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US: Israeli settler violence widely condemned, senior official demands compensation

Leading Orthodox and conservative Jewish groups issue rare condemnation of settler violence
Israeli settlers look on as they stand along a street in the town of Huwwara near Nablus in the occupied West Bank on 27 February 2023(AFP)

A top US official condemned the “wide scale, indiscriminate violence” by Israeli settlers on a Sunday night rampage in the occupied West Bank, after a visit to the destroyed town of Huwwara.

“We want to see full accountability and legal prosecution of those responsible for these heinous attacks and compensation for those who lost property or were otherwise affected,” Hady Amr, US special representative for Palestinian affairs, said.

The weekend's rampage by settlers has been described as unprecedented in nature. Hundreds of Israeli settlers, flanked by soldiers, attacked Palestinian towns and villages near Nablus, following a shooting that killed two Israelis in the town of Huwwara earlier in the day.  

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At least one Palestinian was killed and nearly 400 were wounded in attacks across the occupied West Bank, Palestinian health officials said. 

Settlers completely burnt down at least 35 homes, and 40 others were partially damaged. Many of the buildings were set on fire while their Palestinian inhabitants sheltered inside. More than 100 cars were burnt or otherwise destroyed.

Amr’s visit follows the Biden administration's condemnation of the attacks. 

On Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price labelled the weekend's rampage “vigilante violence” and urged the Israeli government to pursue justice for the victims with “equal rigor” as other “extremist” attacks.

He also welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog’s call for Israelis not to take law enforcement into their own hands.

"We expect the Israeli government to ensure full accountability and prosecute those responsible for the attacks in addition to compensation for the property," he added.

Conservative Jewish groups' condemnations

The US response follows a rare condemnation of settler violence by two of the United States’ leading Orthodox and conservative Jewish groups. 

“How can such a thing happen? How could it come to this, that Jewish young men should ransack and burn homes and cars,” Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, wrote on Monday.

Notably, Hauer also took a firmer stance than the Biden administration on Netanyahu’s remarks after the rampage.

“Attacking a village does not deserve to be called ‘taking the law into your own hands’,” Hauer’s statement said. “This is not the law; this is undisciplined and random fury. Actions like these demonstrate the critical need for clear and strong leadership.”

The Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of conservative rabbis, also condemned the settler rampage.

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“Committed to Zionism and the State of Israel, we are deeply disturbed by the acts of terror, vandalism and violence supposedly carried out in the name of Israel or of God. These actions both harm Jewish sovereignty and constitute a danger to the existence of the Jewish state,” the Rabbinical Assembly said in a statement.

A senior Israeli military official warned that tensions in the occupied West Bank were on a knife's edge and threatened to push the situation in the occupied territories out of control.

“Another night of riots like that, and we’ll reach a point of no return,” Israeli military Central Command chief, Yehuda Fuchs, told Netanyahu during a security briefing, according to Israeli media.

Netanyahu oversees what analysts call the most right-wing and religious zionist governments in Israeli history, complicating efforts to diffuse tensions. The attacks come amid warnings Netanyahu is pursuing judicial reforms that could remove any remaining constraints on the far-right. 

"The judicial “reform” would also give his right-wing coalition the unfettered power to build any settlements in any place, to seize any Palestinian land and to pour tax dollars into Orthodox religious schools," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on Tuesday. 

Friedman warned the escalating tensions risked "a breakdown in governance the likes of which we’ve never seen before in Israel". 

Ishaan Tharoor, a columnist with the Washington Post, put the blame for Huwwara on Netanyahu's government and criticised the Israeli military for aiding the attackers.

"Israeli security officials branded the settler attack on Huwwara as "terrorism". Yet close to 24 hours after the raid was carried out, not one arrest had been made by Israeli police, and police had already released six of eight people detained," Tharoor noted. 

In an effort to defuse tensions, Israeli and Palestinian officials met for talks brokered by the US, Jordan, and Egypt on Sunday in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba.

According to a joint communique released by the US State Department on Sunday, Israel committed to "stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months”.

Shortly after the communique was released, Netanyahu tweeted that there "will not be any freeze" to settlement construction.

Former Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz has said that far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich is supporting the settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, adding that Smotrich "wants another Nakba".

"Smotrich wants to cause another Palestinian Nakba - for him, escalation is a desirable thing," Gantz told Army Radio.

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