Israel releases settlers arrested after anti-Palestinian attacks

Only eight Jewish settlers were arrested after Sunday’s attack on villages near Nablus that left one Palestinian dead and set fire to homes and cars.

Palestinian town of Huwara
Smoke and flames rise after Israeli settlers went on a rampage in the occupied West Bank town of Huwara, setting fire to several homes and cars and injuring dozens of Palestinians, on February 27, 2023. [Hisham K. K. Abu Shaqra/Anadolu Agency]

Occupied East Jerusalem – Israeli authorities have released all suspects arrested after a Sunday night rampage by Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, which killed one Palestinian, injured hundreds and destroyed Palestinian homes and property.

The Israeli police told the Times of Israel that six suspects had been released on Monday, and that a further two were released to house arrest on Tuesday. No other settlers are believed to have been arrested.

The Israeli government has come under fierce criticism for its response to the attacks across several villages near Nablus, in which some 400 settlers participated.

Settlers committed shootings, arson attacks and beat Palestinians with metal rods and rocks, according to Palestinian media reports. Some 390 Palestinians were injured – the majority from tear gas and smoke inhalation.

The Palestinian Authority said that at least 30 Palestinian homes and more than 100 cars had been burned.

“Hundreds participated in the attack; hundreds of properties [were] burned. It is belittling [the issue] that they have only arrested eight – and then released the majority of them,” Palestinian political analyst Ismat Mansour told Al Jazeera.

The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

The release of the settlers arrested fits into a wider pattern, with only 3 percent of investigations into attacks against Palestinians resulting in a conviction and 93 percent of investigations closing without an indictment, according to the Israeli rights group Yesh Din.

Every year, hundreds of attacks have been carried out by Israelis living in illegal settlements against Palestinians and their properties in the occupied West Bank.

So far in 2023, at least four Palestinians have been killed by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank.

Continuing attacks

The settler attacks unfolded in the hours after two Israeli settlers were killed in a shooting by a Palestinian man in Huwara, near Nablus, on Sunday afternoon.

The men were two brothers who lived in the illegal settlement of Har Bracha south of Nablus.

On Monday afternoon, dozens of armed Israeli settlers gathered in Huwara under Israeli army protection, raising fears of another assault.

Despite the attacks, Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, responded to the violence by holding a news conference at the illegal outpost of Evytar on Monday morning, where he called for the outpost to be legalised.

“The political answer to [terror] attack is to establish this settlement,” said Ben-Gvir.

Individual settler attacks continued into Monday night with incidents including arson attacks and rock-throwing reported around Ramallah and Nablus.

At least three Palestinians were wounded, including a mother accompanying her 12-year-old daughter in an ambulance.

Separately on Monday evening, another suspected Palestinian shooting attack took place, killing an Israeli American near Jericho.

The Israeli army has said that it has launched a large manhunt for the perpetrators of the two attacks.

Hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to the occupied West Bank, and checkpoints have been set up along the main highway to Nablus and Jenin with tight security checks and restrictions on cars with Palestinian licence plate numbers, which remained in place on Tuesday.

Israeli forces also arrested eight Palestinians overnight, mainly from the Al-Arroub refugee camp north of Hebron, and Ya’bad, south of Jenin in the occupied West Bank.

Observers have suggested that the Israeli authorities have disproportionately focused on arresting Palestinian perpetrators of shooting attacks, rather than investigating the settlers behind the attacks on the Palestinian villages.

“The army continues talking about the ‘hunt for the terrorist’ but not about the hunt for whoever killed the Palestinian medic yesterday, or against whoever set fire to the homes of families,” the Israeli journalist Haggai Matar said on Twitter. “That is why we need to scream out especially against Jewish terrorists.”

‘Political and legal cover’

Matters on the ground have been tense for more than a year, but since the swearing-in of the new far-right Israeli government late last year under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli officials have taken steps that have further escalated tensions.

Israeli forces carried out three large-scale raids in Palestinian cities since the new government took office, killing dozens of Palestinians.

On February 22, Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians and wounded more than 100, the majority with live ammunition, during a raid on Nablus.

It was the largest Palestinian death toll in a single Israeli military operation since 2005.

Less than a month prior, the Israeli army killed 10 Palestinians during an attack on the Jenin refugee camp, including two children and a 61-year-old woman.

During the settler rampage in Nablus, several Israeli ministers in the Knesset and settlement officials made comments and gestures in support of the attacks.

Zvika Fogel, a member of Netanyahu’s governing coalition and Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party, said “a terrorist came out of Huwara – and Huwara was closed and burned. This is what I want to see. That’s the only way we’ll achieve deterrence.”

“After a murder like [Sunday’s], villages should burn when the IDF does not act,” she added.

Meanwhile, in a tweet that has since been deleted, Davidi Ben Zion, deputy head of the Samaria Regional Council that governs illegal settlements in the northern occupied West Bank, said the “village of Huwara should be erased”.

The tweet was liked by Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the country’s finance minister and a key figure in Netanyahu’s government.

Daniella Weiss, a settlement movement leader and a former mayor of the illegal Kedumim settlement near Nablus, also said, “Why should we stop? We’re protecting the lives of Jews,” in an interview on Israel’s Kan public radio.

The settlers “have a lot of guns”, she said. “Anyone who thinks that we have to use the army to deal with these attackers and not through strengthening the settlements is mistaken.”

Source: Al Jazeera