The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Emboldened by Israel’s far right, Jewish settlers fan the flames of chaos

Shalom Shawat, right, and other Jewish settlers who were friends of Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, killed in Sunday's shooting attack on Huwara, on a street of the Bracha settlement in the West Bank on Tuesday. (Kobi Wolf for The Washington Post)
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HAR BRACHA, West Bank — Like many of the young men he grew up with in the sprawling settlements of the West Bank, Shalom Shawat had clashed with Palestinians before.

But Sunday night was different. When the 20-year-old learned that one of his closest friends and his brother, Yagel and Hillel Yaniv, were killed by a Palestinian gunman while driving on one of the West Bank’s main roads, he joined dozens of his friends on a vengeful rampage through Palestinian communities.

During a four-hour spate of violence in the town of Huwara and several nearby villages, the settlers used guns, metal rods and their fists to attack hundreds of Palestinians. Some attackers wore ski masks as they torched cars, businesses and family homes, some with children inside, according to witnesses. A Palestinian man was killed after a settler shot him in the abdomen, his family said.

Shawat had little fear of being punished, he said. He expected the Israeli army to help.

On a visit Tuesday to the Yaniv family as they sat shiva in their family home in the settlement of Har Bracha, Shawat said their violent riot wasn’t spontaneous, it was strategic, and they would continue to escalate in response to Palestinian terrorism.

“Even if it leads to more terror attacks, of course it’s worth it,” Shawat said. “We went out because if we had stayed home, it would have been even worse. We can’t let them think that we’re suckers.”

As Shawat and a group of friends spoke with Washington Post reporters, a relative of the Yaniv family shut the meeting down. The news media had mischaracterized Sunday as a “difficult day for both sides,” she scoffed. “It was a difficult day for us, for us only.”

“These boys reacted the way they did only because they saw that their brother had been killed,” she shouted. “So some Jews went down and did a little bit of burning? So what?”

Violent vigilante settlers are resurfacing in the occupied West Bank, just as a cycle of deadly Israeli military raids and attacks by Palestinian militants have brought the region to the brink of another all-out conflict. With a new far-right government in power, the settlers believe that the moment to push for operational annexation of the land they see as their biblical birthright has finally arrived.

In response to the rampage, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Israeli citizens to avoid taking the law into their own hands. But the message was full of “mumbles and generalities,” said Miri Eisin, a former Israeli intelligence officer, adding that it would embolden settlers who know they live in a “legal gray zone in the West Bank, a kind of Wild West.”

Since last spring, a spate of Palestinian attacks on Israelis has been met with near-nightly Israeli military raids across the West Bank. The incursions have been more sweeping, and more deadly, since the December inauguration of Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

Among its top ministers are a number of figures who got their start in the extremist settler movement, including Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, and Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister. Between them, they have been granted unprecedented powers over the Israeli military and the lives of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.

At least 61 Palestinians and 14 Israelis have been killed since the start of the year.

“It’s worse than the intifada,” said Hassan Oudeh, a resident of Huwara who said his back was bruised by stun grenades that settlers threw into his home. “They know there’s no one who will stop them.”

Israeli police arrested eight settlers after Sunday’s violence, but released five of them and, lacking sufficient evidence, are keeping the last three under house arrest, said Dean Elsdunne, an Israeli police spokesperson. Since 2005, only 3 percent of investigations opened into cases of Israeli crimes against Palestinians have resulted in convictions, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group that monitors settler attacks.

The protocols for dealing with Israeli suspects are different than for Palestinian suspects, Eisin, the former intelligence officer, explained, which makes investigations more difficult. “You need the prime minister to sign off on every phone tap,” she said.

Still, the most radical and combative fringe of the settler movement has always believed that the Israeli government is engaged in a witch hunt against them. On the ground, the young men are ready to fight, to do what they say the Israeli state will not.

Their parents, once “hilltop youths” who conquered patches of abandoned land in strategic and remote locations in the West Bank, are now the settlement elders.

The “hilltop youth” regularly set fire to schools, businesses, mosques and homes to intimidate Palestinians into relinquishing their land. In one incident from 2015, an arson attack by a radical settler killed an 18-month-old baby and his parents as they were sleeping.

Shlomo Fischer, an expert in settler extremism who works as a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, a think tank in Jerusalem, said that the new generation is a larger, more powerful, but ideologically consistent continuation of the movement that came to infamy a decade ago.

“The amorphous community has stayed the same; they are people who are committed to confrontation,” Fischer said. “But the landscape has shifted, and they now find themselves in an Israel where this has become a more mainstream, institutional ideology.”

“They’re reading, like a lot of Israelis, even without explicit statements, they’re now getting backing from the government,” he added.

Shilat Sarusi, 14, her tongue frequently pushing her retainers back into place, said that she and many of her neighbors in a nearby settlement were deeply disappointed that the Israeli army did not come to support them during their rampage on Sunday, but they believed they were closer to achieving their goals.

“The army should have been the one doing this in the first place,” she said, referring to the violence against Palestinian civilians.

She said that she expected the new government would advance laws enforcing the death penalty for terrorists, expelling their families and carrying out the broader idea that “Israel is the landowner around here” — echoing Ben Gvir’s election motto.

“We’re preparing for geula,” or redemption, she said. “Very soon, God willing.”