Pogrom. It is an emotive word for anyone familiar with Jewish history. When there is a serious claim that Jews are guilty of being perpetrators, rather than victims, that in some respects makes it doubly disturbing.
The word came to English from Russian via Yiddish. In the original Russian pogromu meaning devastation or destruction. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a wave of pogroms aimed at Jewish populations within the Russian empire. Later on they came to Nazi Germany with Kristallnacht in 1938, known in German as the Novemberpogrome, being the most notorious. In that violent confrontation 91 Jews were murdered and about 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes and schools were plundered. Some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Earlier this week there was at the very least a violent riot by Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Huwara. They went on a rampage for hours in which they assaulted individuals and torched buildings, cars, homes and trees. While this was happening a Palestinian man, Sameh Aqtash, was killed by gunfire, probably by settlers, in a nearby town. It was alleged that the Israeli security forces did little or nothing to stop the entire outrage.
Reactions among Israelis were mixed. Bezalel Smotrich, the minister of finance, called for Huwara to be “wiped out” in the aftermath of the riots. Later on, after a strong American rebuke, he “clarified” his remarks to say he had meant terrorism should be eradicated from the area. The term ‘far right’ is grossly overused nowadays but in relation to Smotrich and some of his colleagues it is justified.
On the other hand, many Israelis were shocked by the violent scenes at Huwara. A solidarity march by Israeli peace activists was blocked by Israeli security forces. And a crowdfunding campaign raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help compensate the victims.
The Huwara rampage followed shortly after the terrorist killing of two Israeli settlers as they drove through the town. Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, two brothers, were shot at close range. After the settler rampage an Israeli-American, Elan Ganeles, was shot on a main road further south near the town of Jericho.
It is all too easy to file these tragedies under the banal heading of ‘cycle of violence’. But this explains nothing. It is necessary to try to restrain the emotions and look at the situation more analytically to understand what is going on.
The first thing to note is that the recent upsurge in West Bank has gone on for over a year. Last year was already a record one for violence against Palestinians according to at least one estimate. In other words the escalation started before the Israeli elections of November 2022 when several far right politicians ended up in prominent government positions. Indeed the success of the far right – winning 14 out of 120 parliamentary seats - can itself be seen as in part a reaction to Palestinian violence. Israelis were subject to over 5,000 terror attacks last year according to an estimate from Israel’s prime minister’s office.
Essentially what is happening is that the Palestinian Authority (PA) – the body that administers the Palestinian population centres in the West Bank – has more-or-less collapsed in part of the northern West Bank. These includes towns such as Nablus and Jenin which are now under the control of Islamist groups. Essentially Palestinian nationalist forces, which control the PA, have largely disintegrated and Islamist groups are taking their place on the ground. These groups are openly committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of its people.
So, to put it mildly, there is no easy solution to this conflict. The Israelis are facing an enemy, in Islamist groups, committed to destroying their state and killing its Jewish citizens. On the other hand, the Palestinians on the West Bank have their rights severely curtailed and face increasingly violent incursions by settlers.
Any solution will have to come from the people in the region, that is what self-determination means, but it does not follow that there is nothing outsiders can do. For one thing it helps to understand the conflict better rather than reducing it to a simple morality tale about good and evil. The Jewish population largely ended up in Israel as a result of persecution elsewhere. It is widely recognised that many escaped from Europe under the Nazi regime and in its aftermath. A substantial number also fled from an upsurge of anti-Semitism in the Arab world shortly after Israel was founded in 1948.
The Palestinians should not be blamed for this history of persecution elsewhere but they have ultimately proved to be the indirect victims of it. Indeed the Palestinians emerged as a distinct national entity as an unintended consequence of Jewish settlement. If there had been no Israel the Palestinians would probably have been seen as just another part of a broader Arab entity.
Nor should the broader regional context be forgotten. The Arab regimes have proved wary of the Palestinians and reluctant to absorb refugees into their own societies. They have also manipulated the Palestinian cause for their own at times; providing lip service as a way of bolstering their own shaky legitimacy.
To make matters worse, as I have previously argued, the emergence of Islamism as a political force has made the conflict even more intractable. Not only are Islamists mortally hostile to Israel but, contrary to a widespread misconception, they do not support Palestinian self-determination. They see the destruction of Israel as a necessary precondition for the creation of an international Islamist order.
Under such circumstances it behoves those with an interest in the conflict to at least try to understand it better. It should never be reduced to a simple morality play. That only diminishes the human tragedy that has unfolded.
A good primer is the recent Conversations with Coleman (see below for video version) podcast features an interview with Benny Morris, one of Israel’s leading historians. Morris is the author of, among other books, Righteous Victims, which describes itself as a history of the Zionist-Arab conflict from 1881-2001 (in the updated edition).
The podcast itself covers similar ground to the book. It is an attempt to provide a balanced historical account of the conflict between the Zionist movement, and later Israel, and the indigenous population. That is no easy task. Both sides should have their rights recognised but neither comes out of the conflict entirely blameless.