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Attacks by Israeli settlers surge as West Bank tensions boil

A Palestinian works in an olive grove in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir last month. (Kobi Wolf for The Washington Post)

DEIR DIBWAN, West Bank — Palestinians in this town woke one morning last month to find their mosque vandalized, with a Star of David painted on the exterior alongside Hebrew graffiti accusing it of preaching “incitement.”

“We are at an alarming point,” said Barakat Mahmoud, the mosque’s imam. “We’ve never had direct confrontation with the settlers in this town.”

The incident was one in a recent spate of attacks blamed on Israeli settlers that officials on both sides of the conflict say are spiking. Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, documented 295 of what it calls “Jewish terror” incidents last year, a 40 percent increase.

Although no Israeli government figures were available for January, the United Nations had recorded at least 30 incidents this year in which Israeli settlers were accused of causing casualties or damaging property, with a total of 14 Palestinians injured and one killed.

The most serious incident took place in January near the rural West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, when a Palestinian was shot dead, allegedly by settlers belonging to a volunteer security team for the nearby Israeli settlements. According to the United Nations, nine other Palestinians suffered gunshot wounds when the settlers opened fire during a confrontation on the outskirts of the village.

Israeli monitoring groups say the surge in settler violence, in part, reflects a lack of Israeli law enforcement and a response to a rash of particularly distressing attacks by Palestinians against Israelis.

While the number of Palestinian attacks in the West Bank dropped last year, their severity appeared to increase. According to Shin Bet figures, six civilians and five soldiers were killed. The agency said there were 1,153 Palestinian “terror” incidents in the West Bank, a figure that includes stone-throwing.  

Especially upsetting for many Israelis was the death of a baby boy who was born prematurely after his pregnant Israeli mother was injured in a December drive-by shooting near the settlement of Ofra, one of several such attacks. The recent rape and slaying of a 19-year-old girl from another West Bank settlement as she walked in woods in Jerusalem has shocked many Israelis and prompted calls for revenge from the extreme right. 

Such incidents can trigger what are known as “price tag” attacks, a name originally given to vandalism and violence carried out by Jewish extremists against the Palestinian community and sometimes the Israeli security forces in response to violence or punitive action against settlements or settlers. Now, the phrase refers more generally to reprisals against Palestinian communities.

The United Nations and other organizations that track violence by the settlers have expressed alarm about the increase of Israeli attacks in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. Some 450,000 Israelis live in settlements deemed illegal by most of the international community. 

Previous U.S. administrations criticized the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, saying they were an obstacle to peace. But that position has changed during the Trump administration. David M. Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, has said he sees settlements as part of Israel.

A more sympathetic U.S. policy toward settlements may have emboldened the extremist youths who carry out reprisal attacks, according to Lior Amihai, executive director of Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group that tracks abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank. 

“Among that settler ideology, there are people that look and say there is no reason why anyone should stop us from meeting our political aspirations,” Amihai said. “There is a right-wing government in Israel and a friend in the White House.” 

“When they don’t meet them, they are frustrated,” he said, noting the existence of right-wing groups that use attacks to advance their political interests.

But, he added, attacks may also be increasing because Israeli authorities are turning a blind eye.

In 2016 and 2017, settler violence had dropped sharply, which some observers attributed to a crackdown by Israeli authorities.  

After a 2015 arson attack in the village of Duma that killed a Palestinian couple and their 18-month-old child and was blamed on Jewish extremists, the Israeli army used administrative orders to ban those involved in such violent activities from entering the West Bank or detain them without due process.  

Trials are rare, but last month, a 16-year-old Israeli student at a West Bank religious school was indicted in the death of a Palestinian mother of nine who died after a rock hit her while she was driving. The teenager’s DNA was found on the rock. Four others arrested in the case have been released for lack of evidence. 

An Israeli army official who declined to be named, in line with Israeli military protocol, said that most attacks by settlers are against property and that only rarely are people hurt. He said it is “simply not true” that the army does not intervene to protect Palestinians.

Yizrael Gantz, a settler leader in the West Bank, sought to downplay the extent of the problem, saying the violence is perpetrated by a small group of troubled youths.

'Things got out of control'

It is in the olive groves, fields and hilltops surrounding Arab villages that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fought day by day. The incident last month in al-Mughayyir is an example of how easy it is for events to spiral out of control. 

Awad Naasam, a resident of the village, said he was spraying pesticides around his olive trees just after 2 p.m. when about 15 settlers wearing balaclavas tried to steal his tractor and then, when it got stuck, smashed it with iron bars. His cousin, who jointly owns the land, called the Israeli district office that deals with security coordination between Israelis and Palestinians for help. Naasam and his cousin say they were too scared to retaliate against their attackers.

But about 3 p.m., the volunteer security detail for the nearby Israeli settlements said it received a call from a young Israeli near al-Mughayyir in distress, saying he had been stabbed. 

“We don’t know if the stabbing of the youth was connected to the tractor. All we know is, from a security perspective, that we were alerted and things got out of control,” said Moshe Tamir, the head of 49 “fast response” teams for settlements in the area. The teams include 2,000 armed volunteers, among them many retired army combat soldiers.

Tamir said his volunteers advanced down the hillside toward the village, concerned that Israelis had been kidnapped. 

Al-Mughayyir’s mosque announced over its loudspeakers that settlers were “attacking,” and hundreds of villagers headed to the outskirts of town, throwing stones and using slingshots, villagers recalled. “We were afraid they were going to burn our houses,” a 55-year-old resident said.

The settlement security team opened fire with live ammunition, and Hamdi Nassan, 38, was shot dead. Several others were wounded, including Abdel Abu Alya, who said he was shot in the shoulder. 

Members of the settlement security team later said they felt threatened.

Palestinians said the Israeli army did not intervene to stop the settlers. The army said it was investigating the incident.

Gantz, who heads the Binyamin regional council covering several dozen West Bank settlements north of Jerusalem, blamed the Israeli violence on a group of about 20 vagrant troublemakers who he said are estranged from their families and live in caves.

He said they are violent because of their emotional needs. “They want someone that will take care of them,” he said.

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem stresses that the activity goes beyond a few “rotten apples” and says the Israeli government ignores extremist violence because it helps settlers expand their West Bank presence.

When Gantz met with an Israeli army division commander just before the al-Mughayyir incident, the settler leader said, he could “smell” that a “bad period” was on its way because the settlers were upset over Palestinian attacks.

“We had five terror attacks here in a small area,” he said, adding that the local settlers’ sense of “self-security” had been dented. “I can’t predict what someone will do when he’s afraid. Now everything is more sensitive,” he said.

Talk of retaliation for Palestinian violence is in the air.

At a demonstration in the West Bank city of Hebron last month, Rabbi Ariel Levy called for reprisals in response to the rape and slaying of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher, allegedly by one of the city’s Arab residents. In comments published by the extreme right-wing website Jewish Voice, Levy urged, “Real revenge, not of individuals but of the entire public.”

Eglash reported from Adei Ad. Sufian Taha in al-Mughayyir contributed to this report.

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