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Israel's Ben Gvir defends settlers suspected of killing Palestinian as 'heroes'

Opposition leader accuses MP in Ben Gvir's party of 'supporting terrorism' after statement backing suspected murderers
Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir hugs a supporter as he arrives to the site of a reported attack in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, on 1 August 2023 (AFP)
Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir hugs a supporter as he arrives at the site of a reported attack in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, on 1 August 2023 (AFP)

Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir praised settlers suspected of killing a 19-year-old Palestinian in the occupied West Bank as "heroes". 

The far-right minister said on Sunday that anyone defending themselves against "stone-throwing" should "receive a commendation".

His statement was referring to two Israeli settlers accused of being involved in the fatal shooting of Qusai Jamal Maatan in the Palestinian village of Burqa on Friday. 

One of the two suspects is a former spokesman of an MP with Ben Gvir's Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party. The pair were arrested by Israeli forces on Saturday and held for further investigations. 

Hours after his initial statement, Ben Gvir took to X, formally known as Twitter, to criticise media outlets for referring to the settlers as suspected murderers.

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"A Jew who defends himself and others from murder by Palestinians is not a murder suspect, but a hero who will get full backing from me," he said. 

The incident took place on Friday night in Burqa village, east of Ramallah.

Residents told Middle East Eye that armed settlers arrived at the village from a nearby settlement outpost and attacked them from three directions.

"They assaulted the residents and torched two vehicles," said eyewitness Ahmed Barakat. 

When young people in the village came out to confront the settlers and push them back, throwing stones at them, they were met with live fire, Barakat said. 

At least three people were hit with bullets, which wounded three young men, including Maatan. He later died in hospital. 

'A Jew who defends himself and others from murder by Palestinians is not a murder suspect, but a hero who will get full backing from me'

- Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel's national security minister

The murder suspects' lawyer, Nati Rom, said they acted "according to the law and as is required of any gun licence holder". 

He claimed they were defending themselves against a "lynching" and urged the arrest of the Palestinian residents who tried to confront the settlers and defend their land.  

"This is a miracle, my client is the victim of a grave terror attack. Thanks to his resourcefulness, he and his friends are now alive... This was an attempt to murder a group of Jews, a true lynching," Rom said. 

Ben Gvir said he hopes there will be a "thorough investigation also of the Arab rioters who threw stones and tried to murder Jews".

Nearly 700,000 settlers live in more than 250 settlements and outposts across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Their presence constitutes a violation of international law, according to Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Limor Son Har-Melech, an MP from Otzma Yehudit, echoed Ben Gvir's support of the suspected murderer settlers after their arrest. 

"[I] recommend the defence establishment direct its energy toward dealing with the terror dens instead of chasing after Binyamin [biblical name for West Bank] residents who hold a devotion to our country."

The far-right MP was accused of "supporting terrorism" after her statement by fellow lawmaker Merav Michaeli, leader of the opposition left-wing Labor party. 

"If an Arab MP said [what she said] after the attack, which was committed by a close associate of hers, an investigation would have been opened against him, as well as a demand to outlaw his party for supporting terror," Michaeli said. 

'Extremist settlers'

The United States on Saturday called Maatan's killing a "terror attack" carried out by "Israeli extremist settlers" and urged "full accountability and justice". 

The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Tor Wennesland, issued a similar condemnation. 

"I strongly condemn the deplorable acts of settler violence against Palestinians," he said. "I call for this incident to be investigated and the perpetrators held accountable."

Hussein al-Sheikh, the secretary-general of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and a Palestinian Authority minister, urged for Otzma Yehudit to be designated as a "terrorist party".

While Israeli settler violence against Palestinians is common in the West Bank, Maatan's death comes as the number of attacks has grown in recent years at an alarming rate, according to UN human rights experts. 

UN figures show settler attacks have been on a year-to-year upward trend since 2016, with 228 attacks recorded in 2022 leading to casualties. 

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Since the start of the year, at least eight Palestinians have been killed during settler attacks, compared with five Palestinians killed by suspected settlers in 2022. 

Although the Israeli army said they are investigating the Friday shooting, Israeli authorities have been previously accused of enabling settler violence and failing to prosecute Israeli offenders or protect Palestinians. 

Only three percent of investigations into settler violence led to a conviction between 1995-2022, according to Israeli NGO Yesh Din. 

Hours after Maatan's death, a Palestinian man shot and killed an Israeli municipal officer in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening. The shooter, identified as Kamel Abu Baker from the Jenin area, was killed by subsequent gunfire. 

According to a Middle East Eye tally, at least 206 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, including 35 children - a rate of nearly one fatality per day.

A total of 170 people have died in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, making 2023 one of the bloodiest years in the occupied Palestinian territories. Another 36 people were killed in the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Palestinians have killed 26 Israelis in the same period, including six children.

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