A settler as been appointed as Israel’s military chief of staff for the first time since the 1967 occupation, deepening the army’s relationship with settlers in the occupied West Bank.
Major General Herzi Halevi’s nomination was approved on Sunday, and he is expected to begin his three-year term on January 17.
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Israeli settlers in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank number at least 600,000, and include those who serve in the highest ranks of the Israeli government as well as in the army and the military judicial system enforced on Palestinians.
“It isn’t surprising that we’ve come to a point where the chief of staff is a settler too,” Shabtay Bendet of the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, told The Associated Press.
Critics say Halevi’s appointment reveals just how interconnected settlers and the military are. He served as head of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, the prime special forces body of the Israeli army, as well as head of the military intelligence. He also led the Southern Command, where he oversaw operations in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz praised Halevi and his appointment. “I have no doubt that he is the right man to head the military,” Gantz said.
The military declined to make Halevi available for an interview.
Halevi is a descendant of a Jewish rabbi seen as the father of the modern settler movement. He lives in the illegal West Bank settlement of Kfar HaOranim, built on land from the Palestinian village of Saffa. It is next to the 1967 Green Line, which separates Israel from occupied territories in the West Bank and is an internationally recognised border.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian commentator, said having a settler as chief of staff raises concerns that the military’s conduct towards the Palestinians will worsen, further entrench Israel’s occupation and make the creation of a Palestinian state all the more impossible.
“There’s this fiction that people in the international community seem to have that somehow there’s Israel and then there’s the settlements – as though they are separate and apart from one another,” she said. “But really, in reality, we see that it’s all one.”
The country’s current roster of Supreme Court judges includes at least two settlers.
Settler politicians have long served as cabinet ministers, including Avigdor Lieberman, who has been Israel’s foreign, defence and finance minister. Settlers have held key positions in cultural institutions and in bodies that allocate land. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was previously a settler leader although he did not live in a settlement.
The settler movement embraced the incoming army chief.
“We are proud that the new chief of staff is a resident,” said Israel Ganz, the head of the regional settlement council, which includes Kfar HaOranim. He said he expects any chief of staff to operate with a belief in the “righteousness” of Jewish settlement and “deepening the roots” of Jewish settlers.
For settlers, the military buttresses their presence in the West Bank. The military protects settlements and escorts settlers when they want to visit sensitive sites in Palestinian areas or hold a march or protest. A defence body headed by a general is in charge of approving settler housing, and some of the military’s top commanders are settlers.
Recent events on the ground have highlighted the collaboration between the Israeli army and settlers with many videos emerging of increasing settler attacks being carried out under the protection of the Israeli army.
In one video, an Israeli soldier is seen handing a settler a tear gas grenade to throw at Palestinians. In another instance, an Israeli soldier took part in an attack.
Much of the international community considers the settlements illegitimate and obstacles to a two-state solution.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was created in 1993 as an interim government meant to lead to a Palestinian state on the 1967-occupied territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which never took place.
A two-tier system is in place in the West Bank with settlers enjoying superior rights to Palestinians, who are subject to Israeli military rule, for the 56th year in a row. The PA’s role is limited to administrating pockets of the West Bank, mainly city centres. It cooperates with the Israeli military in going after Palestinian armed resistance, making it increasingly unpopular.