It’s a dangerous turn when a pogrom becomes an act of faith


(RNS) — Of all the images from the Palestinian village that was victim to Jewish settler revenge, one image stood out in its absurdity: that of dozens of religious Jews taking time off from their terrorist rampage in order to pray, carrying out the Devan Maariv (evening prayer) in front of the burning village.

Maariv, which takes place after sunset, includes a series of blessings, Psalms and other prayers. It is unknown which Psalms the settlers were reciting that evening, but one can assume it was not Exodus 20:3 which states, “You shall not murder.”

“The incident in Hawara was a pogrom carried out by outlaws,” Major General Yehuda Fuchs, Israel’s top brass in the occupied West Bank, told N12 News late on Tuesday.

A “pogrom” is defined as “a mob attack, approved or condoned by the authorities, against a religious, racial or national minority.”

Hundreds of Israeli settlers — living illegally in the occupied Palestinian territories, in defiance of international law — decided it was their Jewish duty to burn, destroy, injure and kill in the West Bank village of Hawara in retaliation for the fatal shooting of two Israeli settlers nearby.

Sameh Aqtash, a 37-year-old medic who had just returned from a mission with the Red Crescent to help survivors of the earthquake in Turkey, was killed in the settlers’ attack.

One of the settlers’ leaders, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has taken on responsibility for running the Israeli civil administration in the occupied territories, publicly called for the total destruction of the town.

“The Palestinian village of Hawara should be wiped out of the earth. The Israeli government needs to do it and not private citizens,” he told an Israeli television reporter in the aftermath of the attack.

The kippa-wearing religious nationalist minister must have skipped Solomon’s proverbs, which state: “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil.”

The American Jewish organization “If Not Now” responded strongly to what happened in the Palestinian village, tweeting: “This is what happens when Judaism is twisted into Jewish supremacy and ethnonationalism. Attacking, killing, and burning the homes of Palestinians. All while taking a moment to pray. This is what apartheid looks like.”

A Palestinian man walks between scorched cars in a scrapyard, in the town of Hawara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, Feb. 27, 2023. Scores of Israeli settlers went on a violent rampage in the northern West Bank, setting cars and homes on fire after two settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman. Palestinian officials say one man was killed and four others were badly wounded. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

A Palestinian man walks between scorched cars in a scrapyard, in the town of Hawara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, Feb. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The aim of the Israeli settlers’ violence is seemingly to force Palestinians to surrender and, at the very least, be deterred from further resistance. But foreign military occupation has gone on for more than half a century, and, even under great suffering, Palestinians have not been deterred.

In fact, the opposite, as Newton’s third law states clearly: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

In just the two months since the beginning of 2023, a reported 66 Palestinians, including 11 children, have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers. The killing of the two Israelis, which set off the Hawara rampage by Israeli settlers, was itself a response to Israeli soldiers killing 11 Palestinians in Nablus, including a child and two older men.

The burning of Hawara then led to an Israeli-American being killed near Jericho.

Even the laid-back Biden administration was forced to speak out against the Israeli settler violence, albeit initially in soft terms. Ned Price, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, described Palestinian action as “terrorism” while calling the Israeli attack “violence.”

Yet Price was forced the next day to use stronger language in denouncing the words of the Israeli finance minister, calling Smotrich’s statements “irresponsible, disgusting and repugnant.”

“We condemn these provocative statements which amount to incitement and call on Netanyahu to publicly disavow them and to oppose these statements,” Price said.

U.S. Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr was photographed the day after the rampage inspecting the damaged property in Hawara, West Bank, but Amr made no public statement.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department released its 2021 Country Reports on Terrorism, citing UN figures of nearly 500 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians since 2021, three of which were fatal.

Though prepared before the Hawara incident, the report expressed frustration with Israel’s failure to crack down on settler violence, accusing Israeli security personnel of failing to prevent settler attacks and rarely making arrests or charges related to settler violence.

In fact, despite plenty of videos and photos of the faces of the settlers carrying out the attacks against Palestinians, no one has been arrested and prosecuted yet. Six settlers were detained for a short while and then released. No one expects to see any serious accountability for this or any previous settler violence against Palestinians.

The most dangerous part of the latest Israeli settler violence is the religious motivation that is behind it. Turning the Israeli-Palestinian political conflict into a religious messianic one is a hugely dangerous turn that could blow up the entire region. To end the cycle of violence, a political path must be found that can give Palestinians hope for a better future, free of occupation, subjugation and army-protected terror.

(Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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