'If rise in violence continues, we'll see another Duma'

Settlers suspected of hurling stones at convoy of PA prime minister

Incident takes place near same West Bank junction where Israelis believed to have thrown rock that killed Palestinian woman; defense official also notes rise in price tag attacks

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Illustrative: Jewish settlers throw stones near the West Bank village of Hawara, after five people were killed in the nearby Jewish settlement of Itamar Saturday, March 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)
Illustrative: Jewish settlers throw stones near the West Bank village of Hawara, after five people were killed in the nearby Jewish settlement of Itamar Saturday, March 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)

Israeli settlers are suspected of having hurled stones at the convoy of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in the northern West Bank last week.

A passenger inside one of the vehicles was lightly injured from shattered glass, a defense official told The Times of Israel late Wednesday, confirming a report by the Kan public broadcaster.

According to a PA government spokesman, two people were injured in the incident, which took place at 2 a.m. on Christmas, as they returned from midnight mass in Bethlehem.

The confirmation came as the Israeli defense official warned that far-right activists in the West Bank were “emboldened” and cautioned that sporadic attacks by settlers could grow increasingly violent.

The rock-throwing incident last week took place near the Tapuah junction, where, in October, a large stone was hurled at a vehicle being driven by Yakoub Rabi. That rock went through the windshield and hit his wife Aisha in the head, killing the 47-year-old mother of eight.

An investigation has been opened into the incident with the growing assessment among defense officials being that Israeli settlers were responsible for throwing the stone. However, a gag order has been placed on most details of the probe.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah waves to the crowd upon his arrival in Gaza City on March 13, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Another Duma

The past year has seen a significant rise in so-called “price tag” attacks, the defense official added, employing a slogan used by far-right Israelis to justify targeting Palestinians and even IDF soldiers. The phrase marks the attacks as ostensible retaliation for terror attacks and Israeli government actions deemed hostile to the settler movement.

“The hilltop youth are less deterred than before and are feeling emboldened,” the defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity and referring to the far-right activists who are known for establishing illegal outposts on hilltops throughout the West Bank.

He said the attacks are more brazen than previously, pointing to the increased willingness of young settlers to enter Palestinian villages in the middle of the night, rather than just chopping down olive trees that are planted outside of those communities.

“If this trend of escalation in price tag attacks continues, another deadly attack will occur like the one in Duma,” he added.

In July 2015, suspects hurled a firebomb at a home in the Palestinian village of Duma, burning to death three members of the Dawabsha family. Two Israeli youth were subsequently arrested for involvement in the attack, and their trial is ongoing.

Saad and Riham Dawabsha, with baby Ali. All three died when the Dawabsha home in the West Bank village of Duma was firebombed, by suspected Jewish extremists, on July 31, 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)

The official noted that the flareup has seen not only settler violence targeting Palestinians, but attacks on Israeli security forces as well. Over 40 such incidents have been documented, the majority of which took place near the Yitzhar settlement.

The northern West Bank community and its surrounding outposts have been pegged in the past as a hotbed for far-right violence.

In July, settlers from the Kipah Srugah outpost outside Yitzhar clashed with Border Police, with one of the youths hurling a stone that struck an officer in the head, fracturing her skull.

Last week, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released new statistics ahead of the new year that showed a 69% increase in settler attacks on Palestinians in 2018 compared to 2017.

A car belonging to a Palestinian couple is seen after it was involved in a deadly crash reportedly due to stone-throwing by Israeli settlers at the Tapuah Junction in the northern West Bank on October 12, 2018. (Zachariah Sadeh/Rabbis for Human Rights); Aisha Muhammad Talal Rabi (Courtesy)

OCHA recorded 265 incidents where Israeli residents of the West Bank allegedly targeted Palestinians or their property. In total, 115 Palestinians were injured in those attacks and 7,900 trees and 540 vehicles were destroyed.

The defense official also accused Israeli courts of having contributed to the rise, claiming that judges are too quick to release hilltop youth suspects from detention.

He claimed that following the Duma attack, the courts were more aware of the danger posed by far-right activists in the West Bank, but that awareness had been diminished over time.

The comments came just a day after the Lod District Court threw out confessions extracted by officials from the Shin Bet security service from an Israeli teenager accused of membership in a terror cell and of involvement in the arson of Jerusalem’s Dormition Abbey.

In a ruling viewed as a substantial blow to the Shin Bet security agency, Judge Michal Brant chastised the Israeli investigators for their use of enhanced interrogation methods against the suspect, who was a minor at the time.

An imam at a mosque in the Palestinian village of Aqraba in the northern West Bank looks at the damages done from a price-tag arson attack on April 13, 2018. (Zacharia Sadeh/ Rabbis for Human Rights)

Refusing to comment on the ruling, the defense official said it was crucial in the coming days and weeks that the legal system in Israel “mobilize” along with the defense establishment to confront the spike in far-right violence.

Hardline Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich accused the Shin Bet of “conducting a cynical and tendentious campaign” aimed at pressuring the courts to continue extending an order preventing three Jewish teens arrested in a major security probe from meeting with their attorneys.

The investigation — whose details have been gagged — is being conducted jointly by the Shin Bet security service and the police’s nationalistic crime unit, which are probing the incident as a possible Jewish terror plot.

The boys were arrested Sunday morning and have been barred from meeting with an attorney until Friday. Israeli law allows authorities to delay by up to 21 days an attorney visit for an individual arrested in a security-related crime.

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