The Guardian / February 27, 2023
One man killed and four wounded in apparent worst outburst of settler violence in northern West Bank in decades.
Hundreds of Jewish settlers have gone on a violent rampage in the northern West Bank, setting alight dozens of cars and homes after two of their number were killed by a Palestinian gunman.
Palestinian medics said one man was killed and four other people were badly wounded in what appeared to be the worst incident of settler violence in the area in decades.
The deadly shooting on Sunday, followed by the late-night riot, immediately raised doubts about the feasibility of Jordan’s declaration the same day that Israeli and Palestinian officials had pledged to calm a year-long wave of bloodshed.
Palestinian media said about 30 homes and more than 100 cars were torched on Sunday evening. Photos and video on social media showed large fires burning throughout the town – the scene of the fatal shooting earlier in the day – and lighting up the sky.
In one video, a crowd of Jewish settlers prayed in front of a burning building. Earlier, a prominent Israeli cabinet minister and settler leader had called for Israel to strike “without mercy”.
Late on Sunday, the Palestinian health ministry said a 37-year-old man was shot and killed by Israeli fire. The Palestinian Red Crescent medical service said two other people were shot and wounded, a third person was stabbed and a fourth was beaten with an iron bar. Ninety-five others were being treated for teargas inhalation.
Huwara was largely deserted on Monday morning except for groups of Israeli soldiers posted every few hundred metres along the main road, some of whom positioned themselves in the driveways or on the rooftops of shuttered shops. The asphalt was still littered with rocks and stones from the violence the night before, and several shop fronts were blackened from fire.
At the northern end of town, some residents were towing the last of the burnt-out cars, but almost everyone else stayed inside, wary that a funeral procession for the two killed Israelis was supposed to pass through Huwara later in the day.
The small village, south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, is almost completely surrounded by illegal Jewish settlements. Route 60, the Israeli-built road running north to south through the middle of the territory, parts of which Palestinians are not allowed to use, cuts right through the middle of Huwara. It is often a flashpoint for clashes between Palestinians and settlers driving through.
However, Sunday night’s rampage, which was triggered by the killing of two brothers from the nearby settlement of Har Bracha, was said to be unprecedented. “We have never seen anything like this. The settlers have nothing to be afraid of anymore; they know they can do whatever they like,” said Sakir, 22, a mechanic.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned what he called “the terrorist acts carried out by settlers under the protection of the occupation forces tonight”. “We hold the Israeli government fully responsible,” he added.
The EU said it was “alarmed” by events in Huwara and that “authorities on all sides must intervene now to stop this endless cycle of violence”. The UK’s ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, said “Israel should tackle settler violence, with those responsible brought to justice”.
As videos of the riot appeared on evening news shows, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke against vigilantism. “I ask that when blood is boiling and the spirit is hot, don’t take the law into your hands,” he said in a video statement.
The Israeli military said its chief of staff, Lt Gen Herzl Halevi, had visited the scene. It said troops were being reinforced in the area as they worked to restore order and search for the gunman.
Ghassan Douglas, a Palestinian official who monitors Jewish settlements in the Nablus region, said several other attacks were reported on neighbouring Palestinian villages. He estimated about 400 Jewish settlers took part in the rampage. “I have never seen such an attack,” he said.
The riot occurred shortly after the Jordanian government, which hosted Sunday’s talks at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, said both sides had agreed to take steps to de-escalate tensions and would meet again next month before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when tensions are likely to rise.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip – areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war – for a future state. About 700,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the international community considers settlements to be illegal and a major obstacle to a two-state solution.
The West Bank is home to a number of hardline settlers who frequently vandalise Palestinians’ land and property. But rarely is the violence so widespread.
Prominent members of Israel’s far-right government had called for tough action against Palestinians over the shooting of the two settlers. The Israeli finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader who has been put in charge of much of Israel’s West Bank policy, said the army should “strike the cities of terror and its instigators without mercy, with tanks and helicopters”.
Using a phrase that calls for a more heavy-handed response, he said Israel should act “in a way that conveys that the master of the house has gone crazy”.
Late on Sunday, however, Smotrich appealed to fellow settlers to let the army and government do their jobs. “It is forbidden to take the law into your hands and create dangerous anarchy that could spin out of control and cost lives,” he said.
In response to the murders of the two Israelis, an Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday gave initial approval to a bill that would impose the death penalty on Palestinians convicted in deadly attacks. The measure was sent to lawmakers for further debate.
Sunday’s shooting in Hawara came days after an Israeli military raid killed 12 Palestinians in the nearby city of Nablus, and in the midst of the bloodiest year on record since the last Palestinian intifada, or uprising, since the 2000s.
Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian