March 4. 2024. 7:40

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Settler rampage inflames fears of greater violence in the West Bank

A rampage by Israeli settlers after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis in the occupied West Bank has exacerbated fears that violence in the territory could spiral out of control.

West Bank officials said one Palestinian was shot dead and more than 100 others were injured during the violence on Sunday night as a mob of settlers torched buildings and cars in several villages in the territory.

The clash erupted after a Palestinian gunman shot dead two Jewish settlers earlier in the day in Huwara, a Palestinian town south of Nablus, where the Israeli army killed 11 Palestinians and injured 100 more last week in its deadliest raid in the West Bank since 2005.

Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official who monitors settler activity in the West Bank, which makes up the bulk of the Palestinian territories but has been occupied by Israel since 1967, said the 17 hours of violence was unprecedented.

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He estimated that about 400 settlers, inhabitants of Jewish settlements in the West Bank regarded as illegal by the international community, took part in Sunday’s attacks, and said that about 30 houses and countless cars had been set on fire. Other houses had their windows and doors broken, while some properties were also looted, he said.

“They were monsters,” he said. “It was very tough for us yesterday.”

The attacks drew criticism from opposition Israeli politicians and commentators, with one politician calling the violence a “pogrom”, and an Israeli commentator comparing it to Kristallnacht.

The eruption of violence comes just two months after Binyamin Netanyahu returned to power at the head of a government widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israeli history, with ultranationalist settlers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, in security posts.

Nahum Barnea, a columnist from the centre-left Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, argued that the empowerment of prominent politicians from the settler movement had emboldened those who took part in Sunday’s rampage.

“The government needs to decide what it is,” he wrote. “Is it resolved to enforce law and order on Arabs and Jews alike? Or is it a fig leaf for the Hilltop Youth [an extremist group of settlers], who do as they please in the [Palestinian] territories?”

In the wake of the killings of the two settlers, Mr Netanyahu issued a statement urging settlers not to indulge in vigilantism. “I ask, even when the blood is boiling, not to take the law into one’s hands,” he said.

However, Mr Smotrich, who has been given sweeping powers over the West Bank, demanded that Israel respond “without mercy, with tanks and helicopters”, while his Twitter account liked a tweet calling for Huwara to be “erased”. He subsequently issued a statement saying that settlers should not take the law into their own hands.

Other members of the government went even further. Zvika Fogel, a member of Ben-Gvir’s extreme-right Jewish Power party who heads the parliament’s national security committee, accused Mr Netanyahu of doing too little to combat terrorism, and gave his backing to the settlers.

“How do we [restore security]? We stop using the word ‘proportionality’. We stop with our objection to collective punishment [just] because it doesn’t fly with all sorts of courts. We take the gloves off,” he said, in an interview with Galey Israel Radio on Monday.

“A closed, burnt Huwara – that’s what I want to see. That’s the only way to achieve deterrence.”

The head of the Labor party, Merav Michaeli, said that her party would ask the attorney general to investigate Mr Fogel for incitement.

“What happened last night was nothing short of a pogrom by armed militias, whose representatives sit in the government today, some of whom are silent and some of whom permit their other [politicians] to say that this was a necessary act of deterrence,” she said.

Sunday’s burst of violence comes amid a steady escalation that has seen Israeli forces kill more than 60 Palestinians, and Palestinians kill 12 Israelis and one Ukrainian this year.

In a bid to restore order, Israel’s military sent additional battalions numbering hundreds of soldiers to the West Bank on Sunday and Monday. However, some analysts accused it of acting too slowly, and said that it should have done more to prevent the settler attacks on Sunday.

“This was a failure,” Yoav Limor, a columnist at Israel Hayom wrote on Monday. “And this incident has more explosive potential than any other incident in the sector this past year.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023