27 February 2023

Israel bolsters troop levels after unprecedented settler rampage

27 February 2023

Israel has sent hundreds more troops to the occupied West Bank, a day after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis and settlers rampaged through a Palestinian town, torching homes and vehicles in the worst such violence in decades.

The responses to the rampage laid bare some rifts in Israel’s new right-wing government, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealing for calm while a member of his ruling coalition praised the rampage as a deterrent against Palestinian attacks.

The events also underlined the limitations of the traditional US approach to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington has been trying to prevent escalation while staying away from the politically costly task of pushing for a resolution of the core disputes.

As the violence raged in the West Bank, one such attempt at conflict management was taking place on Sunday in Jordan, with the US bringing together Israeli and Palestinian officials to work out a plan for de-escalation.

Sunday’s events began when a Palestinian gunman shot and killed brothers Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, aged 21 and 19, from the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha, in an ambush in the Palestinian town of Hawara in the northern West Bank. The gunman fled after the killings and has not been caught.

Following the shooting, groups of settlers rampaged along the main thoroughfare in Hawara, which is used by both Palestinians and Israeli settlers. In one video, a crowd of settlers stood in prayer as they stared at a building in flames.

Later on Sunday, a 37-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed by Israeli fire, two Palestinians were shot and wounded and another was beaten with an iron bar, Palestinian health officials said.

Some 95 Palestinians were being treated for tear gas inhalation, according to medics.

On Monday morning, the Hawara thoroughfare was lined with rows of burned-out cars and smoke-blackened buildings. Normally bustling shops remained shuttered. Palestinian media said some 30 homes and cars were torched.

At the scene of the shooting, defence minister Yoav Galant told reporters that Israel “cannot allow a situation in which citizens take the law into their hands”, but stopped short of outright condemning the violence.

Labour Party leader Merav Michaeli called the rampage “a pogrom by armed militias” of West Bank settlers.

“I ask everyone to heed the law and especially to trust in the army and security forces,” he said.

The Yaniv brothers were to be laid to rest in Jerusalem on Monday.

Lt Col Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, described the situation as “a tense quiet”.

He said the army deployed hundreds of additional troops to the area with the aim of de-escalation. Two battalions were sent late on Sunday and a third on Monday, with several hundred soldiers each.

The army has not caught the Palestinian gunman. Israeli police spokesman Dean Elsdunne said eight Israelis were detained in connection with Sunday’s rioting, and that six had already been released.

Israeli troops also began removing settlers from a previously evacuated settlement outpost near the West Bank city of Nablus. Several settlers had camped there following Sunday’s deadly shooting, Israel’s public broadcaster Kan reported.

While Mr Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog urged settlers not to engage in vigilante actions, other members of the ruling coalition fanned the flames.

Tzvika Foghel, a legislator from the ultra-nationalist Jewish Power party, said the rampage would help deter Palestinian attacks.

“I see the result in a very good light,” he told Army Radio when asked about what the interviewer referred to as a pogrom.

Public security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power party, has yet to make any official statement.

Sunday’s violence has drawn condemnation from the international community. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the shooting attack and the rampage “underscore the imperative to immediately de-escalate tensions in words and deeds”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he held the Israeli government responsible for what he called “the terrorist acts carried out by settlers under the protection of the occupation forces tonight”.

The violence erupted shortly after the Jordanian government hosted talks at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba aimed at de-escalating tensions ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war — for a future state.

Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The international community overwhelmingly considers Israel’s settlements as illegal and obstacles to peace.

So far this year, 62 Palestinians, about half of them affiliated with armed groups, have been killed by Israeli troops and civilians. In the same period, 14 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks.

Last year was the deadliest for the Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem since 2004, according to figures by the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in those areas, Some 30 people on the Israeli side were killed in Palestinian attacks.

The West Bank is home to a number of hard-line settlements – several of them in the immediate vicinity of Hawara – whose residents frequently vandalise Palestinians land and property.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox