Palestinian West Bank death toll highest in years amid Israeli terror crackdown

PA health ministry says 85 killed so far this year, including attackers, rock-throwing teens and uninvolved civilians

Palestinian mourners and gunmen surround the body of Mohammed Arashi, 25, during his funeral in the West Bank city of Nablus on August 23, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian mourners and gunmen surround the body of Mohammed Arashi, 25, during his funeral in the West Bank city of Nablus on August 23, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

At least 85 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank so far this year as Israeli forces stepped up their nightly raids in cities, towns, and villages, making it the deadliest since 2016.

The military says the vast majority of those killed were members of terror groups or stone-throwers who endangered soldiers. The tally, from the Palestinian Authority health ministry, includes Palestinians who carried out attacks inside Israel.

It also included several civilians, including a veteran journalist and a lawyer who apparently drove unwittingly into battle zones, as well as teens who violently protested in response to Israel’s military operations in their neighborhoods.

The length and frequency of the raids have pulled into focus Israel’s tactics in the West Bank, where nearly 3 million Palestinians view the military’s decades-long presence as a threat.

Israeli troops have regularly operated across the West Bank since Israel captured the territory from Jordan in 1967.

Israel says it is dismantling networks of terror groups as part of an ongoing operation dubbed Breakwater, and that it makes every effort to avoid harming civilians. Palestinians say the raids are aimed at maintaining Israel’s 55-year military rule over territories they want for a future state — a prospect that appeared as remote as ever this year, with no serious peace negotiations held in over a decade.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers are seen operating in the West Bank, July 6, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel launched the operation this past spring after a wave of deadly attacks by Palestinians killed 19 people. Some of the attacks were carried out by known members of terror groups from the West Bank; others by so-called lone wolves. There have been no deadly attacks since May, but the military operations have continued unabated.

The PA health ministry reported 85 Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — where the PA does not exercise jurisdiction — since the start of the year.

With four months to go this year, that already is the highest number since 2016, the tail end of a previous wave of terror attacks, when 91 Palestinians were killed, according to yearly data compiled by the dovish Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

The ministry’s tally included attackers and known terrorists, but also uninvolved civilians, including the veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and a 58-year-old man who was shot in the head outside a bakery earlier this month. The Israeli military has said both may have been hit by Palestinian gunfire, but is still investigating the circumstances.

Yellow tape marks bullet holes on a tree and a portrait and flowers create a makeshift memorial at the site where Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 19, 2022. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

The dead also include 17 teens under the age of 18, as well as six women, according to the ministry. Israel says that teenagers and women are often involved in violence including hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at troops, while critics accuse the army of using excessive force in many cases.

Israel is also holding more than 600 Palestinians without charge or trial in what’s known as administrative detention — the highest number in six years.

Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli general who now heads the Israel Defense and Security Forum, said the heightened pace of operations is the result of the recent wave of attacks and the PA’s refusal to crack down on terrorists in the areas it administers.

The PA is mired in a crisis of legitimacy largely stemming from its cooperation with Israel on security matters. Palestinian officials say they will not help the Israeli military police in the West Bank, especially if there is no hope that doing so will lead to independence.

Palestinians clash with Israeli troops while forces carry out an operation in the West Bank town of Nablus, August 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Rights groups say that while some Israeli missions are aimed at combating specific threats, others are intended as a show of force, or to protect the population of settlers.

Ori Givati, the head of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group opposed to the occupation that gathers testimonies of former soldiers, said some witnesses recall carrying out mock arrests in which fully armed soldiers raid a home in the middle of the night for training purposes.

Even more common, he said, are so-called “stimulus and response” operations, which he said he took part in himself when he served in the West Bank. In those, Israeli troops roll through Palestinian areas, sometimes with lights and speakers on, hoping to lure stone-throwers or gunmen into the streets so they can arrest or confront them.

“The way we occupy the Palestinians is by creating more and more friction, making our presence felt,” Givati said. “We invade their towns, their cities, their homes.”

Soldiers during a nighttime operation to arrest Palestinians with illegal weapons in a West Bank village, on August 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a statement, the army denied the allegations, saying it acts “solely against threats and terrorist operatives who pose a security threat” in Israel and the West Bank.

Israel says it investigates all cases in which troops are suspected of killing civilians, but rights groups say most of those investigations are quietly closed, with soldiers rarely facing serious repercussions.

There were two notable exceptions this year.

The killing of Abu Akleh, a veteran on-air correspondent, prompted numerous independent investigations that concluded she was likely killed by Israeli fire. Israel denies targeting her and says it is still investigating.

Palestinian gunmen attend the funeral for Ibrahim Nabulsi and two others killed in the West Bank city of Nablus, August 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

There was also the case of Omar Assad, a 78-year-old man who died shortly after Israeli soldiers bound and blindfolded him and left him in the January cold. In that case, senior officers were reprimanded and stripped of leadership roles.

Both were American citizens, and the US raised both cases with Israel. Last week, Israel suspended four soldiers after they were caught on camera beating and kicking two detained Palestinians.

There was no such uproar over Salah Sawafta, who was shot outside the bakery as he returned from dawn prayers in the West Bank town of Tubas earlier this month. Israeli troops, who had gone to arrest alleged terror group members, were engaged in a firefight with Palestinian gunmen.

His family believes he was killed by an Israeli sniper in a building across the street. Zakreya Abu Dollah, the bakery owner who witnessed the shooting, said he saw Israeli soldiers fanned out on the street but no Palestinian gunmen or stone-throwers in the immediate area.

Israeli troops detain a man allegedly affiliated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, August 7, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces).

The military said it was investigating, and that Sawafta might have been hit by a stray bullet fired by Palestinian gunmen.

Jehad Sawafta said his late brother, who made a living trading animal feed, had no connection to any political faction or terror group.

Salah had a son and four daughters, one of whom was engaged to be married this past Friday, a week before he was killed.

“His second daughter was supposed to be married on August 26, but then everything got turned upside down,” Jehad said. “Those girls adored their father because he provided a good and dignified life for them.”

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