Settler violence: Israel’s ethnic cleansing plan for the West Bank

The Israeli state is actively encouraging settler violence against the Palestinians as part of its long-standing policy of displacement.

Illegal Israeli settlers walk with batons and axes along a street as Israeli settlers attacked Palestinian residents and shops in the town of Huwara in the occupied West Bank on October 13, 2022 [File: Oren Ziv/AFP]

On February 8, Israeli settlers attacked Palestinian shepherds who were out grazing their herds in the Sadet a-Tha’leh community, near Hebron in the occupied West Bank. They expelled the Palestinians from the pasture and used drones to scare their livestock. As a result, the shepherds suffered severe losses as many of their terrified animals had miscarriages and stillbirths in the middle of lambing season.

The incident is not unique and it is part of what human rights defenders are describing as “economic warfare by settlers which leads to displacement”.

What happened at Sadet a-Tha’leh is one of 561 incidents of Israeli settler attacks against the Palestinians, which the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has recorded between October 7 and February 20. As of January 17, settlers have killed at least eight Palestinians and injured 111, per OCHA’s database. Repeated waves of violence by settlers, often backed by the army, have led to the displacement of 1,208 Palestinians, including 586 children, across 198 households.


While humanitarian and human rights organisations tend to register these violent acts as separate incidents, they constitute systematic brutality unleashed by extremist settlers onto the Palestinian population of the occupied West Bank in parallel to the plausibly genocidal acts carried out by the Israeli army in Gaza.

Supported by the Israeli security forces and aided and abetted by the government, settler violence is a central part of the Israeli state’s policy and plan to ethnically cleanse the occupied Palestinian territory in order to establish full sovereignty over it and enable settlement expansion – despite settlements being illegal under international law.

The settlement enterprise: Unlawful in its entirety

Settlements are a range of state-sponsored (or largely state-tolerated, in the case of more informal outposts and “farms”) urban colonies built for Israelis in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights.


All Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, as they violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has ratified. Furthermore, settlement expansion plans are often used as a way to consolidate Israel’s de facto annexation of occupied territory, in contravention of the prohibition of territorial conquest through force set out in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter.

Despite the clarity of international law on the matter, supported by the 2016 UN Security Council resolution not vetoed by the United States, Israel has provided the political conditions and economic incentives, as well as infrastructural support, for the growth of 279 settlements in the West Bank in which some 700,000 settlers reside.

The imprint of settlements extends beyond walled urban areas into the surrounding countryside, where vulnerable Palestinian families live in constant fear of attacks against their homes, the herds they depend on to make a living, and their lives in general.

In some of the 16 Palestinian communities forcibly transferred since October 7, such as Khirbet Zanuta in the South Hebron Hills, settlers have already fenced off land, effectively controlling it for their own use, and preventing the Palestinian communities from returning.

Settler violence as state violence

The political positions of extremist settlers, at the heart of which is the desire to rid the occupied West Bank of Palestinians, have entered Israeli mainstream politics.

After high-profile incidents of settler violence, government officials have embraced and expressed support for such acts. Government ministers have openly incited settlers to commit violent acts against Palestinians. Last year, for example, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for the Palestinian town of Huwara to be wiped out.


Settlers enjoy not only political backing but also military support. In the past two decades, the deployment of Israeli security forces to the West Bank to help “secure” the illegal Israeli settlements has expanded. In addition, so-called “territorial defence units” comprised of settlers have been created, trained and armed by the Israeli military.

For years, armed settlers have attacked Palestinians under the protection and with the participation of Israeli security forces.

Since October 7, many army units have been deployed to the Gaza front, which has given the settler territorial defence units an even more prominent role in establishing control over occupied land. The line between the security forces and armed settlers has been increasingly blurred, especially under the leadership of Israel’s minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir. In recent months, he has ordered the distribution of thousands of firearms and other combat equipment to settlers.


Although perpetrated by private citizens, settler violence in occupied Palestine can only be understood as state violence. The applicable international law, including the Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, confirms that a range of conducts committed by non-state actors, such as Israeli armed settlers, may be attributed to the state.

Prominent human rights organisation B’Tselem has described settler violence as a form of state violence, through which Israel can “have it both ways”. It can claim that this is violence carried out by private individuals – a few “bad apples” among the settlers – and deny the role of its own security forces, all while benefiting from its consequences – the expulsion of Palestinians from their land.

Abandoning the duty to protect

Under international law, Israel as the occupying power has the obligation to protect the Palestinian population. Nonetheless, settler violence takes place openly and in total disregard of the laws of war and human rights.


The fact that Israeli security forces have accompanied and protected settlers on their violent rampages clearly indicates they actively ignore legal responsibilities towards the occupied population.

The lack of accountability for settler violence in Israeli courts – military or civilian – demonstrates that the Israeli authorities are unwilling to put an end to impunity. Already in 2013, a UN fact-finding mission reported that “the identities of settlers who are responsible for violence and intimidation are known to the Israeli authorities, yet these acts continue with impunity”.

A more recent survey by a human rights NGO found that between 2005 and 2023 the Israeli police closed 93.7 percent of investigation files concerning Israelis who harmed Palestinians and their property in the occupied West Bank. Since the current government took office in December 2022, 57.5 percent of Palestinian victims of Israeli crime chose not to file a complaint given a lack of trust in the system.


Settler violence has been adopted by the Israeli state as a tool to accelerate the pace of Palestinian displacement. Once key portions of occupied Palestine are cleansed of the Indigenous Palestinian communities, then the settlement enterprise can proceed unabated and unopposed and annexation can also take place.

Given settlement activities are a recognised violation of international law, the international community cannot acquiesce to settler violence that drives Palestinians from their land to facilitate settlement expansion.

There are pending investigations about the situation in Palestine at the International Criminal Court (ICC). ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan has confirmed that his office is accelerating investigations in relation to settler violence, stressing that “Israel has a fundamental responsibility as an occupying power” to investigate and prosecute these crimes and prevent their reoccurrence and ensure justice.

In our view, ICC’s investigations might have deterrent effects only if they covered the role of the Israeli authorities in enabling this violence, but also the illegality of settlements. The “transfer of civilians” by the occupying power is indeed one of the most documented alleged war crimes in Israel.

We also find the recent sanctions against individual violent settlers imposed by the US, the UK, France and other states short-sighted. By targeting individuals, but not the state, Western powers continue to give Israel a free pass when it comes to violating the rights of Palestinian civilians living under Israeli occupation.

Instead, the international community must clearly and without hesitation ascribe settler violence to the Israeli state, and hold its officials to account in the appropriate international forums for not taking decisive action to prevent it, stop it, and reverse its effects.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.