So the goal seems to be to insure that more and more people in Area C are in Area A, so that the Palestinian communities in the West Bank are concentrated in several large, denser areas?
Yeah. And you can think about this process as the Gaza-ification of the West Bank. One step at a time, Israel is pushing Palestinians in that direction. There will be a number of Palestinian Bantustans, Gaza-style, all over the West Bank. And each one of these Palestinian enclaves is already surrounded and gradually will be more surrounded by this mix of measures, whether it be Israeli infrastructure such as roads or military bases or walls or fences or settlements and so on. And if one visits any one of the large Palestinian cities like Hebron, Jenin, or Ramallah, you will see this process gradually unfolding. ♦
Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.