Nablus Has Become Israeli Settlers' Violent Playground

Israeli defense officials are seeing a sharp rise in attacks on Palestinians, and settlers previously thought to be 'mainstream' are joining the ultra-radicals

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A child rides a bike past security forces in Hawara, last month.
A child rides a bike past security forces in Hawara, last month.Credit: Amir Levy

On the surface, nothing about this story is exceptional. A man freed from an Israeli prison returns to his town in the West Bank, accompanied by his friends, who gave him a “victory parade” to mark the big day. But their calls were not in Arabic.

The released prisoner was Jewish, a setter from Yitzhar, who had been convicted of violently assaulting Palestinians only the year before.

Israel's political crisis is far from over – and getting worse

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The revelers, who traveled in dozens of cars, were not only ultra-right extremists and so-called hilltop youth. Also present, according to senior officers in the Central Command, were quite a few settlers considered to be in the mainstream, a force reining in the extremists in the West Bank.

Well, the reins have been let go. This celebration quickly turned into riots against the inhabitants of the village of Hawara. The settlers damaged their property and clashed with Border Police personnel.

Security forces look on as settlers enter Hawara waving Israeli flags from their car, last month.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP

This happened in January. In the months since, settler violence against Palestinians has only grown. Over the course of 2021, security agencies documented 650 acts of politically motivated violence of this type. This number has already exceeded 400 this year, and those are only the cases the Israel Defense Forces knows about. And the change has not only been in the number of incidents, but in the people involved.

In a closed meeting held recently in the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division, a military source said that the security establishment has noticed that increasingly, those involved in these assaults were people who had not previously taken part in violence, and even tried to restrain it. Now, they are on the offensive.

In general, the Judea and Samaria Division is aware of a few specific locations from which settlers attacks on Palestinians originate, the most prominent of which are under the aegis of the Samaria Brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Roi Zweig. This is the man who has in a series of statements and actions placed himself on the side of the settlers, and, intentionally or not, has added fuel to the fire burning in the West Bank.

This includes a long list of incidents, all in recent months, in a variety of places in his sector. A merely partial list includes incidents in which dozens of settlers attacked Palestinians in the village of Qusra; settlers pepper-sprayed a two-month-old baby near the settlement of Sebastia; a group of settlers began a brawl with Palestinians in the village of Urif and threw stones at the local mosque, breaking its windows; and a group of settlers entered a coffee shop in Hawara and began to destroy the furnishings and merchandise.

“Suddenly three or four people came in who got out of Israeli cares and began to break things – the television, the hookahs, the glass tables, everything that was there,” Firas Odeh, the owner, told Haaretz. According to Odeh, there were soldiers in the area but they did not help during the assault, whose damage is estimated at about 20,000 shekels [$5,892]. Lately, we feel that there’s simply no security. The distance between you and death is zero.”

It seems as though a series of decisions made by senior officers in the Central Command, supposedly meant to restore quiet and relative stability, have led to the opposite: tensions that the security services say could spread to all cities in the West Bank. Now, the Judea and Samaria Division admits that it did not understand the extent of the challenge and its implications, and that the military’s response was insufficient and contributed to escalation. It is no accident that dozens of instances of politically motivated crime against Palestinians have been documented in recent weeks.

Soldiers look out a window of a building they took over in Hawara.Credit: Amir Levy

Hawara has become the key focus of attacks against Palestinians by settlers, and vice versa. The showcase marches and the destruction of property on one side, and the stone-throwing on the other, have almost become a matter of routine. The security decline accelerated about a month ago when Zvi Sukkot, who was among the settlers who founded the unauthorized outpost of Evyatar and is close to the Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan – was filmed taking down a Palestinian flag that had been hung on the road through Hawara. This is the main road leading to Nablus, as well as to Israeli settlements such as Yitzhar and Har Bracha, and so both settlers and Palestinians use it daily.

In retrospect, this was just the beginning of the “flag war.” Later, other settlers, as well as soldiers, were filmed taking down Palestinian flags that were repeatedly replaced on the road. One video that flooded Palestinian social media networks showed a settler removing a flag while soldiers secured the site and stopped Palestinians from approaching – and then throwing a stun grenade in the direction of one of the Palestinians. According to the military, the Palestinians had been throwing stones. Another video shows soldiers taking down Palestinian flags in the middle of the night along the same road.

“We have a right to raise our flag. Nobody comes to Yitzhar and takes down their flag. Why do they come to us?” says Mohammed Khalaf, a member of the Hawara town council. “According to the Oslo Accords as well, we’re allowed to fly the flag.” According to Khalaf, the army functions as the settlers’ shield in these cases. “Each time there are flags, the settlers come and take them down. If anyone says anything to them, the army comes and gets him out of the way, they protect them.”

The military’s involvemen tin the battle over the flags was a decision by Brig. Gen. Zweig. Itwould explain in retrospect that the pot had already boiled over into clashes (in recent weeks, reports have multiplied of stone-throwing by Palestinians at settlers driving through Hawara), and that was the proposed solution to quiet things down. In fact, it just heated things up further. Another contributing factor was that the military took over five buildings in Hawara, and soldier defiantly hung Israeli flags on one of them. (Zweig would explain later that the moment he became aware of this, he ordered the flags taken down.)

The decision to block roads connecting the village with its neighbors by means of heaps of soil also did not exactly calm things down. On the contrary, says Khalaf; all this greatly angered the town’s youth, who initiated clashes with the army. One person was wounded by live fire and another nine by rubber-tipped bullets, according to the Red Crescent.

However, Khalaf says the events of recent weeks could have a real, long-term effect on the way the inhabitants view the attitude of the Israelis. “In the past, settlers would come to Hawara to shop, there were signs in Hebrew on the stores,” he says. “Now people have erased the Hebrew. You come and take down my flag and you also want to buy from me?” he adds.

A getaway in Yitzhar

Zweig is in the eye of the storm. He is now marking two years as commander of the Samaria Division. His name is apparently better known to the public than those of all his predecessors, and not necessarily the way he would want. In the background is the spike in cases of violence in his sector. He has provided over the past few months a number of statements that made headlines and hinted to the Palestinians in the West Bank that the military has chosen a side – the settlers.

A car damaged by stone-throwing by settlers in Hawara, January.

The first statement was in March, when he took part in a memorial for the victims of a 2011 Palestinian attack on a family in the settlement of Itamar, in the presence of prominent rabbis in the settler movement. “I told them the last time I was here how much light this yeshiva spreads. I don’t think that people who sit here on the benches realize it themselves,” he said, while in uniform. “You create the light; you are in the light. Every time I come here, I become strengthened by the good people who spread light around them. It is the people of Israel at their best.”

A month later, Zweig was recorded again. This time, it was the night before army forces entered Nablus to provide security during reconstruction work on Joseph’s Tomb (which had been set on fire by Palestinians). In his briefing to the troops over the radio, he said: “In this location, the land was promised to Abraham, as is written: ‘To your descendants I give this land.’” Another time, only last month, when he took part in a conference at the settlement of Elon Moreh, he said: “It has often been said that the army and the settlements work together. I disagree with that, I think the army and the settlement enterprise are one and the same. Anyone who says that the army and the settlers work together is drawing a distinction between the two populations.”

Mohammed Khalaf points out a sign in Hawara that had its Hebrew words erased.Credit: Amir Levy

In that case, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi demanded explanations from Zweig’s commanders, and Avi Bluth, the commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, summoned him for clarifications. That ended with a reprimand, no more. All this found its way to social media and regular media outlets, which was an embarrassment to the security establishment and to Zweig himself. In private conversations, he expresses regret for his statements, certainly that they became public.

He didn’t mean to deliver messages that would reverberate, people close to him say, but prominent right-wing figures took advantage of his “naivete” for that purpose. “The stumbles that were published in the media were incidents that the settlers made sure were publicized. He didn’t realize what a well-oiled machine he was facing,” says an officer who served with Zweig in recent years. “In conversations I had with him, he realizes that in some of the instances he made mistakes and he wouldn’t repeat them.”

But when things happen time after time, doubts arise as to the validity of this explanation. At least on the outside, it seems that there is a thick bond between Zweig and prominent right-wing activists in the settlements.

And there are not only statements, there are also actions. With Zweig’s job comes the perk of hosting his family from time to time at a hotel or guest accommodations in the region of his command. Zweig, IDF sources confirmed, has an interesting choice: the guest accommodations in the settlement of Yitzhar, owned by the former director general of the extreme right-wing Oztma Yehudit party, Zvi Sukkot, who is well known to the security establishment.

Zweig, people close to him say, has his own explanation for his choice of overnight accommodations: The intent was to show ultra-right activists that he does not fear coming to Yitzhar by himself, or with family. Settlers in Yitzhar and Givat Ronen previously tried to stop him and other officers in the division from coming through the gate at Yitzhar in protest over IDF policies.

The soldiers’ dilemma

Zweig, who is a married father of four, is not Orthodox and dos not live in the West Bank. His friends say that he was never involved in politics. He grew up in Haifa, attended high school at the prestigious Hebrew Reali High School, and now lives in the northern kibbutz of Dovrat. There is nothing unusual in his military career. He enlisted in the Paratroopers’ Brigade in 2001 to the Paratroop Brigade, commanded the training school for the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, and was a Patatroopers’ battalion commander and the commander of the commando unit Maglan.

Zweig’s time with Maglan was marked by an incident in which one of the soldiers, Elay Chayut, was seriously wounded after he was asked to jump from a Jeep during training and was left disabled. At the conclusion of an internal investigation by Zweig, it was decided to punish the lower-level officers in the unit, and absolve senior officers of responsibility. However, when Chayut woke up two weeks after the accident and gave his version of events, suspicion arose that the senior officers had not told the truth during Zweig’s investigation. This ended with Kochavi reprimanding Zweig and delaying his promotion by a year. Then in 2020, Zweig was appointed commander of the Samaria Brigade in the Central Command

In a closed meeting held recently in the Judea and Samaria Division, a military source said that the string of attacks by settlers against Palestinians and security forces has grown more violent, with almost every incident becoming a physical clash in which large numbers of settlers take part. A reserves officer who recently ended weeks of operational duty in the area agrees. “I find myself giving a briefing to soldiers before an operation, 75 percent of which is devoted to the issue of the Jews in the area, and the violence of the Jewish residents in the sector,” he says. “During the month we were there, 30 percent of the incidents we were called in for involved violence by Jews against Palestinians.”

And now the question arises as to the connection between what happens on the ground and Zweig’s behavior, or, as some call it, “the spirit of the commander.” Senior officers who have served or now serve in the Judea and Samaria Division told Haaretz that Zweig is not close to settler leaders, nor is he trying to get close to them. The reserves officer added that in contrast to what is seen on social media, Zweig ordered all soldiers to take action in any incident where they see Jews assaulting Palestinians.

But when Jews are the assailants, soldiers in the field sometimes find themselves in dilemmas that have nothing to do with orders, some say. “You come to a stone-throwing incident and suddenly you realize that Jews are throwing stones at Palestinian vehicles. One incident was so severe that I had to fire in the air to move those Jews away,” the reserve officer says. “We are also authorized to fire tear gas canisters at them, but that is no simple thing.”

According to this officer, there were also cases where soldiers were wounded by violence from Jews: “Something has to be done here, decisions have to be made on how to handle this phenomenon. We deal less well with settlers; the preparation of soldiers who come to serve in the sector has to be better.” Before beginning their reserves stint, the officer said, “they prepared us and talked to us about violence by Jews, but when we got to the sector we were shocked at the extent and magnitude of the incidents.”

One the things Zweig did, one of his acquaintances said, was to establish special task forces, in cooperation with the police and the Shin Bet security service, to deal with the problem. These forces did not remain merely on paper, the acquaintance said, but took part in catching settlers who attacked Palestinians in Hawara, some of whom had planned to set fire to a vehicle in a nearby village, as well as an off-duty soldier who took down a flag and was found to possess a number of weapons he is suspected of stealing from a base. These actions, people around Zweig say, have made him a target of the extreme right in the settlements.

Associates of Zweig describe one occasion in which settlers gave him an ultimatum: Either he take down the Palestinian flags in Hawara, or they would send dozens of armed settlers there. In this case, Zweig did nothing except pass on the threat to investigative teams, no other developments in the matter are known.

“I know the area and the job of the brigade commander in Judea and Samaria,” a senior Central Command officer says. “It’s very sensitive and one always has to tread carefully. Zweig, as opposed to what is said about him in the media, was the brigade commander who worked the most against politically motivated crime … He started for the first time intelligence-based operational actions to stop the settlers who come out to commit [politically motivated] actions. He paid a price for this that is not simple. He has been threatened and cursed, more than once in the presence of his family.”

That officer does not completely absolve Zweig. “It could be that he did not know how to set clear boundaries” for the settlers, he says. Among other things, he mentions the Joseph’s Tomb speech. “People told him in no uncertain terms that all he was doing was going in with handymen to fix up the tomb, and he turned it into the conquest of Mount Hermon. In my opinion he didn’t write that speech, somebody told him to say it and he got excited over it without understanding what he was saying meant. I know that he regrets the incident, which was blown out of proportion.”

Sticker flags

Last Tuesday, after two particularly stormy weeks, things were settling down in the Hawara area. There were fewer soldiers in the village and the roads that had been blocked were reopened. The most significant change in the town is that there are more Palestinian flags than ever before. Now, flags can be seen all along the highway passing through the village. Young men have also printed stickers of the flag and are placing them in store windows. In another West Bank village, Funduk, many shops had flown Palestinian flags. But according to the villagers, the military came and took them all down on Monday before dawn. Perhaps the soldiers were from some other brigade.

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