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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Revenge attacks after killing of Israeli settlers leave West Bank in turmoil

Damaged buildings and gutted vehicles on Monday after Jewish settlers set fire overnight to a scrapyard in the Palestinian town of Huwara, south of the West Bank city of Nablus.

By Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner

When a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli settlers Sunday afternoon in the northern part of the occupied West Bank, residents of nearby Palestinian towns knew from long experience to await sporadic acts of revenge.

But few anticipated the systematic ferocity with which mobs from nearby Israeli settlements responded that night.

Settlers burned and vandalized at least 200 buildings in four Palestinian villages, according to initial tallies from Israeli rights groups and Palestinian officials, and a Palestinian official said that one Palestinian had been killed in the settler attack.

It was one of the most intense episodes of settler-led violence in memory, standing out even in a year with the deadliest start in the West Bank since 2000. It came on a day when Israeli and Palestinian leaders and their regional neighbors met in Jordan to try to calm the crisis.

The scale of the violence has put increased pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing government includes settlers among its ministers. On Sunday, he condemned vigilantism, but his words were ignored not just by the Israeli settlers but by some lawmakers from his own coalition. “I want to see that place in flames, metaphorically,” one said after the arson attacks.

On Monday, the Israeli army said it would send two additional battalions to the occupied West Bank, and another Israeli was reported shot to death in an attack in the southern West Bank.

The rampage against the Palestinian villages followed the shooting of two settler brothers as they drove through the town of Huwara earlier Sunday. The Israeli military said some of the settlers who waged the attacks had been arrested, but witnesses said — and video showed — troops standing by as they proceeded.

Hundreds of settlers, some of them armed with knives and guns, set ablaze hundreds of cars and homes in the five-hour rampage.

“We usually say ‘God help the neighbors,’ because we aren’t usually affected,” said Ammar Damedi, 37, a gold trader in Huwara whose family lives beyond the areas habitually targeted for reprisals by settlers, who are rarely convicted.

But Damedi’s family compound was one of the worst hit. On Monday morning, the embers were still burning in his guesthouse.

“This is the tax for living in Palestine,” said Damedi, his arm in a sling. He was wounded when a settler threw a stone, he said.

The extraordinary spasm of violence came in an already deadly year. About 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the start of 2023, mainly in gunbattles between Palestinian armed groups and Israeli soldiers, and at least 13 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The violence is increasing despite U.S.-led efforts to calm the situation.

On Sunday, Israeli and Palestinian officials, along with U.S., Egyptian and Jordanian representatives, met at a rare one-day summit in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba. The goal was to ease tensions before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts in late March, but the talks ended with no concrete plans.

The same day, the settlers began to surge through the West Bank, undermining the work of the conference while making clear its necessity.

“These developments underscore the imperative to immediately deescalate tensions in words and deeds,” Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, said Monday. “The United States will continue to work with Israelis and Palestinians and our regional partners towards restoring calm.”

But more violence seemed inevitable Monday as armed Palestinian groups warned of further attacks; protesters in the Gaza Strip held demonstrations at the edge of the enclave, risking confrontations with Israeli soldiers; and settler activists — backed by some far-right members of the governing coalition — called for Israelis to gather at friction points in the West Bank after the funerals of the two brothers.

Some senior government ministers called for calm. “I ask — even when the blood is boiling — not to take the law into one’s hands,” Netanyahu said Sunday night.

But other figures in the coalition set a different tone.

One far-right lawmaker, Limor Son Har-Melech, traveled Sunday night to the area where the brothers were killed and where settlers later attacked Palestinians to “support the righteous cry” of settlers who “came out to protest and demand security.”

A second lawmaker, Tzvika Foghel, said the settler violence was a deterrent. “I am very pleased with the result,” he said. “Wherever terrorists come to murder me, I want to see that place in flames, metaphorically.”

Among Palestinians attacked Sunday night, there was a strong perception that the settlers had been galvanized by the governing coalition, which includes several settler leaders in key ministries, including finance and national security.

The government was “the main reason” for the settler violence, Damedi said. Even during earlier periods of heightened violence, in the late 1980s and early 2000s, he said, violent settlers “never came this far into the town and never went from one village to another like they went last night.”

Asked why the Israeli army did not prevent the settler violence, and even stood by as some attacks took place, a military official, who requested anonymity in line with protocol, acknowledged mistakes and said commanders had not expected the settlers to fan out through Huwara’s backstreets instead of remaining on the main thoroughfare.

The official said that the army and other security services, including police, were scaling up efforts to arrest the settlers involved in the attacks, and that 10 had already been apprehended. But he said there were no plans to install additional checkpoints outside nearby settlements to detain suspects — even though similar posts were placed outside nearby Palestinian towns after the brothers’ killing, creating hourslong traffic jams.

The brothers, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, were buried in Jerusalem on Monday afternoon. Both in their early 20s, they were residents of Har Bracha, a Jewish settlement built in the hills above Nablus in 1983 and considered illegal under international law by most countries. Israel captured the territory during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.

Hillel Yaniv, a student at a religious seminary, had served as a staff sergeant in the Israeli navy. His younger brother, Yagel, was also a seminary student.

Hillel was the “hardest-working man we knew — whatever he could do, he would,” his aunt, Tamar Naumburg, said in a eulogy Monday. Yagel, she said, was “filled with life and fun.”

Long-running tensions between residents of settlements such as Har Bracha, which have expanded considerably since their creation, and surrounding Palestinian towns such as Huwara have led to frequent outbreaks of violence.

More than 100 Palestinians were reported injured in the settler rampage Sunday, most from inhaling smoke or tear gas. One man, Moataz Deek, 28, said he had been stabbed multiple times by several settlers, narrowly avoiding serious injury, and held up his shirt to show at least 22 knife marks.

Palestinian officials said another person had been hit with an iron bar.

Israel’s two-month-old government had vowed a more aggressive stance toward Palestinian attackers and more support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But Sunday night, as fires raged in Huwara, many Israelis expressed the sense that the security forces had been unprepared and that things were spinning out of control.

Israel is already in turmoil, deeply divided over the new government’s plans for a drastic judicial overhaul that critics say will undermine the country’s democratic foundations and, indirectly, its armed forces. Reservist soldiers have increasingly expressed concerns about serving a country undergoing such judicial change.

Settlers also returned Sunday night to an unauthorized Jewish settlement outpost, Evyatar, another West Bank friction point, which was evacuated by the previous government. Israeli forces were trying to evacuate the outpost again Monday.

In Huwara, Palestinians were bracing for more violence.

The Damedis recounted how four generations of the family had taken shelter in bathrooms and bedrooms to avoid stones being thrown through their windows by settlers.

But worse is to come, predicted Jamelah Damedi, 59, Ammar’s mother.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” she said.

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