IDF bolsters forces in West Bank amid manhunt for Huwara gunman, after settlers riot

Despite clear warnings, security forces let settlers rampage in Palestinian town for hours; most Israeli suspects released; IDF steps up searches near Nablus

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

A Palestinian man walks past burned cars in the town of Huwara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, February 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian man walks past burned cars in the town of Huwara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, February 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday afternoon said it was bolstering its West Bank division by a fourth infantry battalion after three were deployed following a terrorist attack that killed two Israeli brothers in the West Bank town of Huwara a day earlier and subsequent violent settler rioting in the area in which a Palestinian was killed.

The IDF was continuing a manhunt for a Palestinian gunman who carried out the attack on Sunday morning, killing Hallel and Yagel Yaniv as they drove through Huwara, a Palestinian town regularly traversed by Israeli motorists and often a flashpoint of tensions.

Palestinian media said the IDF had “tightened a siege” around nearby Nablus following the shooting and the riots. Palestinian stores along the Route 60 highway in Huwara were reportedly ordered shut.

The military said that as “part of the expanding security activity” in the Nablus area, the army would “increase security checks on routes leading in and out of the city.”

The 202nd Paratrooper Battalion was deployed on Sunday evening, the 435th Battalion of the Givati Brigade and 846th Givati Reconnaissance Battalion were deployed on Monday, and the Home Front Command’s 894th Search and Rescue Battalion, also trained for light infantry operations, was to be deployed by Monday evening.

Generally, the IDF’s West Bank division has 13 battalions. Over the past year, that number has fluctuated amid an anti-terror offensive following a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks, reaching a height of 26 battalions in October, before dropping back down by several battalions.

Settler groups had called for demonstrations to avenge the Palestinian shooting attack in Huwara earlier in the day, and on Sunday evening rampaged through the town for hours, setting fire to homes, storefronts, and cars.

Shortly before the arson attacks began, hundreds of settlers began marching toward Huwara chanting “Revenge,” Army Radio reported.

Israeli troops conduct scans in the West Bank town of Huwara for a gunman who killed two Israelis, February 26, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Palestinian medics said one man was killed, four others were badly wounded, and hundreds more were treated for smoke and tear gas inhalation during the violence in Huwara and other villages neighboring Nablus.

Palestinian media said some 30 homes and cars were torched. Photos and videos on social media showed large fires burning throughout Huwara and lighting up the sky.

Israeli security forces failed to contain the violence for hours despite the early warnings of a planned protest in the Palestinian town. Troops were also preoccupied with searching for the gunman who killed the Israeli brothers.

A security source cited by the Kan public broadcaster said the rioting only made it harder for the troops to search for the gunman.

Soldiers are legally permitted — even required in some cases — to intervene to prevent violent attacks, regardless of nationality. The military generally prefers that police deal with the attacks and settler arrests, but police forces are stretched thin in the West Bank.

Still, later Sunday, the IDF said “violent riots that erupted at a number of locations” in the West Bank were “being dealt with” by troops and police officers, without mentioning the identity of those involved.

Border Police officers reportedly attempted to disperse the settlers with tear gas.

A spokesperson for Border Police did not respond to requests for comment on the violence.

Settlers look on as cars and homes they torched burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Courtesy)

Israeli police spokesman Dean Elsdunne said eight Israelis were detained in connection with Sunday’s rioting, and that six had already been released

The rampage drew angry denunciations from the PA, the European Union, the United States and many Israelis.

A man films with a phone outside a building that was torched overnight in the West Bank town of Huwara near Nablus February 27, 2023. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

The IDF said the Palestinian gunman opened fire from close range on the Yanivs’ car on the Route 60 highway, then fled the scene, apparently on foot. The brothers were driving from their hometown, the settlement of Har Bracha.

There have been several shooting attacks on Israeli motorists on Route 60 in Huwara. There are plans to build a bypass road for settlers to avoid having to travel through the Palestinian town, but the construction work has been stalled.

Speaking from the scene of the attack on Monday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said security forces were preparing for “difficult days” ahead.

“We expect complicated days, possibly difficult days. It could be here [in the West Bank], in the Jerusalem area, or Gaza,” Gallant told reporters.

“I gave clear instructions to the IDF, Shin Bet, and Border Police to be fully prepared for all threats,” he said.

In recent months, Palestinian gunmen have repeatedly targeted military posts, troops operating along the West Bank security barrier, Israeli settlements and civilians on the roads.

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been high for the past year, with the IDF conducting near-nightly raids in the West Bank amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.

However, the nightly raids have been on pause since Wednesday, ahead of and following a Jordan-hosted meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials on Sunday whose goal is to restore calm to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip amid deadly violence.

Brothers Hallel (left) and Yagel Yaniv, who were killed in a terror attack in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Courtesy)

Incidents of vandalism against Palestinians and Israeli security forces are commonly referred to as “price tag” attacks, with far-right perpetrators claiming they are retaliation for Palestinian violence or government policies seen as hostile to the settler movement.

Arrests of perpetrators are rare and rights groups lament that convictions are even more unusual, with the majority of charges in such cases being dropped.

Reports of nationalist crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank surged in recent weeks, following several terror attacks.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank. Among them are several hundred known as the “hilltop youth,” who seek to settle every corner of the biblical land of Israel.

Military officials say there are at most 150 hilltop youth involved in serious incidents of violence against Palestinians, but are worried about the increasing number of “mainstream” settlers supporting their actions or participating themselves.

Ghassan Douglas, a Palestinian official who monitors Israeli settlements in the Nablus region, estimated around 400 Jewish settlers took part in the attack on Sunday night.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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