While the world is focused on the war in Gaza since the Hamas terror group’s devastating assault on Israel, tensions have risen in the West Bank, where 55 Palestinians were killed over the past week in clashes with Israeli troops, arrest raids and attacks by Jewish settlers, according to the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry.
UN monitors said it was the deadliest week for Palestinians in the West Bank since at least 2005.
Since Hamas’s mass incursion into southern Israel, in which terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing over 1,300 people, and abducting some 150-200 hostages of all ages, Israeli forces have held the West Bank under a tight grip, closing crossings into the territory and checkpoints between cities, measures they say are aimed at preventing attacks.
The vast majority of those killed on October 7 as the Hamas gunmen seized Israeli border communities were civilians — men, women, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what US President Joe Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”
There have been several clashes between IDF forces and Palestinians in the West Bank in the days since, with the army reporting at least 10 attempted terror attacks.
Friday was a particularly deadly day, with 16 Palestinians killed in different incidents in the West Bank, according to PA figures. Police said four of those were shot and killed by officers after setting off explosive devices in an apparent attempt to breach the West Bank security barrier.
The military said Sunday it had arrested 330 people in raids across the West Bank, including 190 affiliated with Hamas, since last weekend’s attack. It said 33 Hamas members alone were arrested in raids overnight Saturday.
The renewed crackdown comes as Israel is concerned about the conflict escalating into a multi-front war, particularly the possibility of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah terror organization joining the battle.
But Palestinians claim the latest Israeli measures in the West Bank have only further blurred the line between security forces and radical, violent settlers. Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right settler with a long history of anti-Arab incitement, responded to the Hamas attack by distributing more weapons to the settler population and tasking settlers with security.
In a statement after the Hamas massacres in southern Israel, he said his office was distributing 10,000 firearms, as well as combat gear, protective vests and helmets, to Israeli civilians — with a particular focus on residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“We will change the world so that the settlements will be protected,” he said. “I have ordered the massive arming of the civilian standby units in order to protect the settlements and the cities.”
On Friday, a video showed a settler with an assault rifle walking into the village of Al-Tuwani in the southern West Bank and shooting a Palestinian point blank.
Two days earlier, the PA reported settlers shot dead three Palestinians in the village of Qusra, near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. On Thursday, settlers attacked their funeral, killing another two men, according to the PA health ministry. Video footage showed the settlers swerving their cars into the funeral procession before stopping and opening fire.
On Thursday, settlers arrived at Wadi Seeq, a small Bedouin village home to around 200 people in the central West Bank, as Palestinians there packed up their belongings. They had already moved all of the women, children and livestock to a safer area in recent days because of rising threats, a resident of the village said. Witnesses said that the settlers opened fire, wounding three Palestinians and driving the rest out of the village.
Abdelrahman Kaabni, the head of the Wadi Seeq village council, said that soldiers and police had taken part in the attack, beating and arresting residents. As the villagers of Wadi Seeq fled settler violence, they left behind cisterns, livestock, solar panels and two vehicles. “The settlers took everything, and now they’re squatting in our homes,” Kaabni said.
Wadi Seeq is the sixth Bedouin village to have pulled up stakes in the last year in response to an uptick in settler attacks. Many more are in danger of being completely displaced, according to the West Bank Protection Consortium, a coalition of aid groups and donor countries, including the European Union, that support Palestinian communities.
Neither COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for civilian affairs, nor the Israeli military responded to requests for comment. In the past, authorities have said troops only open fire in response to threats or to disperse violent protests and that soldiers protect Palestinians from settler attacks.
The UN said last month that 1,100 Palestinians had been displaced by settler violence in the last year, an unprecedented figure. Over just the last few days, around 200 to 300 Palestinians have been displaced in Wadi Seeq and other areas, the consortium said — often by settlers who are armed.
“They’re leaving now because they feel completely unprotected. They’re so scared of those settlers who have come in and threatened them,” said Allegra Pacheco, who heads the consortium.
Most of the attacks come from settler outposts established without government authorization but protected by the Israeli army. Over 500,000 Jewish settlers live in nearly 150 settlements across the West Bank, which is home to some 2.5 million Palestinians. Most of the international community views settlements as illegal and a major obstacle to peace. Israel captured the West Bank, along with Gaza and East Jerusalem, in the 1967 Six Day War. The Palestinians want the territories for their future state.
On Saturday, Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari appeared to be calling on settlers to stand down, saying: “The responsibility for security in the settlements and on the roads lies with the army alone.”
But messages continued to circulate on WhatsApp groups that Jewish settlers have created since the start of the war to coordinate operations in the West Bank. A description of one chat group with over 800 participants told residents to prepare for “the possibility of mobilizing for a joint activity with the security forces for the immediate demolition of terrorist houses.”
The message urged residents to “eliminate” any Palestinian approaching a settlement.
“From the stories flowing in from the Gaza Strip, it is clear that we cannot rely on the army alone to be able to protect us in a time of chaos,” it read. “Are you ready for war?”