Hundreds of Israeli settlers stormed into a Palestinian town in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, setting fire to dozens of cars and homes to avenge the deaths of four Israelis killed by Palestinian gunmen the previous day, residents said. Palestinians said one man was killed in the violence.
After nightfall, Israel carried out a rare airstrike on a car carrying suspected Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank. The drone strike, believed to be the first in the area in nearly 20 years, marked a major escalation by Israel in a more than year-long campaign against militants in the area. Palestinian media reported three were killed in the strike.
The fighting further raised tensions heightened this week by a daylong Israeli military raid that killed seven people, including a 15-year-old girl, in a militant stronghold, and Tuesday’s mass shooting, whose victims included a 17-year-old Israeli boy.
Wednesday’s settler rampage came as the Israeli military deployed additional forces in the occupied West Bank, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to build 1,000 new settler homes in response to the deadly shooting.
Palestinian residents and human rights groups have long complained about Israel’s inability or refusal to halt settler violence. Residents in Turmus Ayya said some 400 settlers marched down the town’s main road, setting fire to cars, homes and trees.
Mayor Lafi Adeeb said some 30 houses and 60 cars were partly or totally burned. At least eight Palestinians were hurt during clashes, which the army tried to disperse by firing rubber bullets and tear gas.
Palestinian medical officials said one man — identified as 27-year-old Omar Qatin — was killed by army fire. Residents said Qatin was a father of two small children and worked as an electrician for the local municipality.
Israeli police said officers were attacked by residents with rocks and fireworks. One officer opened fire after believing his life was in danger, hitting a “rioter,” police said. But Palestinian residents disputed the account.
“He was just standing there, innocent, he is such a kind-hearted kid. He had no stones, he was totally unarmed, he was at least half a mile (one kilometer) away from the military,” said Khamis Jbara, his neighbor. “He works from 6am to 6pm. He is a peaceful man.”
The town’s Palestinian residents, including many who are American citizens, were seething and in shock after the attack.
Streets were littered with broken pots, uprooted trees, charred yard furniture and skeletons of cars. At least one house was completely torched, the living room blackened, the furniture burned to ashes.
“It was terrifying, we just saw mobs of people in the streets, masked, armed,” said Mohammed Suleiman, a 56-year-old Palestinian-American who lives in Chicago and was visiting his hometown.
Suleiman blamed the Israeli military, saying the soldiers turned their guns on the Palestinian residents instead of the vandals marching into the town with guns and firebombs and setting alight everything in their path. The army was “literally clearing the way for them,” he said.
Abdulkarim Abdulkarim, a 44-year-old resident of Ohio, said his family’s four cars were burned and house damaged. “They call us terrorists but here you have terrorism supported by the government,” he said.
In the home of the Shalaby family, eight children hid on the third floor when they saw a mob of masked settlers slash tires and throw fuel on three cars. Within moments, their front yard erupted into a giant fireball. At least one of the armed settlers burst through the front door, trashing the sunroom and breaking windows.
“I just kept thinking I was going to die,” said 15-year-old Mohammed Awwad, an American citizen from northern California who was visiting his grandparents. He was removing pieces of glass from his foot as his family packed up their valuables to take to an aunt’s house in the hills, fearing the settlers’ return.
Turmus Ayya, a town of luxurious villas with gardens and views of rolling olive groves, is frequently a target of settler attacks. Tayem Abu Awwad, whose old car was torched in a separate attack last week, said his brand new Toyota was charred in Wednesday’s rampage.
The Israeli military said it sent forces into the town “to extinguish the fires, prevent clashes and to collect evidence.”
The military condemned “these serious incidents of violence and destruction of property,” adding that settler violence prevents it from carrying out its “main mission” of protecting national security and battling militants.
But later Wednesday, further north in the town of Urif, an angry mob of some 100 settlers ran through the town, throwing rocks at Palestinian homes and hurling a firebomb at the local school, said local Palestinian official Ghassan Daghlas. Palestinian residents said Israeli security forces fired live bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at them as they tried to fend off the settlers.
Just as settlers were withdrawing from the town, the Israeli drone hit the Palestinian car near the militant stronghold of Jenin, turning the vehicle into a fireball.
The identities of the people on board were not immediately known. But the army said it had “identified a terrorist cell inside a suspicious vehicle” that had been responsible for a number of recent shooting attacks on Jewish settlements.
Ismail Radwan, a leader in the Hamas militant group, called the drone strike a “dangerous development” and called on “the resistance in the West Bank to escalate the confrontation.”
The settler attack brought back memories of a rampage last February in which dozens of cars and homes were torched in the town of Hawara following the killing of a pair of Israeli brothers by a Palestinian gunman.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh visited Turmus Ayya to inspect the damage. Local criticism of the Palestinian Authority has intensified over its weakness in the face of settler attacks.
As he spoke, expressing solidarity with the residents and appealing to the United States to intervene — given the high percentage of American citizens in the town — one resident shouted at him and demanded the authority “do more to protect its people.”
Egypt and Jordan, the first two Arab countries to make peace with Israel, both condemned the settler violence and called for an immediate end to the attacks.
Netanyahu criticized the settler violence, as well as unrelated protests by Druze Arabs in the Golan Heights that turned violent.
“We will not accept any provocations to the police or the security forces in these places or anywhere else,” he said. “We are a nation of laws.”
Tuesday’s shooting in the settlement of Eli came a day after seven Palestinians were killed in a battle against Israeli troops in Jenin. The worsening violence has created a test for Israel’s government and prompted calls for a widespread military operation in the West Bank.
As Israel deployed more forces to the area, Netanyahu said he had approved plans to build 1,000 new homes in Eli. “Our answer to terror is to strike it hard and to build our country,” he said.
The international community opposes settlements on occupied lands sought by the Palestinians for a future independent state. Netanyahu’s far-right government is dominated by settler leaders and supporters.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for a future independent state.