How Israeli Settlers Launched A Pogrom
With Israeli politicians constantly fanning the rhetorical flames, last month’s violence—and actual arson—didn’t exactly come as a surprise.
Smoke and flames rise after Israeli settlers went on a rampage in the West Bank town of Huwara, setting fire to several homes and cars and injuring dozens of Palestinians on February 27, 2023. (Hisham K. K. Abu Shaqra / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
He lives right next to the station in central Nablus city, in the northern occupied West Bank, and within minutes he paired with ambulance driver Yaser Antar and was on the move.
They were responding to a call for an elderly man whose health deteriorated at the same time and place as the shooting of two Israeli settlers traveling on the main road in the Palestinian town of Huwara, just outside Nablus. The Israeli army had already sealed the area off after the Palestinian shooter had fled, preventing the entry of the ambulance.
“We reached the elderly man by foot, but we asked the army for protection,” said Hawah, who found that the man’s condition had improved. “The tension and the hatred was very clear, and we knew we would not be safe.”
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In recent months, Huwara—where the Israeli army is in charge of security while the Palestinian Authority is responsible for civil affairs—has become a site of regular friction between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, who both use the town’s main road. Israeli soldiers have frequently been documented standing by or protecting settlers during attacks on Palestinian residents, which tend to increase in the aftermath of attacks on Israelis across the West Bank.
Understanding the intensity of the situation and the likelihood of settler violence in the area, a second ambulance was sent off by the PRCS minutes later to the same location with another two paramedics, Khalil Qadoumi and Khaled Be’ara.
Qadoumi, a 35-year-old father of two young children, had known Hawah from their teenage years, before the pair started training together two years ago. But nothing could have prepared the four-person medical team for the situation it would be forced to respond to in Huwara that evening.
“We arrived into Huwara through dirt roads off the main street, because the army did not let us through,” Qadoumi told The Nation. By the time they got there, “flames were coming out of the cars that were blowing up in the garage that had been set on fire on the main street.”
In what came to be known as the “Huwara pogrom”—a reference to Tsarist Russia’s organized mob violence against Jews—as many as 400 Israeli settlers rampaged through the town as retribution for the killing of the two Israeli men.
Over the course of several hours the settlers burned dozens of cars and over 35 houses—many with families inside them that had to be rescued. One man was killed and at least 390 others injured that night, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
“If I closed my eyes, if I wasn’t awake, I would have thought this was doomsday,” said Hawah.
IDF Maj. Gen. Yossi Fuchs, the officer in charge of West Bank military operations—and the man who originally referred to the attack as a “pogrom”—claimed that his troops had been “caught off guard” by the size of the attack. But settlers had widely advertised their plans on that day, and the army did little to block their influx into the town, or to stop the violence. Instead, Palestinian eyewitnesses described the soldiers present on the scene during the rampage as “observers”; some even shot at Palestinians trying to protect their homes.
Meanwhile, leading Israeli politicians fanned the flames. Zvika Fogel, chairman of the Knesset’s National Security Committee, told Israeli media: “A closed, burnt Huwara—that’s what I want to see.” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also in charge of Israel’s Civil Administration—the military body that governs the occupied territories—told another Israeli publication that Huwara needs to be “wiped out,” although he later walked back the comments following a wave of condemnation from broad swaths of Israeli society, the US State Department, and the American Jewish community.
That night in Huwara, Riham Khmous was trapped with her five children at their home in a three-story building, as a thick layer of black smoke rose up in front of them from the car garage that settlers set ablaze. Fortunately, the young paramedics Hawah and Qadoumi found a way through the fires to get to the house and evacuate the family.
“We prioritized evacuation and tried to put out fires, because we were able to pass and move by foot, while the civil defense [emergency services] cars were not allowed to get closer, so we tried to look for fire extinguishers in the cars that were not yet burnt,” Hawah said, with the tone of a strategist laying out a plan for his team. “We had to do both tasks: put out fires and evacuate residents to safety. Then we could do the medical checkups.”
Qadoumi explained: “When we knocked at the doors, the residents did not respond—they were afraid we [might] be settlers. We had to swear by God’s name, we had to say personal things like our full names and where we are from to get them to open the doors to save them from the fires eating up their homes. It was a night I will never forget,” he added.
In order to communicate and notify one another about the location of the fires, the residents of the town set up group chats via Facebook and Whatsapp.
Ziad Dmeidi, a father of four, locked his family indoors, and discovered that his front porch was on fire only after getting a call from his neighbor. He managed to extinguish the flames, but less than an hour later he received a message from the same neighbor informing him of a new fire at his door.
Settlers placed tires and wooden pallets in front of the doors of homes that were set ablaze, making access and evacuation more difficult. So the paramedics climbed above the buildings to enter from the rooftop doors.
Wajih Odeh, 61, told The Nation that residents who attempted to reach homes that had been set on fire were prevented by the Israeli army from approaching.
“A woman with a hearing impairment was living on her own and her house was on fire, so many of us tried to get there but the army wouldn’t let us, they didn’t even listen to our explanation,” he explained. Instead, Odeh said, the army kept the Palestinian residents cordoned off, without allowing access to fire trucks or ambulances.
Though the scale of the attack may have come as a surprise, violence by settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank is commonplace, and the perpetrators are seldom charged or even apprehended. According to data from the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, between 2005 and 2022 police closed 92 percent of cases of settler attacks on Palestinians without filing any indictments.
Indeed, of the roughly 400 settlers who raided Huwara on February 26, only 18 were detained by Israeli authorities—and most of them were released a few hours later without indictment.
Meanwhile, Israel is continuing its violent crackdown on Palestinian armed resistance in the northern West Bank. Twenty twenty-two was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in nearly two decades, while killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces in 2023 in the territory have already accelerated to a rate not seen since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.