Last year saw a steep rise in “nationalist crimes,” violence and property damage by Jews against Palestinians in the West Bank. As of mid-December, 482 such incidents had been reported, compared to 140 for 2017.
Violence by settlers and right-wing activists included beating up and throwing stones at Palestinians. More frequently, the offenses consisted of painting nationalist and anti-Arab or anti-Muslim slogans, damaging homes and cars and cutting down trees belonging to Palestinian farmers.
Such incidents decreased sharply in 2016 and 2017 from previous years. The decline has been attributed to the response of the authorities following the firebombing of a home in the West Bank village of Duma, which took the lives of three members of the Dawabshe family. Amiram Ben-Uliel, a young settler, was indicted on three counts of murder in that case. After the attack the Shin Bet security service arrested several extremist right-wing activists living in the northern West Bank who were suspected of involvement in violence and incitement to violence against Arabs.
A series of actions taken during that time — including detention without charges, restraining orders keeping suspects out of the West Bank and in a few cases the granting of permission to interrogate suspects using harsh methods — enabled the authorities to crack a number of cases, which acted as a deterrent and brought down the rate of violence against Palestinians. However, over the past year, after the activists were released (as well as the rise of new, younger groups), violent acts increased once again.
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There has also been a change in the attitude of the settlement leadership to the violence. The attack in Duma came as a shock to many. Some settler leaders, as well as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, spoke out strongly against Jewish terror. But in recent months a decline in the strength of settlement figures described as “statesmanlike” can be seen. More extreme individuals who won seats on some of the local councils in the municipal elections in November have sometimes responded to violence against Palestinians ambiguously and leniently.
Tension has ratcheted up somewhat over the past few weeks between the defense establishment and the settlers against the backdrop of two incidents. One was the removal of prefabs brought in by settlers to the illegal outpost of Amona, which saw a violent clash between right-wing activists and Border Police personnel. And, particularly, the second — the arrest of three teenage boys over suspected involvement in Jewish terror, which sparked a wave of protest and warnings of the supposed intention of the Shin Bet to torture the suspects during questioning.
The rise in the number of violent incidents also seems connected to a desire to avenge Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Such incidents increased after two attacked early last year and again after the murder of two Israelis in an attack in the Barkan industrial zone in October. A few days after the murder at Barkan, a Palestinian woman was killed near Nablus by stones thrown, apparently by Israelis, at the car in which she was traveling. In another case, a failed attempt was made to set fire to a mosque.
The army also attributes the rise in violence by Jews against Arabs to closer surveillance by security forces (some incidence of vandalism had never been documented in the past). However, weakness can be seen in the way law enforcement treats acts of Jewish terror and violence; in some cases suspects are quickly released from custody without further legal action taken.
Defense officials said that the most extreme group of right-wing activists, the so-called hilltop youth, most of whom live in West Bank outposts, are estimated to number about 300. Out of these, a few dozen are suspected of involvement in violence. Most of the suspects are quite young, 15 or 16. Most of the violent acts were allegedly committed in the area of outposts in the Shiloh Valley area between Ramallah and Nablus, near the settlements of Yitzhar near Nablus and around the evacuated outpost of Amona near Ramallah. In some cases, especially around Yitzhar, it seems that Palestinians are also intentionally seeking to clash with residents of the settlements.