While the world is focused on the war in Gaza, tensions have risen in the occupied West Bank, where 54 Palestinians were killed over the past week in clashes with Israeli troops, arrest raids and attacks by Jewish settlers. U.N. monitors said it was the deadliest week for Palestinians in the territory since at least 2005.
Since Hamas’ deadly mass incursion into southern Israel, in which militants killed over 1,300 people and captured around 150, Israeli forces have held the West Bank under a tight grip, closing crossings into the territory and checkpoints between cities, measures they say are aimed at preventing attacks.
Friday was a particularly deadly day, with 16 Palestinians killed in different incidents in the West Bank.
The military says it has arrested 220 people in raids across the West Bank, including 130 Hamas operatives, since last weekend’s attack. Hamas militants are present in the West Bank but largely operate underground because of Israel's tight grip on the territory.
The renewed crackdown comes as Israel is concerned about the conflict escalating into a multifront war, particularly the possibility of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia also joining the battle.
But Palestinians say the latest Israeli measures in the West Bank have only further blurred the line between security forces and radical, violent settlers. Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right settler with a long history of anti-Arab incitement, responded to the Hamas attack by distributing more weapons to the already well-armed settler population and tasking settlers with security.
In a statement earlier this week, he said his office is distributing 10,000 firearms, as well as combat gear, protective vests and helmets, to Israeli civilians — with a particular focus on residents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“We will change the world so that the settlements will be protected,” he said. “I have ordered the massive arming of the civilian standby units in order to protect the settlements and the cities.”
On Friday, a video showed a settler with an assault rifle walking into the village of Al-Tuwani in the southern West Bank and shooting a Palestinian point blank.
Two days earlier, settlers shot dead three Palestinians in the village of Qusra, near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. On Thursday, settlers attacked their funeral, killing another two men, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Video footage showed the settlers swerving their cars into the funeral procession before stopping and opening fire.
On Thursday, settlers arrived at Wadi Seeq, a small Bedouin village home to around 200 people in the central West Bank, as Palestinians there packed up their belongings.
They had already moved all the women, children and livestock to a safer area in recent days because of rising threats, a resident of the village said. Witnesses said that the settlers opened fire, wounding three Palestinians and driving the rest out of the village.
Abdelrahman Kaabni, the head of the Wadi Seeq village council, said that soldiers and police had taken part in the attack, beating and arresting residents. As the villagers of Wadi Seeq fled settler violence, they left behind cisterns, livestock, solar panels and two vehicles. “The settlers took everything, and now they’re squatting in our homes,” Kaabni said.
Wadi Seeq is the sixth Bedouin village to have pulled up stakes in the last year in response to an uptick in settler attacks. Many more are in danger of being completely displaced, according to the West Bank Protection Consortium, a coalition of aid groups and donor countries, including the European Union, that support Palestinian communities.
Neither COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for civilian affairs, nor the Israeli military responded to requests for comment. In the past, authorities have said that troops open fire only in response to threats or to disperse violent protests and that soldiers protect Palestinians from settler attacks.
The United Nations said last month that 1,100 Palestinians had been displaced by settler violence in the last year, an unprecedented figure. Over just the last few days, around 200 to 300 Palestinians have been displaced in Wadi Seeq and other areas, the consortium said — often by settlers who are armed.
“They’re leaving now because they feel completely unprotected. They’re so scared of those settlers who have come in and threatened them," said Allegra Pacheco, who heads the West Bank Protection Consortium.
Most of the attacks come from settler outposts established without government authorization but protected by the Israeli army. Over 500,000 Jewish settlers live in nearly 150 settlements across the West Bank, which is home to some 2.5 million Palestinians. The international community overwhelmingly views settlements as illegal and a major obstacle to peace. Israel captured the West Bank, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 war. The Palestinians want the territories for their future state.
On Saturday, Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari appeared to be calling on settlers to stand down, saying: “The responsibility for security in the settlements and on the roads lies with the army alone.”
But messages continued to circulate on WhatsApp groups that Jewish settlers have created since the start of the war to coordinate operations in the West Bank. A description of one chat group with over 800 participants told residents to prepare for “the possibility of mobilizing for a joint activity with the security forces for the immediate demolition of terrorist houses.”
The message urged residents to “eliminate” any Palestinian approaching a settlement.
“From the stories flowing in from the Gaza Strip, it is clear that we cannot rely on the army alone to be able to protect us in a time of chaos," it read. "Are you ready for war?”