Why there are no two sides to the Huwara pogrom

Huwara is not a story of ‘two sides fighting each other.’ It’s the story of a regional superpower that tramples over millions of disenfranchised people.


Nawal Domedi looks at the entrance to her house after it had been burned in a settler pogrom in the Palestinian town of Huwara, West Bank, February 28, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

Haggai Matar, +972 Magazine, March 2, 2023

This article originally appeared in “The Landline,” +972’s weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.

On Sunday morning, a Palestinian man shot dead two Israeli settlers — the young brothers Hillel and Yagel Yaniv — as they drove through the Palestinian town of Huwara in the occupied West Bank. Later that day, hundreds of settlers went on an hours-long rampage through Huwara and several neighboring villages, burning dozens of cars and houses (some with people inside), throwing stones at ambulances, wounding Palestinians, and killing livestock. One Palestinian man, Sameh Aqtash, was shot dead, either by settlers or by soldiers who protected them.

The attack on Huwara, which many are calling a pogrom, has generated a public outcry in Israel against the settlers who committed it. Thousands took to the streets in several cities on Monday night to protest against the occupation and in solidarity with the people of Huwara. Israelis donated over a million shekels within 24 hours to support the victims. News commentators and members of Knesset from the opposition sharply criticized the settlers, the army that did not act to stop them, and senior government ministers who encouraged wiping out the town (one of those ministers, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, doubled down on those messages of ethnic cleansing after the event as well). Political leaders from around the world promptly followed suit. On Wednesday, during the massive “Day of Disruption” protests across the country, demonstrators chanted “Where were you in Huwara?” at police officers.

In response, many on the Israeli right and their lackeys in the hasbara world have argued that it is biased to “only care” about attacks by Jews on Palestinians, and ignore the killing by a Palestinian of the two Israeli brothers. There’s a lot to say in response to that claim, and the following is an attempt to do so, briefly:

1. It is tragic that people are killed. All people. Being human means caring and hurting when lives are lost. That is always true, and certainly in the case of young brothers. My heart goes out to the parents who lost two children in one fell swoop. If that is not clear to anyone, it ought to be, and to claim that people “don’t care” about these deaths is to dehumanize them. The claim is even more outrageous when it comes — as it so often does — from the same politicians who justify Israeli onslaughts against Palestinians and show little or no regret for the deaths of the latter.

2. There is an entire system in place designed to prevent and respond to the killings of Israeli Jews. An army, a police force, a Border Police force, a Shin Bet, even a Mossad if needed, and a whole state built exclusively to protect Jews. Palestinians, on the other hand, have no one to protect them. The army is often either silent in the face of settler terror or joins in and backs it up, as we have shown in the past in the case of joint settler-soldier militias attacking and killing Palestinians.

In rare and extreme cases, as with Huwara this week, soldiers may intervene and rescue Palestinians from their burning homes so they don’t die. Still, those same soldiers would never think to shoot the rioters, as they would have undoubtedly done had they been Palestinian, or even carry out mass arrests; only seven settlers out of the hundreds who participated in the attack were arrested — not for attacking Palestinians, incidentally, but for attacking soldiers — and all of them were quickly released (for the sake of comparison, more than twice that number were arrested in last Saturday’s nonviolent protest against the government in Tel Aviv, and more than four times that number was arrested during the demonstrations on Wednesday).

Even now, three days later, the army continues talking about the “hunt for the terrorist,” i.e. the Palestinian man who shot the Israeli brothers, but no one is talking about the hunt for whoever killed Sameh Aqtash, or for those who set fire to family homes in Huwara. That is why we need to scream out especially loudly against Jewish terrorists.

An Israeli settler tries to attack Palestinians in the town of Huwara a day after the pogrom, February 27, 2023.

An Israeli settler tries to attack Palestinians in Huwara a day after the pogrom, February 27, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

3. There is a difference between actions by individuals from an oppressed group who kill people from the powerful group, and violence from the strong side that is carried out by the state or backed up by it. Pogroms like we saw in Huwara, just like the Israeli Air Force’s bombings in Gaza that wipe out entire families, are not a bug but a feature of the regime that we have created here.

4. Accordingly, our responsibility as Israelis for the actions of other Israelis, from the side that holds all the power, is not the same as our responsibility for the actions of Palestinians.

5. There is something deceptive in framing the story exclusively around the killing of the Israeli brothers in Huwara that morning, as if the settlers’ actions were a mere “response,” a tit-for-tat initiated by Palestinians. Just a few days prior, the Israeli army killed 11 people in Nablus, some armed and several not, in a brutal daylight raid; there’s no reason to “start the clock” only with the Yaniv brothers’ killing. Besides, Palestinians have been denied basic rights under the Israeli regime for decades — but this rarely, if ever, factors into the way these events are framed.

6. Which leads me to my final point: this is not a story of “two sides fighting each other.” There is no equality under apartheid. There is one regional superpower that has one of the strongest and most sophisticated armies in the world, and which enjoys tremendous international support while trampling millions of disenfranchised people under a racist military regime. The ultimate responsibility for everything that happens in this country, including the killing of the brothers, lies with the state that perpetuates this injustice and oppression, and on all of us as its citizens.

Palestinians as a people, and even the Palestinian Authority, which for years has been operating as a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation, have no way to prevent the next attack by individual Palestinians, or the one after it. Israel, too, cannot prevent all attacks, but what it can and must do is choose a path based on equality and justice for all. And that is up to us.

Thanks to Sol Salbe for assistance in translation from Hebrew.

 

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