Armed Israeli settler attacks in West Bank fuel the fire amid Gaza invasion
PHOTO CAPTION: Representational photo — Armed Israeli settlers attend the funeral of four settlers in Shilo, Israeli-occupied West Bank June 21, 2023. REUTERS/Nir Elias
By John Davison
QUSRA, West Bank (Reuters) - Mourning his father and brother, Mohammed Wadi says armed Israeli settlers from outposts overlooking his olive-growing West Bank village no longer aim low when they shoot at Palestinian neighbours. "Now, they shoot to kill," he said.
Violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, already at a more than 15-year high this year, surged further after Israel hurtled into a new war in the separate enclave of Gaza in response to Palestinian militant group Hamas unleashing the deadliest day in Israel's history on Oct. 7.
Days later, on Oct. 12, Wadi's father and brother were shot dead when armed Israeli settlers and soldiers stopped a funeral cortege for three other Palestinians killed by settlers the day before, two Reuters witnesses and three other people present said. It was one of the more than 170 attacks on Palestinians involving settlers recorded by the U.N. since the Hamas rampage.
"Arabs and Jews used to throw stones at each other. Settlers my age now all seem to have automatic weapons," said Wadi, 29, in the olive-growing village of Qusra. And while a decade ago armed settlers would fire their weapons to scare or injure villagers during confrontations, increasingly, shootings were deadly, he said.
Reuters could not definitively establish who shot the Wadis. Palestinian officials who investigated the funeral killings said the gunfire appeared to come from settlers rather than soldiers, a view supported by the three other people present.
Shira Liebman, head of the Yesha Council, the main West Bank settlers organisation, told Reuters that settlers were not involved in the killings and were not targeting Palestinians.
Israel's hard-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of at least two senior government ministers living in the settlements, said he had ordered the purchase of 10,000 rifles to arm Israeli civilians, including settlers, after Hamas' attack.
Ben-Gvir's office did not respond to a request for comment about whether guns had already been distributed in the West Bank. He said on Twitter on Oct. 11 that 900 assault rifles had been handed out in areas to the north of the West Bank, close to Lebanon, and that thousands more would soon be distributed.
Vigilante-style settler attacks have killed 29 people this year according to the U.N. Humanitarian Affairs Office, OCHA. At least eight of those were since Oct 7. alone, worrying ordinary Palestinians, Israeli security experts and Western officials.
Washington has condemned settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank while the European Union on Tuesday denounced "settler terrorism" that risked a "dangerous escalation of the conflict."
Daily settler attacks have more than doubled, the U.N. figures show, since Hamas, which controls the coastal enclave of Gaza to Israel's southwest, killed 1,400 Israelis and took more than 200 hostage. Israel has since bombed and invaded Gaza, killing nearly 9,000 Palestinians.
While Hamas tightly controls besieged Gaza, the West Bank is a complex patchwork of hillside cities, Israeli settlements and army checkpoints that split Palestinian communities.
Hamas cited Israeli actions in the West Bank, core to a would-be Palestinian state, in waging its killing spree.
After settlers shot dead three Palestinians at an olive grove near Qusra on Oct. 11, Mohammed's brother Ahmed and father Ibrahim saw it as their duty to greet the funeral procession as it brought the bodies back from a nearby hospital, he said.
Wadi's father was shot through the torso, his brother through the neck and chest, after the armed settlers, in the presence of uniformed soldiers, blocked the cortege at a roadside, the five witnesses said.
"It was gunfire from settlers," Abdullah Abu Rahma, who works for the Palestinian government's Settlement and Wall Resistance Commission said.
The Israeli military said it tried to disperse clashes between Israelis and Palestinians on the day and that the incident was being investigated. Settlement official Liebman denied settler involvement in the killings, while one local Hebrew-language social media page that backs settler activists said the Israeli military had fired on the Wadis.
"We've had more than our share of brutal terrorist attacks. We're facing an enemy who wants to destroy us," settlement leader Liebman told Reuters, echoing widespread security fears among Israelis following the Hamas incursion.
Liebman said "local security teams" were equipped to protect Jewish communities.
Since the Oct. 7 rampage, visible support for Hamas has grown among Palestinians in the West Bank, including in areas where the Islamist group has not traditionally been strong.
This year was already the deadliest in at least 15 years for West Bank residents, with some 200 Palestinians and 26 Israelis killed, according to United Nations data. But just in the three weeks since the Oct 7 attack, another 121 West Bank Palestinians have been killed.
Clashes with soldiers have caused most deaths.
However, the actions of Israeli extremists further fuel Palestinian resentment that observers say risks erupting into more armed action.
The Israeli military said it was trying to stem violence and protect Palestinian civilians. "It hurts security here. These ... incidents create more clashes, and it's people who have taken the law into their own hands," a spokesperson said in response to Reuters questions about settler attacks.
Settler-related violence is becoming harder to stem with the ongoing Gaza war and the augmented power of far-right politicians, Israeli security experts say.
"There's a great danger (from) extreme right activists in the West Bank," said Lior Akerman, a former officer in Israel's Shin Bet internal security service.
Settlers are using the deployment of soldiers to Gaza and northern Israel, where troops are fighting Lebanese Hezbollah, to wage unimpeded attacks, he said. "The army is now even busier, which allows (settlers) to operate freely.
"They also receive support from representatives of the government ... which makes it difficult for security organisations," he added.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed extreme right-wing ministers, including Ben-Gvir, as part of his cabinet last year to secure another term.
A senior Israeli government official, who declined to be named, said: "Sporadic Palestinian terrorism (in the West Bank) is what makes things more difficult to keep under control."
In a sign the settler incidents are worrying the Israeli security establishment, the defence ministry this week ordered the administrative detention of Ariel Danino, a prominent settler activist on state security grounds, an action usually aimed at Palestinian activists.
'GIVE US GUNS'
Wadi's family is plugged into the local community. He says the family eschews armed action and has watched settler hostilities rise.
He works for a Palestinian government body that monitors soldier and settler violence.
His father, Ibrahim, was a local official who tried to mediate between Israeli and Palestinian authorities to reduce violence and was disliked by radical settlers, Wadi said.
Akerman said settler violence risked provoking armed action by a new generation of Palestinian militants that have emerged in the West Bank. One, The Lion's Den, urged attacks on Israel on Tuesday.
A Reuters witness said that at the funeral that finally took place after the Wadis were killed on Oct. 12, Palestinian gunmen perched on a roof watching proceedings, apparently on the look out for settler violence.
So far there has been no major action as Israel's military chokes Palestinian movement throughout the West Bank and detains hundreds of men.
In Qusra last week, Wadi sat below a poster commemorating his brother and father and scanned his phone for death threats against local Palestinians on Hebrew-language social media pages.
He said he felt surrounded. A fortress-like settlement ringed by a large wall looms opposite Qusra, and two others squat on hills above the village's olive groves.
Abdullah, a local resident who gave only his first name, expressed more anger. "I'm prepared to pick up a gun. If only someone would give us some," he said.
(Additional reporting by Emily Rose in Jerusalem, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)