US pans settler violence, noting it has led Palestinians to flee their villages

State Department says administration ‘deeply troubled’ after footage emerges of armed settlers storming into Palestinian homes in West Bank accompanied by soldiers

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Screenshot from a video of settlers firing at the West Bank village of Umm Safa on June 24, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Illustrative: Screenshot from a video of settlers firing at the West Bank village of Umm Safa on June 24, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The United States on Wednesday condemned the latest incident of settler violence, which saw armed Israeli extremists storm into the homes of Palestinians in a village in the southern West Bank, searching them as IDF soldiers looked on.

“We are troubled by rising reports of settler violence. Such violence has led to at least four Palestinian communities evacuating their villages,” said State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel when asked about the incident during a press briefing.

In May, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that the final members of the Palestinian herding community of Ein Samia near Ramallah had left their lands after longstanding intimidation and attacks by settlers and home demolitions by Israeli authorities.

“These families are not leaving by choice; the Israeli authorities have repeatedly destroyed houses and other buildings they own and threatened to destroy their only school,” said the UN’s Acting Humanitarian Coordinator Yvonne Halle. “At the same time, the available grazing land has dwindled due to the expansion of settlements. Both children and adults have experienced settler violence.”

In the Wednesday briefing, Patel also reiterated a statement point that the US issued following settler riots in the West Bank last month. “Accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of extremist violence, and we expect the Israeli Government to ensure full accountability for those responsible for such attacks, including legal action and restitution for lost homes and property, as appropriate,” he said.

In footage of Tuesday’s incident in a Bedouin village near Hebron, a group of settlers, one of whom carrying an assault rifle, can be seen walking from home to home searching their meager belongings and shouting at the inhabitants.

Another settler can be seen kicking a hole in the door of a cabinet inside one of the homes, as a child cries in the background.

No uniformed IDF soldiers can be seen in that video, although the Yesh Din rights group that published the footage claimed that several arrived later. Private Israeli citizens are not legally able to purchase assault rifles.

In a separate video said to have been filmed in a nearby village, IDF soldiers can be seen accompanying the settlers conducting searches.

The IDF said in a statement that it had received a report Monday evening of property stolen from Israeli citizens by Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills area. The IDF said its forces conducted a search in the area in coordination with the Israel Police.

The IDF did not respond to questions about the involvement of settlers in the incident or about the status of the assault rifle seen carried by a civilian.

Another incident took place on Thursday, during which settlers from Yitzhar hurled stones, set a vehicle on fire, attacked homes and injured several residents in the nearby village of village of Asira al-Qibliya, according to Yesh Din.

Unchecked settler violence in Palestinian towns has soared in recent months, including two separate rampages in Huwara that caused heavy damage and the death of a Palestinian man in unclear circumstances, following terror attacks in, and emanating from, the Palestinian town.

The government has pledged to hold those behind the settler rampages accountable. Two suspects have since been charged in the rioting, and eight Israelis have been held under administrative detention for their involvement. Hundreds were filmed taking part in the attacks.

Condemning Ben Gvir, praising Abbas

At a press briefing on Thursday, Patel condemned National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount earlier in the day.

“We absolutely are concerned by today’s visit to Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. We reaffirm our longstanding position in support of the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites and we underline Jordan’s special role in Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Any unilateral action or rhetoric that deviates or jeopardizes the status quo is completely unacceptable,” Patel said.

Earlier in the day, the US Office of Palestinian Affairs hailed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scrap a 2022 decree that created a supreme body under his control with the ability to review legal cases.

The new Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Authorities was never fully established, but it would have led to a significant curbing of the Palestinian judiciary’s power and independence.

“We applaud President Abbas’ decision to nullify the Supreme Council for Judicial Bodies and Authorities. An independent judiciary is essential for any successful society and crucial for any future Palestinian state. We welcome further PA initiatives aimed at improving governance,” the US Office of Palestinian Affairs tweeted.

The praise for Ramallah contrasted starkly with the disappointment Washington expressed earlier this week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passed the first piece of legislation from its judicial overhaul.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report. 

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