How a campaign of extremist violence is pushing the West Bank to the brink

He said that because of the intense fighting inside Gaza and the anguish felt by all Israelis over the atrocities committed by Hamas, Israeli soldiers are now, more than ever, failing in their duty to protect Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories.

“They don’t stop the extremist settlers,” he said. “They close their eyes.”

According to eyewitness accounts, videos and analysts who have looked at larger patterns of violence, extremist settlers in the West Bank are attacking Palestinian homes and businesses, blowing up their generators and solar panels, burning the tents of seminomadic Bedouin herders — and even shooting people.

United Nations officials say that since Oct. 7, Israel Defense Forces and armed settlers have killed more than 120 Palestinians in the West Bank. (Most of these deaths occurred in clashes with Israeli soldiers.)

Even before the attacks by Hamas, Settler violence reached its highest levels since the United Nations began monitoring it in the mid-2000s. According to UN data, there was one incident of settler violence per day. Now it’s seven.

On top of that, the number of Palestinian youth demonstrations, enraged by the relentless bombardment of Gaza, is also increasing. These protests often lead to deadly confrontations with Israeli troops. Soldiers also conduct nightly anti-terrorist raids, which the Israelis say are necessary to crack down on armed groups. But the raids, often carried out in narrow alleys and densely populated neighborhoods, can also cause more bloodshed.

The West Bank, which has been rocked by major uprisings in the past, feels ready to explode. And the concern, among the Palestinians and the Israeli security establishment, is what will happen if it does. If violence flares from the West Bank, it could risk opening another front in the war, further increasing the chances of a larger, even more destructive regional conflict.

Palestinians and rights activists blame the increasingly combustible atmosphere on Israel’s right-wing government, whose ministers have vowed to expand settlements and hand out more weapons to settlers. Deadly Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the West Bank are also at their highest level since the 2000s, raising tensions and the sense that this entire territory is on edge. On Thursday, Israeli officials said Palestinians opened fire on a car, killing the driver, a Jewish settler.

Gaza and the West Bank are two separate territories captured by Israel in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, effectively sealing it off and leaving its residents under a severe blockade that crippled its economy.

But Israel still occupies the West Bank under a highly controversial system that leaves Palestinians stateless, restricts their movement and tries them in Israeli military courts — restrictions that do not apply to settlers. The Israeli army regularly blocks roads, orders Palestinians off the streets and strictly controls access from one area to another.

Further complicating the West Bank is the growing number of Israeli settlements — more than 130 — that most of the world considers illegal because they were placed on occupied territory.

These communities, often built on strategic hilltops and surrounded by walls and razor wire, are scattered among a patchwork of Palestinian cities and towns run by the Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous Palestinian body. About half a million Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, along with about 2.7 million Palestinians.

Many settlers reject the Palestinian claim to the land, arguing that Jews have lived on the land since biblical times and that Israel rightfully won the land decades ago in a war.

According to Naomi Kahn, a settler who works for a non-profit organization that supports the settlements, Palestinians say “Everything in the Middle East is their land.”

“Try again,” he said. “I don’t buy it.”

In recent days, threatening leaflets, widely believed to be from settler extremists, have been slipped under the windscreens of Palestinian cars.

“A great disaster will soon fall upon your heads,” read one leaflet. “We will destroy every enemy and forcefully expel you from our Holy Lands that God wrote for us. Wherever you are, immediately carry your loads and leave where you came from. We’re coming for you.”

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