If what is currently happening in the occupied Palestinian West Bank took place before October 7, our attention would have been completely fixated on that region in Palestine.
The ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, however, has devalued the important, if not earth-shattering events underway in the West Bank, which is now a stage for the most violent Israeli military campaign since the Second Palestinian Uprising (2000-05).
As of the time of writing of this article, since October 7, more than 360 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, while thousands have been wounded and thousands more arrested.
These numbers exceed, by far, the total number of Palestinians killed in 2022, which was already designated by the United Nations as the most violent year on record since 2005.
But how are we to understand the logic behind the Israeli violence in the West Bank, considering that it is already under Israeli military occupation and the joint ‘security’ control of the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority?
Moreover, if the Israelis are honest in their claim that their war in Gaza is not genocide against the Palestinian people but a war on Hamas, why are they attacking the West Bank with such ferocity, killing people from all different political and ideological backgrounds, and many civilians, including children as well?
The answer lies in the growing political power of the Jewish settlers.
Historically, there are two types of Israeli violence meted out routinely against Palestinians: violence carried out by the Israeli army, and another carried out by illegal Jewish settlers.
Palestinians fully understand that both phenomena are intrinsically linked. The settlers often attack Palestinians under the protection of the Israeli army, and the latter often launches violent raids on Palestinians for the sake of the illegal settlers.
In recent years, however, the relationship between these two violent entities began to change, thanks to the rise of the far right in Israel, which is situated mostly within illegal settlements, and their supporters inside Israel.
As soon as Ben-Gvir claimed the role of the National Security Minister, he began promoting the idea of establishing a National Guard. After October 7, he managed, with direct support from Netanyahu’s government, to establish so-called civilian security teams.
Even Israeli officials, like Yair Lapid, have described Ben-Gvir’s new army as a “private militia”. And he is right.
Though Ben-Gvir is insisting that the war on Gaza must continue, his actual aim out of its continuation – aside from the ethnic cleansing of the Gaza population – is to use this rare opportunity to fulfill all the wishes of Israel’s political extremists, all at once.
Let us remember that Ben-Gvir came to power based on the lofty promises of annexing the West Bank, expanding settlements, seizing control of Palestinian holy sites in East Jerusalem, among other extremist ideas.
Al-Aqsa Mosque was a major target for Ben-Gvir and his followers, who believe that only by building a Third Temple on the ruins of Islam’s third holiest shrine would Israel be able to reclaim total control over the Holy Land.
Ben-Gvir’s bizarre political language could have been dismissed as the extremism of a fringe politician. Far from it. Currently, Ben-Gvir is arguably the most powerful politician in Israel, due to his ability, using six seats in the Knesset, to make or break Netanyahu’s coalition.
While Netanyahu is behaving largely out of desperation, his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is fighting to redeem the tattered reputation of his army. Others, like War Council Minister, Benny Gantz, are walking a political fine line so as not to be perceived as the ones who have broken Israel’s fragile political unity during a most decisive war.
None of this applies to Ben-Gvir. The man, who sees himself as the political descendant of the likes of the notorious Meir Kahane, is a fervent advocate of a religious war.
And since religious wars can only be the outcome of chaotic social and political circumstances, he is keen to instigate these very events that could ultimately lead to this coveted war.
One of the prerequisites is unhinged violence, where people are killed based on the mere suspicion of being ‘terrorists’. For example, on January 18, Ben-Gvir told Israeli border police officers during a visit to a base in the West Bank, “You have complete backing from me”, urging them to shoot at every ‘terrorist’, even if they do not pose a threat.
Of course, Ben-Gvir perceives all Palestinians in the West Bank as potential terrorists, the same way that Israel’s ‘moderate’ President Isaac Herzog perceives all Gazans as “responsible” for Hamas’ actions. This essentially means that the Israeli army in the West Bank is expected to kill Palestinians there with the same impunity as those being killed in Gaza.
Even though security and intelligence officials in Israel have warned Netanyahu against launching another war front in the West Bank, the Israeli army has no other option but to fight that supposed ‘war’ anyway. Why?
The Israeli army is already seen by a large constituency in Israel as a failure for their inability to prevent or to respond successfully to the October 7 attacks, even after over 100 days of war in Gaza. To redeem their tarnished honor, they are happy to fight a less challenging ‘war’ against isolated and under-equipped Palestinian fighters in small parts of the West Bank.
Ben-Gvir is, of course, ready to manipulate all these elements in his favor. And he is getting precisely what he wants, expanding the war to the West Bank, ethnically cleansing Palestinians, torturing prisoners, demolishing homes, torching properties and all the rest.
Perhaps Ben-Gvir’s greatest achievement, so far, is his ability to create a perfect amalgamation between the political interests of the settlers, the government and its security apparatus.
His aim, however, is not merely stealing yet more Palestinian land, or expanding a few settlements. He wants a religious war, one which will ultimately lead to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, not just from Gaza but from the West Bank as well.
The war in Gaza is a perfect opportunity for these sinister goals to be achieved. For now, this genocidal war continues to create opportunities for religious Zionism to acquire new followers, and to lay deeper roots within Israel’s political establishment.
A sudden end to the war, however, could represent the marginalization of religious Zionism for years to come.
Dr. Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out. His other books include My Father was a Freedom Fighter and The Last Earth. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.