Violent attacks by Israeli settlers and the military against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have increased dramatically over the past week, following a longer-term uptick under the country’s far-right government. Documents obtained by The Maple through an access to information request highlight how the Canadian government has refused to speak up on disturbing details about the Israeli military’s complicity in these attacks for months.
Specifically, Canadian government staff quietly acknowledged widely publicized evidence that the Israeli military stood by and allowed settlers to terrorize Palestinian civilians in the town of Huwara, in a revenge attack described as a “pogrom” when it took place back in February.
However, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) issued only a muted statement of concern following the incident, and did not publicly address the Israeli military’s role in allowing the attacks to happen. It has so far not issued any specific statements about the more recent settler attacks.
Huwara has been a hotspot in a recent spate of settler attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. On October 6, the day before Hamas and other Palestinian factions launched a major attack on Israel, Israeli settlers shot a Palestinian man dead. On October 14, Al Jazeera reported that Palestinians in the West Bank are now living in constant fear, as Israeli settlers and soldiers conduct deadly “revenge” attacks on the civilian population, killing at least 54 people and injuring more than 1,000, including children. Footage obtained by CNN showed Israeli settlers throwing rocks and shooting at a Palestinian home, terrorizing the children living inside.
Mount Royal University professor Muhannad Ayyash told The Maple that increases in settler attacks on Palestinians are an important piece of context in the current escalation of violence.
“The settlers are extremely well-armed and are using military style equipment and firearms, and are actively protected and supported by and enabled in their attacks on Palestinians by the Israeli military,” said Ayyash.
“The media pays attention to the horrific incidents like the attacks on Huwara, but this is happening on a daily basis.”
The incidents also demonstrate the Trudeau government’s double standards when it comes to denouncing violence against civilians in the region, Ayyash said, as it forcefully condemns attacks on Israelis but offers relatively vague statements when it comes to the deaths of Palestinians.
“Canada is not some neutral arbiter in this,” Ayyash explained. “It doesn’t actually stand up for human rights. It doesn’t actually stand up for anti-racism. It is a racist country. It’s a settler-colonial country, and it is part of the American imperial hegemony, especially on this question.”
“When we see these different reactions, it’s not just about the Canadian government being hypocritical. In a certain sense they are, but it really is about an expression of what their active participation in this struggle exactly looks like.”
In a February 27 situation report obtained by The Maple through an ATIP request, the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv told GAC that 400 “extremist settlers” descended on Huwara where they burned properties, killed a Palestinian civilian and injured “many others.” The attack followed a call from a settler regional council deputy leader for the town to be “wiped out.”
The settlers launched the attack in revenge for two Israeli brothers who were shot dead in a nearby settlement earlier the same day. (The killing of the brothers, in turn, came a few days after a major Israeli military operation in the West Bank city of Nablus, which killed 11 Palestinians.)
The settlers “rampaged through [Huwara] and surrounding areas, torching dozens of houses and cars, killing one Palestinian man (37 year-old Sameh Aqtash) and leaving four others seriously wounded,” the GAC report explained.
A partly redacted section of the report noted: “According to eyewitnesses, nearby IDF soldiers failed to prevent the destruction [...] as [settlers] conducted their attack.” The human rights group Yesh Din, the report continued, “blamed the IDF for failing to prevent the settlers from destroying the village.”
Yesh Din described the incident as a “pogrom sponsored by the army and government of Israel.” The Israeli military later investigated itself, and claimed that it had failed to deploy enough soldiers to prevent the attacks. However, a subsequent investigation by CNN found:
“...not only did the forces fail to stop the riots in Huwara, they did not protect residents as settlers set fire to Palestinian homes and businesses and blocked emergency services from responding. Instead, when residents threw rocks in reaction to the settlers’ aggression, Israeli forces fired at the Palestinians with tear gas and stun grenades…”
This contradicts a detail in the GAC report, which uncritically repeated a claim from the Israeli military that soldiers “helped evacuate several Palestinian families from violence.”
Evidence of the military’s complicity was widely reported in the initial news coverage of the incident, but was not acknowledged in the Canadian government’s official statements, which were issued through an auxiliary Twitter account belonging to GAC.
The account, called “Foreign Policy CAN,” tweeted: “Canada condemns the terrorism [referring to the killing of the Israeli brothers] and violence in the West Bank, including the killing of 3 Israelis and settler violence against Palestinian civilians, property and the killing of one Palestinian.” It then applauded the Israeli government for supposedly addressing “the need to reduce tensions.”
After the incident, far-right Israeli minister Bezalel Smotrich called for Huwara to be “wiped out” by the Israeli military.
GAC only commented on Smotrich’s remark when prompted by a request from CBC News. An unnamed GAC spokesperson said: “These shameful comments from Minister Smotrich are unacceptable. We call on the Israeli government to disavow these comments, and for an immediate de-escalation of tensions as we enter the important upcoming holiday season.”
In the months and weeks following the incident, CNN reported, settler attacks continued apace “without recourse.” Only a handful of settlers who took part in the Huwara pogrom were arrested, and all were released without charge.
Although Canada officially recognizes the illegality of Israeli settlements, following the Huwara attack, the government declined to sign a joint international statement with 19 other countries that said “settler violence is a result of Israel’s continued settlement activities.”
On June 30, Canada issued a separate joint statement with the United Kingdom and Australia condemning plans for further settlement expansions by the Israeli government and called for the new measures to be reversed.
The statement then went on to praise the Israeli military and security services for “condemning” what the signatories described as “reprehensible and ongoing settler violence targeting Palestinians.”
The ‘Settler’ Divide
Ayyash explained that since the 1970s, narratives about Israel have suggested that the country is divided between right-wing religious settlers and secularists, who supposedly support a peaceful two-state solution to the conflict. This narrative persists today, he explained, and portrays right-wing settlers as a “nuisance” to the Israeli state and military.
“The reality of the situation is that this narrative was never true,” said Ayyash. “The Israeli government, regardless of its political ideology, has always enabled and encouraged the settlers.” The pretence, he added, has all but vanished under the country’s current far-right government, which includes convicted racists and a supporter of terrorism as key ministers.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s minister of national security, is a former settler leader and draws much of his support from that constituency. Since October 7, he has pledged to distribute 10,000 rifles to arm “civilian security teams,” including in illegal settlements.