Dozens of Israeli settlers rampaged violently for hours in the West Bank town of Huwara on Sunday evening, setting fire to Palestinian homes and cars, hours after two Israeli brothers were shot dead in a terror attack there.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said one man was shot dead by Israeli fire during the riots in the town of Za’tara, south of Huwara and close to the settlement of Kfar Tapuah. The Palestinian Red Crescent medical service said two other people were shot and wounded, a third person was stabbed and a fourth was beaten with an iron bar. Some 95 others were being treated for tear gas inhalation.
A military source said Israeli troops were not involved in the shooting that killed 37-year-old Sameh Aqtash. There was no immediate comment from Border Police officials on the incident, and it remained unclear if he was shot by settlers.
Palestinian media reports published footage of burning homes and cars that had been set on fire by the settlers in violent riots after the killing of Hallel and Yagel Yaniv in what the Israeli army said was a Palestinian terror attack in the town earlier in the day. The gunman in that attack was still being hunted.
Palestinian media said some 30 homes and cars were torched. Photos and video on social media showed large fires burning throughout the town of Huwara — a town just south of Nablus — and lighting up the sky.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said its medics treated 390 people wounded in the clashes with settlers, and three ambulances were attacked.
مصادر محلية: "سامح أقطش كان متطوعاً في تركيا بعمليات الإنقاذ بعد الزلزال قبل أسبوعين، وارتقى اليوم جراء اعتداء قوات الاحتلال والمستوطنين على قرية زعترة جنوب نابلس". pic.twitter.com/7YnDctXiog
— وكالة شهاب للأنباء (@ShehabAgency) February 26, 2023
Border Police officers reportedly attempted to disperse the settlers with tear gas. Hebrew media reports after midnight indicated that the riots had been largely quelled and the settlers dispersed after several hours. Eight people were reported arrested.
The Israel Defense Forces 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.
The Magen David Adom ambulance service said its medics treated two 16-year-olds suffering from tear gas inhalation at the nearby Yitzhar Junction.
The settler protesters said they were demanding Israeli security forces deal with “nests of terror” in the area.
مستوطنون يحرقون عدداً كبيراً من مركبات الفلسطينيين في حوارة جنوب نابلس. pic.twitter.com/jxbxeAlfi6
— شبكة قدس الإخبارية (@qudsn) February 26, 2023
The rampage drew angry denunciations from the PA, the European Union, the United States and among many Israelis.
Earlier Sunday, shortly after the deadly shooting attack, at least three homes in the town were set on fire by settlers, and one Palestinian man was stabbed, according to the Yesh Din rights group.
The deputy head of the Samaria Regional Council, Davidi Ben Zion, called for Huwara, a town of some 7,000 in the northern West Bank, to be “wiped out” in response to the attack.
“Here in Huwara the blood of our children was spilled on the road… Huwara needs to be wiped out today. Enough talk about building and strengthening the settlements. The deterrence that was lost must return now, there’s no room for mercy,” he said in a post on Twitter.
???? متابعة صفا| الاعلام العبري: حوارة بنابلس الليلة تبدو وكأنها ساحة حرب pic.twitter.com/UBTKjkDL4b
— وكالة صفا (@SafaPs) February 26, 2023
Ben Zion’s tweet was liked by Minister in the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich, who later issued a message urging settlers not to take the law into their own hands and “create dangerous anarchy that could get out of control and cost lives.” Smotrich added: “The pain is great, but believe me that we are working hard to provide a real solution to terrorism. Since the attack we have been dealing only with this. Let us devise the response and let the IDF win.”
The Huwara municipality was quoted by the left-wing Yesh Din right group as saying that settlers had indeed “destroyed the village,” adding that “it was brutal violence the likes of which we haven’t seen in the village for years. The military did nothing to prevent the settlers from doing whatever they wanted. It’s a pogrom sponsored by the army and government of Israel.”
On Sunday evening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement lamenting the deadly shooting of the two Israeli brothers, while calling on Israelis to refrain from revenge attacks.
“The IDF and the security forces are currently hunting for the murderer,” Netanyahu said. “We will find him, we will catch him and we will bring him to justice.
“I am asking, while blood is boiling and winds are high — don’t take the law into your hands,” he added. “I ask that you allow the IDF and security forces to do their work.”
President Isaac Herzog issued similar remarks. “Taking the law into one’s own hands, rioting, and committing violence against innocents — this is not our way, and I express my forceful condemnation,” he said in a statement.
“We must allow the IDF, police, and security forces to apprehend the despicable terrorist and restore order immediately,” Herzog added.
Opposition Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli called the riots a pogrom and the settlers involved “terrorists” who “get their legitimacy from senior members of this government.” She added: “This cancerous growth that threatens the country must be excised as soon as possible, before it leads us to utter ruin.”
— إذاعة الأقصى – عاجل (@Alaqsavoice_Brk) February 26, 2023
Also in response to the killing of the Yaniv brothers, dozens of settlers broke into the evacuated illegal Evyatar outpost and vowed to resettle the area.
Dozens of squatters had left the northern West Bank hilltop community as part of an agreement with the previous government in 2021, which saw a peaceful evacuation in exchange for the government agreeing to allow the illegal homes they had erected to remain in place while carrying out a survey of the land.
‘We have a huge hole in our hearts’
Police on Sunday afternoon had raised their level of alertness, and the military bolstered forces in a bid to capture the gunman who carried out the attack on a traffic artery used by both Israelis and Palestinians that traverses Huwara.
Esti Yaniv, the mother of Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, said nothing would fill the hole in her heart.
“We received a tremendous slap in the face from God,” she said in a call with the youth of the settlement of Har Bracha, where the victims lived.
Esti and her husband Shalom Yaniv are the youth coordinators in the settlement.
“We are trying to find the good things, the kindness, that we had a family Shabbat together, good conversations with the kids,” she said.
“We have a huge hole in our hearts,” Yaniv continued. “Nothing will close that hole, not [settlement] construction, not a protest — nothing.”
The victims’ corneas were to be donated for transplant, as the brothers both held Adi donor cards.
Their funerals were expected to be held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on Monday.
The Israel Defense Forces 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.
Graphic footage from the attack showed the victims’ car riddled with bullets. Troops at the scene found 12 nine-millimeter shell casings, indicting the attacker used a handgun or makeshift submachine gun.
An initial probe of the shooting suggested the gunman took advantage of a traffic jam on the highway to carry out the attack.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered the IDF to ramp up operations in the West Bank, “with the aim of expanding defense operations in the settlements and on the roads,” his office said in a statement after he held an assessment with top defense officials.
“Gallant directed the security forces to focus operational and intelligence efforts to capture the terrorists, while taking any necessary action, including offensive actions to prevent further attacks,” it added.
After a later assessment held with security officials, Gallant ordered to “increase the level of alert also in the Jerusalem area and [area] surrounding Gaza,” his office said.
Military chief Herzi Halevi toured the scene of the attack on Sunday evening and ordered to further bolster forces in the area with two additional infantry battalions.
The 202nd Paratrooper Battalion was already being deployed on Sunday evening, and the 435th Battalion of the Givati Brigade was to be deployed on Monday.
“As part of the expanding security activity in the city of Nablus, it was decided to increase the security checks on routes leading in and out of the city,” the military said.
Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai said security forces would work tirelessly to capture the terrorist. “I trust the Shin Bet and IDF intelligence, who will know how to reach the terrorist,” Shabtai said in a statement.
“We are in a very sensitive situation and it requires all of us to be on operational alert,” he said, adding that the “Israel Police is entering maximum alert in order to be at the highest level of preparedness for operation.”
Huwara has long been a flashpoint; it is one of the only Palestinian towns through which Israelis regularly travel in order to reach settlements in the northern West Bank.
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.
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.
A string of Palestinian terror attacks in Jerusalem in recent weeks left 11 people dead and several more seriously hurt.
Over 60 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, most of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, but some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under circumstances that are being investigated.
There has also been a noted rise in settler attacks against Palestinians in response to recent terror attacks. On Saturday, Israeli settlers torched a number of Palestinian-owned cars in the village of Burin, close to Nablus.
The attack on Sunday came as Israeli and Palestinian officials sat down for a meeting in Jordan in a bid to restore calm to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Agencies contributed to this report.