On February 26, 2023, more than 400 Jewish settlers terrorized the Palestinian village of Hawara in the Occupied West Bank. For hours, the settlers set buildings and cars on fire and threw stones at inhabitants and their homes. The Israeli police and military forces did not intervene, despite reportedly having advanced warning of the violent plans.
Israeli Major General Yehuda Fuchs called the incident a “pogrom,” in an N12 News interview. The pogrom of Hawara harkens back to the pogroms Jewish communities experienced in the Russian Empire, which sparked millions of Jews to emigrate.
Days after the pogrom on Hawara, Israeli Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich supported the settler violence, saying: “The village of Hawara needs to be wiped out. I think that the State of Israel needs to do that – not, God forbid, private individuals.” Bradley Burston pointed out in his Haaretz op-ed that just as the Russian Empire pogroms solved what the czars viewed as the “Jewish problem,” so would modern pogroms be the solution for what Jewish settlers today view as their “Palestinian problem.”
What Is a Pogrom?
Pogrom is a Russian word which means to “wreak havoc, to demolish violently.” The word carries a specific context, though, and should not be used lightly. It has historically meant violent attacks on Jews by non-Jewish populations in the Russian Empire. These pogroms were organized locally, often with government or police encouragement or non-involvement, where non-Jews destroyed and looted Jewish property, and in later years engaged in beating, raping, and murdering Jewish victims.
Historian John Doyle Klier, in his book Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881‒1882 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), described the atmosphere of 1881‒1882 pogroms in Tsarist Russia as bearing “a strong resemblance to a carnival, with holiday crowds enjoying the excitement.” He continued, “The extent to which the pogromshchiki were not seen as threatening is demonstrated by the widespread presence of polite society, [non-Jewish] men, women, and children, who viewed the disorders in tranquil fashion from their carriages or from sidewalks.”
Pogroms Against Jews in Tsarist Russia
By the 16th century, most of the world’s Ashkenazi Jews lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; however, the Partitions of Poland in 1795 meant that many of these Jewish communities became subject to the Orthodox Christian Russian Empire. Russian law limited Jews to remain in an area called the Pale of Settlement. The census of 1897 showed that 4,899,300 Jews lived in the Pale, which was 94% of the total Jewish population in Russia and 11.6% of the total population of the area.
Restrictions on movement were common for most people who lived within the Russian Empire. However, following the Temporary Laws of 1881 which prohibited any new Jewish settlement outside towns and townlets in the Pale, peasants were granted the right to demand the expulsion of Jews who lived among them. Antisemitic Judeophobia, intense economic competition (72.8% of the people engaged in commerce within the Pale were Jewish), and Tsar Alexander III’s anti-Polish “Russification” programs fueled violent targeting of the Russian Empire’s Jewish population.
Waves of pogroms were perpetrated against Jews in the Russian Empire starting in 1821, and they continued in Nazi Germany, Austria, and occupied Czechoslovakia as “Kristallnacht” in the 1930s. Bradley Burston shared in his Haaretz op-ed how his grandmother was trained to survive the three pogroms in her village in Tsarist Russia by “hid[ing] in the dark of a woodshed at the approach of rioters, she experienced the smells and hoofbeats and terrified screams… To the end of her days, she never healed.”
The 2023 Pogrom Against Palestinians in Hawara
B’Tselem reported that on February 26, 2023, hundreds of settlers were escorted by Israeli soldiers as they invaded and rampaged several neighborhoods in the West Bank town of Hawara and the villages of Za’tara, Burin, and ‘Asira al-Qibliyah.
In Hawara alone, the settlers burned down four homes, set fire to nine others, shattered windows in 41 houses, burned down a quarry, a carpentry shop, a car wash, and an electrical goods store, and torched five other warehouses and businesses. They burned down hundreds of vehicles, including two buses, around 60 vehicles belonging to residents, about 220 vehicles in a car dealership, and hundreds more unlicensed cars parked in lots. They also torched three cars and shattered the windows of 47 cars, five ambulances, a fire truck, and a tuk-tuk. The settlers additionally shattered the windows of the municipality building, vandalized water pipes and two dumpsters, smashed the streetlamps along the main street and the roof tiles of five homes, and set 42 olive trees on fire.
That evening, more settlers escorted by military jeeps stormed Za’tara, Burin, and ‘Asirah al-Qibliyah, throwing stones, shooting live ammunition, and sparking fires at property, people, and livestock. Sameh Aqtash, a 36-year-old husband and father of five children who had just returned from a humanitarian mission to Turkey after its devastating earthquakes, was hit in the abdomen and died of his wounds. Another man was stabbed with knives 22 times. While nearly 100 were injured, including a two-year-old girl, Haaretz reported that “soldiers joined the pogromists in a ghoulish circle of holiday dance and song.”
One week after the attack, Jewish settlers—emboldened by the support of Israel’s new government—warned on social media that they “will destroy Hawara” in another attack planned on Purim. Settlers returned on Purim as promised, wounding many including an elderly man and a toddler. In this second attack, Al Jazeera reported that “Israeli soldiers have been filmed dancing with Jewish settlers on the streets of a Palestinian village where settlers attacked five members of the same family.”
David Shulman: “We know your suffering; it is also ours.”
Israeli Indologist and poet David Shulman traveled to Hawara after the pogroms and shared his eyewitness testimony on the blog TouchingPhotographs.com. Before describing the violence settlers incurred in Hawara and the neighboring villages, he details a pogrom in April 1903 by Orthodox Russians in which 49 Jews were killed, many more were wounded, and homes were burned to the ground.
After witnessing the consequences of Jewish settlers’ violence in the Palestinian communities, Shulman made a point to communicate to the Palestinian residents that “We know your suffering; it is also ours. We share the pain. We know the injustice, zulum, and the terror you live with, and the fierce anger.” He explained to his readers, “[These are] words that can only be uttered face to face, standing on this soil. And sometimes you don’t need the words. Some of the men embrace us like long-lost brothers and sisters. It is one of those moments, like many I have known, when the barriers dissolve, when you change your life.”
Shulman continued: “There is also a line from Kishinev to Hawara. The victims of the last two generations have become the victimizers of the next. Kishinev, too, was a turning point. It remains to be seen if Israelis can free themselves from the invidious role they have chosen.”
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