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

On Saturday morning, Bilal Mohammad Saleh, a Palestinian sage and thyme seller, went out with his family to pick olives.

It’s olive harvest season in the West Bank, and Saleh was helping pick fruit from the gnarled trees his family has owned for generations.

Then, four armed Jewish settlers arrived, according to witnesses. They started shouting and the olive pickers stopped what they were doing and started running.

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But Saleh forgot his phone.

“I’ll be right back,” he said to his wife.

Two shots rang out and, in an instant, Saleh, known for his love of fresh leaves and his fun-loving father nature, found himself face down in the olive grove, dead.

With the world’s attention now focused on the Gaza Strip, violence in the West Bank, a much larger and more complex Palestinian-majority area, is reaching its highest levels in years.

Some specific incidents, like the olive grove killing, reflect a long-standing problem in the West Bank that has worsened since the October 7 terrorist attacks: heavily armed extremist settlers have operated with impunity for years, with many Palestinians say, and now their assaults become bolder, more deadly and incessant.

Senior observers say the surge in violence is part of a broader campaign to frighten Palestinians and drive them from their lands, a campaign that may have accelerated amid Israel’s enraged and hurt mood. . Since October 7, settler violence has displaced more than 800 Palestinians, including entire communities of herders.

“The strategy is: We are here, this land belongs to us and we will expel you from it, with all the means at our disposal,” said Dov Sedaka, an Israeli reserve general who works for a foundation that supports Israeli cooperation. -Palestinian.

“It’s horrible,” he added.

He said that due to the intense battle inside Gaza and the anguish felt by all Israelis over the atrocities committed by Hamas, Israeli soldiers were failing more than ever in their duty to protect civilians Palestinians in the occupied areas.

“They are not arresting extremist settlers,” he said. “They turn a blind eye.”

Extremist West Bank settlers have attacked Palestinian homes and businesses, blowing up their generators and solar panels, setting fire to shepherds’ tents, according to witness statements, video footage and analysts who have examined broader patterns of violence. semi-nomadic Bedouins – and even shoot people.

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

Even before the Hamas attacks, settler violence was at its highest level since the UN began tracking it in the mid-2000s. According to UN figures, there was once one incident of violence by the settlers. It is now seven o’clock.

In addition, the number of demonstrations by Palestinian youth, angered by the incessant bombing of Gaza, is also increasing. These demonstrations frequently lead to deadly clashes with Israeli troops. Soldiers also stage nighttime counterterrorism raids, which Israelis say are necessary to quell armed groups. But the raids, often carried out in narrow alleys and densely populated neighborhoods, can also spark more bloodshed.

The West Bank, which has already been rocked by major uprisings, feels ready to explode. And the worry, among Palestinians and Israeli security officials, is what would happen if that happened. If violence comes from the West Bank, it could risk opening a new war front, increasing the risks of a larger, even more catastrophic regional conflict.

Palestinians and rights advocates blame the increasingly volatile atmosphere on Israel’s right-wing government, whose ministers have pledged to expand settlements and distribute more weapons to settlers. Deadly Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the West Bank are also at their highest level since the 2000s, adding to tensions and the feeling that this entire territory is on its last legs. On Thursday, Israeli officials said Palestinians opened fire on a car and killed the driver, a Jewish settler.

Gaza and the West Bank are two separate areas conquered by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, effectively sealing off the Gaza Strip and leaving its residents under a strict blockade that strangled its economy.

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

Further complicating the situation in the West Bank is the growing number of Israeli settlements – more than 130 – which most countries around the world consider illegal because they were established on occupied land.

These communities, often built on strategic hills and surrounded by walls and barbed wire, are scattered across a patchwork of Palestinian towns administered by the Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous Palestinian body. Around half a million Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, alongside around 2.7 million Palestinians.

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

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

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

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

“A great catastrophe will soon befall your heads,” one leaflet reads. “We will destroy all enemies and expel you by force from our Holy Land that God wrote for us. Wherever you are, immediately carry your loads and leave where you came from. We are coming for you.

Sam Stein is a Jewish peace activist from Long Island, New York, who spent years working in the West Bank and physically inserted himself between extremist settlers and Palestinians. He said any recent violence was “not random acts of hatred.”

Instead, he said, it is a “guided approach” aimed at creating “Jewish continuity” in the West Bank.

Jewish settlers are aided in this project by the fact that they are allowed to carry weapons, which is not the case for Palestinian civilians. Another recent incident, among many others, shows how Palestinians often pay the price.

On October 13, Zakariya al-Arda, a Palestinian construction worker living in a small West Bank town called At-Tuwani, was walking up a hill after Friday prayers with about eight friends. Video from that day shows that no member of al-Arda’s group is carrying a gun, although one is holding a stone.

A settler from Havat Ma’on, a border outpost of At-Tuwani considered illegal even under Israeli law, walks down the hill brandishing a rifle. He hits al-Arda with the butt. As al-Arda tries to defend himself, the settler shoots him.

The bullet pierced his stomach, a few centimeters below his lungs. He survives. But that single bullet struck fear into the entire community.

“We didn’t do anything to the settlers,” said al-Arda’s brother Khaled. “They constantly harass us, vandalize our properties and threaten our safety. What do they want from us?

Boaz Natan, a settler and former soldier who oversees security in Havat Ma’on and the neighboring settlement of Ma’on, was aware of the shooting but said he did not want to “determine whether any of this was acceptable or No “. Yet, he added, the settlement’s security committee immediately confiscated the man’s gun because it did not want “lone actors doing what they think should be done.”

Israeli police are investigating the incident, according to the Israeli military.

Palestinian leaders say their people are more frightened – by what is happening in Gaza and now the West Bank – than they have been in a long time.

“Israel says it has the right to respond. They responded,” said Mustafa Bargouthi, a senior Palestinian lawmaker. “How many thousands more Palestinians would have to die before this stops? »

In the case of Saleh, the man killed while picking olives, his family remains in shock.

He lived in a village called Al Sawiya, north of Jerusalem. Aged forty, he struggled to support his four children with his small business selling fresh herbs in Ramallah, one of the largest cities in the West Bank.

According to an Israeli army spokesperson, an off-duty soldier “allegedly” fired his military weapon during the incident and was taken into custody for questioning. The spokesperson said Israeli soldiers are required to intervene if they are present when violence erupts.

But in this case, Mohammad Yasser Saleh, one of Bilal’s cousins, said Israeli soldiers sat in a jeep parked on top of the hill during the shooting and watched the whole thing. The Israeli army declined to comment on why soldiers did not intervene.

This murder left Saleh’s children in a state of stupefaction.

Musa, 8, remembers what his father was doing just before the shots rang out.

“He carried me while dancing and made me laugh,” he said. “He then lifted me up to an olive tree and said, ‘Let’s see how many olives you can pick.'”

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