Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionism party in the ruling right-wing coalition, demanded Tel Aviv impose security zones around illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank on Monday. The letter Smotrich has sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant includes an insistence that Palestinians be kept away during the ongoing olive harvest season.
This follows a pattern of occupying forces and settlers exploiting the war on Gaza as an opportunity to further cut Palestinian towns, cities, and villages off from each other via more military checkpoints, cement blocks, iron gates, and earth mounds.
“I demand that a written directive be issued immediately by the political echelon to the Israel [Defense] Forces to create those wide security zones around the settlements and roads and to prevent Arabs from approaching them… including for the olive harvest,” Smotrich’s letter reads.
Murders of Palestinians by settlers and soldiers alike in the West Bank are concurrently soaring while apartheid Israel concurrently wages its unprecedented bombing campaign against the besieged Gaza Strip, killing thousands of civilians and children.
At least 175 Palestinians have been killed, and thousands injured, in the West Bank since the October 7th Hamas attack on southern Israel. According to UNICEF, dozens of children have been killed and injured in the West Bank during the past month.
On October 28th, Bilal Mohammad Saleh, the 40-year-old wild herbs vendor, was shot in the chest by a settler and murdered in front of his wife, children, and other relatives while the Israeli military stood by and watched.
Bilal and his family were harvesting olives on land he inherited from his father, just less than a dozen miles south of Nablus, in the village of al-Sawiya. The village is encircled by Jewish-only colonies, or illegal settlements, Palestinian residents are only able to build and work on five percent of the 12,000 dunums that they own.
The area has been terrorized for years by the settlers. Nihad Arar, the village council head, told Al Jazeera, “[They] cut down our trees, burn our farms, steal our olives, and are known to assault Palestinians inside their homes and on their own property.”
As the war on Gaza rages, settler attacks and murders on Palestinians, including those working their olive groves during the prime harvest month of October have significantly escalated.
Mohammed Wadi, whose father and brother were shot dead by settlers during a funeral procession for three Palestinian olive growers killed by settlers a day earlier, told Reuters that although the settlers used to aim low at Palestinians in the past, “[n]ow, they shoot to kill.”
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that, since the October 7th Hamas attack and the war on Gaza began, settler attacks on Palestinians have more than doubled.
For Palestinians, prior to this month, this year was already one of the deadliest on record. Before the end of September, more than 220 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli forces, including over three dozen children. That figure included 187 people who were murdered in the occupied territories and another 37 killed – mostly amidst a smaller bombing campaign – in the Gaza Strip.
In March, Smotrich proclaimed that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian people.” His party, along with National Security Minister Itmar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party, support massive settlement expansion and ultimately the complete annexation of the West Bank. Additionally, Smotrich has endorsed illegal collective punishment policies and called for “wiping out” the entire Palestinian village of Huwwara earlier this year.
With Smotrich at the helm, approving new settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes, the Netanyahu coalition has set records for illegal settlement construction this year.
As Mondoweiss explains, “Smotrich holds sway over two ministries — the first is the Finance Ministry, for which he is directly responsible given his role as Finance Minister, and the other is a new position in the Defense Ministry, essentially making him the governor of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and most crucially making him responsible for settlement in the West Bank.”
Ben-Gvir announced last month that Tel Aviv would purchase and distribute 10,000 assault rifles to Israeli citizens including within the West Bank’s illegal settlements. According to Axios, the US State Department is set to approve a $34 million sale of 24,000 M-16 semiautomatic and automatic rifles after reportedly receiving assurances from Tel Aviv that the weapons will not be provided to settlers.
It is not at all clear if Ben-Gvir will hold to that promise, as he has personally distributed hundreds of rifles to settlers in recent weeks.