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Israel-Palestine: Armed settler raids in West Bank raise fears of heightened violence

Killings and arson attacks targeting villages in the West Bank area of Nablus in recent weeks leave Palestinians wary of further escalation
A relative of Nidal Safadi, a Palestinian killed on 14 May, shows pictures reportedly taken that same day of armed Israeli settlers speaking with an Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank village of Urif (MEE/Sami al-Shami)
By Sami al-Shami in Nablus, occupied West Bank and Shatha Hammad

Two-year-old Sanad knows little about what happened to his father, Nidal Safadi. Other, he says, than that he is in heaven.

On 14 May, Israeli settlers killed Safadi, a 30-year-old Palestinian man from the village of Urif on the southern outskirts of Nablus city. In addition to Sanad, he left behind two daughters: one-year-old Ruqayya and five-year-old Maryam. 

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On the same day, Awad Harb, a 27-year-old Palestinian from the village of Iskaka in the northern occupied West Bank, was killed in similar conditions by an Israeli settler. His daughter, five-month-old Hoor, will likewise be forced to grow up without her father by her side. 

Israeli settler attacks have been escalating - both in frequency and ferocity - since 2014. However, residents and observers say that over the past few months, and particularly since the recent Palestinian protests since mid-April, the Israeli army has been using settlers as a tool to further repress Palestinians. 

In the majority of cases, Israeli soldiers are present during the attack and do not intervene until the confrontations between settlers and Palestinians become intense. Rights groups have also documented instances when the army participated in the settler-led attacks on Palestinians or provided protection to the settlers while continuing to use force against Palestinians on the scene. 

Since mid-April, settler attacks in the West Bank have been focused on the outskirts of Nablus and Hebron, where the settler population continues to grow in violation of international law.

In addition to the killings of Harb and Safadi, settlers carried out arson attacks, burning large swaths of land and structures for livestock, attempted to burn down two homes in Asira al-Qibliya, and opened fire at Palestinians on al-Shuhada Street in the old city of Hebron. 

The rise in settler attacks in recent weeks escalated on 14 and 15 May. In the span of two days, as Palestinians marked Nakba Day and Israeli air strikes pummelled the besieged Gaza Strip, three Palestinian villages were subjected to a spate of settler attacks that led to the deaths of Harb and Safadi.

‘Intention of killing’ 

On the afternoon of 14 May in Urif, residents of the village were called through the mosque minarets to urgently help put out fires set by settlers in the village’s agricultural lands. 

Mustafa Safadi told Middle East Eye that he and his brother Nidal immediately headed to the area with other residents to extinguish the fire.

“At that moment, we were shocked to see armed Israeli settlers begin to indiscriminately fire live bullets in our direction,” Mustafa recounted.  

The settlers, some of whom were armed and came from the nearby notorious settlement of Yitzhar, were in full view of Israeli army soldiers standing close by, according to Mustafa. The Palestinian added that he saw soldiers give instructions to settlers and settlement guards while they were opening fire. 

At one point, he added, one of the soldiers gave a settler a shotgun, which he then used to shoot Nidal from a distance of about 10 metres.

'This is the first time that the village witnessed an attack of this level of violence by settlers. They entered armed and with the intent to kill'

- Anwar Harb, Iskaka, occupied West Bank

“After Nidal fell to the ground and residents tried to rescue him, the settler shot at them again and injured one of the men. They then fired shots near the ambulance car,” Mustafa said. “It was clear they came with the intention of killing.”

Nidal died in the ambulance on the way to a hospital in Nablus. He was shot by three bullets - one to the chest, one in the stomach and the third in the thigh, his brother said. 

On the same afternoon, in the village of Iskaka, a few kilometres away from Urif, armed settlers shot dead Harb. 

Harb’s sibling Anwar told MEE that his brother was shot by a settler who was hiding behind a house gate less than 20 metres away. At the time, Harb was walking to his family’s house after hearing shots during confrontations that broke out after armed settlers descended onto the village.

“We took him to the village clinic, but doctors announced his death within ten minutes,” Anwar said. The Israeli army, meanwhile, prevented an ambulance from entering the village, he added.

Such an assault was unprecedented in Iskaka. Residents of the village said they were in shock when armed settlers came from the nearby settlements of Ariel and Rehelim.

“This is the first time that the village witnessed an attack of this level of violence by settlers,” Anwar said. “They entered armed and with the intent to kill.” 

Describing the brother he never thought he would lose, Anwar said, “Awad loved life. He constantly strived for a better one and worked towards that goal.

“He was loved by the village residents. His killing came as a huge shock to us.” 

When asked whether they would pursue the settler in Israeli courts, Anwar replied: “We know very well that there it is useless to do so; the Israeli judiciary has never issued a decision in favour of Palestinians.” 

Arson attacks

At midnight on 15 May, in the village of Asira al-Qibliya near Nablus, seven-year-old Sandy Makhlouf woke up startled by the smell of smoke and the sight of flames burning in one of the rooms in her family’s home.

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“I woke up to the sound of my wife’s screams when she saw settlers outside one of our windows, and they were lighting the fire after breaking the glass,” said Majdi Makhlouf, Sandy’s father. 

Majdi quickly managed to put out the fire before it was too late.

“The settlers were trying to repeat the crime on the Dawabsheh family in the village of Duma. If we hadn’t paid attention to their attack, a disaster would have occurred,” he told MEE. 

The home of Qassem Saleh, a father of three, was also the target of an arson attack on the same night in Asira al-Qibliya. 

“We heard the sound of glass breaking and a small blast,” Saleh told MEE. “When we exited the house, we found three masked settlers fleeing the area quickly, after they had thrown molotovs at the house door and window.” 

Bashar al-Najjar, a researcher focused on settler attacks in Nablus, told MEE that such incidents, particularly in Nablus, “cannot be described as indiscriminate”.

“These are organised attacks, carried out mainly by settlers in Yitzhar. They choose the right time and place to carry out their attacks,” he said, explaining that the attacks are well-planned and the locations are surveyed beforehand. 

About 10 villages in Nablus are regularly targeted by settler groups called “Hilltop youth”, who carry out so-called "price tag" attacks on Palestinians, Najjar added. 

On 14 and 15 May, the village of Qusra, home to 7,000 people east of Iskaka, faced some of the most violent attacks by settlers in its recent memory.

'The settlers arrived with the army. We were throwing rocks, and for every rock we threw, the army would fire a bullet at us'

-  Adli Mohammad Rizq, farmer from Qusra

Adli Mohammad Rizq, 65, told MEE that on 14 May, a group of settlers attacked his farm, burned his car and destroyed some of his equipment. 

The next day, at about 1pm, about 50 settlers arrived near his farm and set fire to two of the structures housing his chickens. Eighteen thousand chickens, out of a total of 24,000 that he kept, were killed in the fire.

As a result of this attack, Rizq estimates that he lost about 1m shekels ($310,000). 

“The settlers arrived with the army,” said Rizq. “We were throwing rocks, and for every rock we threw, the army would fire a bullet at us.” 

While this is not the first time that settlers have attacked Rizq’s farm, he said that this incident was evidently more violent due to the use of live fire. “We feel that the attacks will intensify,” said Rizq, adding that he also fears that his land will be confiscated by Israeli authorities.

Muhammad Awad, head of the Qusra local council, told MEE that 25 Palestinians were wounded during the settler raid. 

“During confrontations in the village, the army usually uses tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets - but this time they used nothing but live bullets,” he said. According to Awad, the attack left three Palestinians seriously injured. 

Green light from Netanyahu 

Ghassan Daghlas, an official who monitors settlements in the northern West Bank, claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given settlers “the green light to launch more attacks on Palestinians; he also sought help from them in launching attacks on Palestinians inside Israel".

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“We are noticing Israelis becoming more right-wing and extreme against us as Palestinians,” Daghlas told MEE. “There is no longer a ‘centre’ in Israeli society, and this foretells a new and difficult stage in the coming days.” 

However, Daghlas maintained that Palestinians would “not face these attacks with silence”, adding that he expected “more resistance and confrontations” in the near future.

Awad, the mayor of Asira al-Qibliya, said that village residents were forming protection committees to block any further attacks by settlers, amid expectations that attacks will increase in the coming days. 

Daghlas concurred, saying that Palestinians must be vigilant and make use of social media to warn residents and mobilise crowds to repel attacks.

“Palestinians are defenceless. They can only protect their land and properties with rocks, while settlers attack with weapons and with the protection of the army,” he said. 

“Impromptu protection committees and the vigilance of residents and their ability to repel attacks are our only weapons.”

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