Will Israel’s plan to arm settler militia in West Bank backfire?

Since October 7, Israel has doubled down on its efforts to build and arm a quasi-military force of settlers in the occupied West Bank. But the creation of an ideologically driven militia of settlers could backfire dangerously.  

Clad in either sandals or sneakers alongside Israeli army fatigues, carrying automatic rifles and ferried around the occupied West Bank in militaristic cars with yellow flasher lights, the Settlement Emergency Squads — known as Kitat Konenut in Hebrew — are not a new invention. They have been around since the 1970s. 

But a new report from the political violence monitor Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) suggests that the October 7 attack has increased Israeli and international pro-Israeli support for the settler militia, leading to a surge in their violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

“The growing paramilitary force — organised around hubs across illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank — has accelerated the violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes”

In the months following the outbreak of Israel’s war on Gaza, over 800 new Settlement Emergency Squads have emerged, as reported by the Israel Democracy Institute.

With an estimated number of 10 to 30 individuals in each squad, there are probably thousands of recruits that have joined settler militia groups.

There is an ideological alignment between Israel’s far-right government and the settlers in the occupied West Bank [Getty].

The line between militia and military in the West Bank is now blurred. “Following October 7, members of emergency squads have increasingly exploited the situation and engaged in violence against Palestinians with much less restraint. They have been increasingly wearing IDF [Israeli army] uniforms, oftentimes making it difficult to identify the perpetrators of violence,” the ACLED report states.

The report goes on to say: “Emergency squads [settler militia] are dressed as civilians but carry military-grade weapons, such as M16 rifles that are issued by the IDF [Israeli army] and cannot be purchased by civilians. Emergency squads often drive cars with yellow flasher lights. Since October 7, ACLED records several dozen events that have involved violence perpetrated by settlers in uniform who may be part of the civilian security squads.”

Israel claims that the Settlement Emergency Squads — under the patronage of far-right Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir — are designed to counter uprisings in the occupied West Bank. However, the reality is quite different. Civilian security squads are empowered to use force and perform policing tasks such as searches and arrests.

With this legal impunity, the growing paramilitary force — organised around hubs across illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank — has accelerated the violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes.

ACLED gives one example in Hebron where “50 people in Khirbet al-Ratheem were displaced due to repeated attacks by armed settlers, at times in military uniforms.

In another incident, “five armed settlers in military uniform and with masks forced four households into a single tent, dragging an elderly man who could not walk and threatening to kill them at gunpoint if they did not leave the area.”

Settler or military?

Eyal Luria-Pardes, Visiting Fellow in the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab: “The empowered Settlement Emergency Squads signal another escalation in the “crawling” annexation.

“The privatization of the monopoly on force in the West Bank to settlers and their ambiguous affiliation – using their reserve service, squad membership, and independent gun ownership interchangeably – makes it easier for them to evade accountability, forcibly transfer Palestinians, and influence Israel’s policy on the ground,” she adds. 

Settler militia in the occupied West Bank have been given a carte blanche by the Israeli government [Getty].

The Settlement Emergency Squads increasingly resemble a military force. While the Israeli army had already issued the settler militia thousands of weapons before October 7, since then this has increased significantly.

ACLED writes that, since October 7, “the army has distributed a considerable amount of additional weapons and munitions, including thousands of pistols, M-16 semi-automatic rifles, and machine guns to the squads.”

Bill van Esveld, acting Israel and Palestine Associate Director at Human Rights Watch, explained to The New Arab that: “The numbers of Palestinians killed and forcibly displaced in the West Bank are the highest ever since the UN started recording this data, and this is happening not just due to some settler ‘bad apples’ but with the involvement of the Israeli authorities. Even before October 7, we concluded that Israeli officials are responsible for apartheid in the West Bank.”

It is not just Israel arming the settler militia. The paramilitary units are increasingly receiving crowdfunded support from pro-Israeli sympathisers around the world.

The ACLED report writes: “In coordination with the IDF [Israeli army] and the National Security Ministry [run by Itamar Ben-Gvir], Regional Councils have purchased hundreds of additional rifles for civilian security squads through fundraising from donors around the world.”

One organisation, the pro-Israeli Ari Fuld Project, is fundraising for the Settlement Emergency Squads. The Ari Fuld Project makes no apologies for its mission of Palestinian expulsion.

To justify the fundraising, it writes: “As Israel gets closer to applying sovereignty over the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria [the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank], the ancient heartland of Israel, the threats of deadly terror attacks increase.”

The Ari Fuld Project goes on to ask for $15,000 for ballistics helmets (noting that this is the highest priority item), $2,500 for eye protection, $700 for radio pouches, $40,000 for radio gear, and, perhaps most worryingly, $4,000 for door breach gear. A crowdfunding project by the US-based Ne’eman Foundation has raised nearly $2 million from over 10,000 donors, with the items it seeks to purchase including drones and thermal imaging cameras.

There are signs that automatic rifles, drones, and door breach gear are just the start for the Settlement Emergency Squads. In January 2024, Haaretz reported that the Israeli army is considering a plan to provide anti-tank missiles to the Settlement Emergency Squads, for use in the case that terrorists attack in vehicles.

Israel’s ticking time bomb in the West Bank

In the long run, this paramilitary force of extremist settlers — as well as armed settlers unaffiliated with the Settlement Emergency Squads — poses a headache for Israel.

Eyal Luria-Pardes tells The New Arab: “The Israeli government faced intense resistance and challenges when it evacuated settlers during the disengagement from Gaza in 2005…the combination of settlers’ anti-establishment sentiment, messianic ideology, and strengthened military capabilities would make any future evacuation of settlements as part of a peace solution even more difficult.”

ACLED also warns that if, on the ‘day after’ of Israel’s war on Gaza a two-state solution is back on the table, these heavily armed settlers may present an obstacle to peace.

“Even in the optimistic scenario that would see the revival of peace talks at some unknown point in the future, current developments suggest that the Israeli government would face serious challenges in disengaging and evacuating at least 200,000 ideological settlers who live deep inside the West Bank,” the report concludes.

“An increasingly powerful and well-armed settler movement will, in all likelihood, resist the government, and even the prospect of a civil war cannot be ruled out.”

Chris Hamill-Stewart is a freelance journalist and writer specialising in the business and politics of the Middle East and the Islamic world. He speaks regularly on current affairs in the UK.

Follow him on Twitter: @CHamillStewart

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