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Israeli settlers rampage through Palestinian towns in revenge for shooting

A Palestinian man by a torched car Monday after clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the town of Huwara. (Kobi Wolf for The Washington Post)
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HUWARA, West Bank — Dozens of Israeli settlers rampaged through Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank on Sunday night, torching cars and homes and killing a man, hours after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis.

The scenes from the town of Huwara and other communities bore the trademark of a violent, once-prominent settler movement known as “price taggers,” whose mission was to extract a “price” for any Palestinian attacks, or Israeli moves to limit settlement expansion. Though isolated incidents of settler violence are still common, and have increased recently, Huwara residents said this was the worst attack they had experienced in years and blamed the Israeli military for not intervening.

“I’m a migrant now,” said Ziad Dmeidi, 48, as he carried plastic bags of household items through the streets on Monday morning. Settlers had set fire to his house with his six children inside, he said. His family just managed to escape.

On Monday evening, Huwara’s typically bustling main thoroughfare remained nearly empty. Israeli soldiers guarded a group of settlers gathering at the closest junction; nearby, Palestinian paramedics waited in front of charred buildings, on notice in case the attackers returned.

Elsewhere, the violence continued. To the south, near the West Bank town of Jericho, a 27-year-old Israeli man was killed Monday night in a drive-by shooting by a suspected Palestinian gunman, local media reported. Late Monday, U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides confirmed the victim was a U.S. citizen, adding he would “pray for his family.”

As the night dragged on, there were reports of new clashes — including stone throwing and gunfire — between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and settlers around Jericho, Nablus, Ramallah and, again, in Huwara.

Sunday’s rampage was a response to an earlier drive-by shooting that killed two brothers from an Israeli settlement. And it came just hours after a rare meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jordan, where Israel promised to suspend settlement expansion in the West Bank — the land Palestinians envision as part of their future state.

At least 11 Palestinians killed, 100 wounded in Israeli raid in the West Bank

While the meeting was taking place Sunday, a suspected Palestinian gunman opened fire at a traffic junction in Huwara, south of Nablus, killing Hillel Menachem Yaniv, 22, and Yagel Yaakov Yaniv, 20, brothers from the nearby Har Bracha settlement. The attack was widely believed to be retaliation for an Israeli raid on Nablus the week before that killed 11 Palestinians, including militants and civilians.

After sunset Sunday, scores of settlers descended on Huwara and at least three other locations across the northern West Bank. Residents said the rioters set fire to cars, businesses, schools and homes, and threw stones at firetrucks and ambulances that attempted to treat casualties at the scene.

Some 60 settlers went to Zatara, a village near Huwara, and shot Sameh al-Aqtash, 37, in the abdomen, said his nephew Fadi al-Aqtash. He died while the family tried to get him to a hospital because the Israeli military had blocked the road.

“One bullet ended his life and left behind five orphans,” Fadi said.

Ghassan Douglas, a Palestinian official responsible for the northern West Bank, said at least 100 Palestinians were injured in Sunday’s attacks, including several who had been stabbed or beaten with metal rods, and others who required treatment for tear gas inhalation.

“A Huwara that is burning — that’s the only way we’ll achieve deterrence,” Tzvika Foghel, a lawmaker from the far-right Jewish Power party, told Galei Israel radio on Monday. “We need to stop shying away from collective punishment.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Chen Klein, 30, from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar. “They don’t pay any price,” she said, referring to Palestinian attackers. “There is a price you have to pay.”

Settlers had to take security into their own hands, she added, because “the government isn’t doing what needs to be done to keep us safe here.”

Following Sunday’s shooting, Israel’s parliament advanced legislation to apply the death penalty for terrorism charges, despite arguments by the attorney general and officials in the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, that it would not deter terrorists.

On Monday, Israel sent hundreds more troops to the West Bank, setting up roadblocks in Huwara, Nablus and the surrounding villages.

An Israeli military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the security situation, said that the army viewed the violent settlers as “terrorists” whose attacks had forced the redistribution of military forces as it searched for the Palestinian gunman, who is still at large. The official also acknowledged that Israeli soldiers did not intervene quickly enough on Sunday night, though declined to go into detail about what went wrong.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the violence Monday, saying that “these developments underscore the imperative to immediately de-escalate tensions in words and deeds.”

It was in an attempt to head off the spiraling unrest that brought Israeli and Palestinian officials together for their first meeting in years in Jordan’s coastal city of Aqaba. They issued a joint statement, which said that Israel would halt building plans for settlement units for four months and stop the authorization of outposts — smaller and typically more radical settlements, considered illegal under Israeli law — for six months.

The agreement also required Israel to respect the status quo at the Jerusalem site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary which, for decades, has served as a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But far-right members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition have indicated that they were not beholden to the promises made during the meeting, which took place with U.S., Egyptian and Jordanian officials.

Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the Religious Zionist Party, the third-largest bloc in the coalition, said that he had “no idea” about the discussions at the “unnecessary conference” in Jordan, but that Israel would not agree to a settlement freeze, “even for one day.”

“What happened in Jordan (if it happened), stays in Jordan,” tweeted National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. Ben Gvir, who has long been part of the extremist fringe of the settler movement, visited the Temple Mount last month, spurring international condemnation.

Following a spate of Palestinian attacks on Israelis last spring, the Israeli military has responded with near nightly raids across the West Bank. After the inauguration in December of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, the raids have become more frequent and more deadly, and there has been an increase in Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

For many on the ground, talks about de-escalation miss the point — for them, the violence has already arrived at their door.

“It was a war last night, an official war,” Refat Amer, a 47-year-old resident of Huwara, said Monday. He added that during the four-hour rampage by settlers, dozens of cars and a high school near his home were torched and rocks shattered the window of his 7-year-old daughter’s room. Soldiers at the scene only cordoned off the area, without moving to stop the violence, he said.

“For sure they will return again, but what can we do?” he asked. “We can throw stones at them, and then the military shoots us, too.”

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Fatima Abdul Karim in Ramallah, West Bank, and Sufian Taha in Zatara, West Bank, contributed to this report.