There is a large rolling gate at the entrance to the small Palestinian village of Za’atara, in the north of the occupied West Bank, but it is rarely closed. On Sunday, however, wary that Israeli settlers living in the area were seeking revenge for the murder of two brothers shot dead by a Palestinian gunman in nearby Huwara, Za’atara’s residents were braced for retaliatory violence.
It didn’t take long for the settlers to arrive. Villagers said that by dusk, about 100 armed Israelis, accompanied by a dozen Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers, had massed on the road outside the entrance, and after the troops tried to intervene several of the settlers began shooting. Sameh Aqtash, a 37-year-old blacksmith who had just returned from earthquake volunteering efforts in Turkey, was shot in the stomach. Because the army would not clear the road for an ambulance to reach him, he bled to death, Aqtash’s nephew Fadi said.
Aqtash was somehow the only fatality during an unprecedented hours-long settler rampage in the vicinity of Huwara overnight: more than 350 Palestinians were injured, while dozens of homes and businesses and hundreds of cars were set alight, according to rights groups and Palestinian officials. In an article published on Monday morning, a prominent rightwing Israeli commentator, appalled by the reported inaction of the IDF, dubbed the events “Kristallnacht in Huwara”.
Sunday’s riot was triggered by the murders of Hillel Yaniv, 22, and Yagel Yaniv, 20, from the nearby settlement of Har Bracha. Route 60, the Israeli road running north to south through the middle of the territory, cuts right through the middle of Huwara, making the village a well-known flashpoint.
A gunman rammed into the brothers’ car while they were driving through, reports said, and shot them several times at point-blank range before fleeing the scene. Israeli forces are still searching for the as-yet unidentified attacker, who is believed to have been able to escape arrest owing to the chaos caused by the settler rampage.
“Of course there are lots of settlers and army around here and sometimes that is difficult but they have never come to Za’atara before like this,” Fadi Aqtash said, as he put his arm around one of Sameh’s five children outside the village mourning tent. Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the distance. “We are very worried about what will happen now,” the 29-year-old said.
Incidents of settler violence across the West Bank happen every day, and have steadily increased over the past few years: many of the 700,000 or so Israelis living in the territory and East Jerusalem are motivated by what they see as a religious mission to restore the historical land of Israel to the Jewish people.
Shootings, knife attacks, burning crops, vandalism and the theft of land and livestock are supposed to make life for Palestinians so unbearable they have no choice but to leave. On many occasions, the Israeli army has been documented failing to stem the violence, or even joining in.
No one the Guardian spoke to in the Huwara area on Monday, however, could recall such an intense and widespread episode, which Palestinians and Israelis fear could lead to more attacks on both sides and a return to full-blown conflict.
Stability in the region has arguably already broken down. Last year was the bloodiest on record in Israel and the West Bank since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of the 2000s. About 63 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have been killed so far in 2023, mostly in IDF raids and Palestinian terrorist attacks.
Also on Sunday, Israel and Palestinian security officials met in Jordan for the first high-level talks in years aimed at calming tensions before the imminent Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is often a catalyst for escalation.
It does not seem likely that the situation on the ground can improve. The Palestinian Authority (PA), the West Bank’s semi-autonomous governing body, has all but lost control of several areas in the north of the territory to newly formed militias that do not take orders from the traditional Palestinian factions.
At the same time, Israeli security forces appeared to be unprepared or unwilling to deal with the scale of the settler violence in Huwara on Sunday, despite the fact that settler leaders made public calls for a march to “wipe out” Huwara in revenge for the deaths of the two brothers.
The Israeli military estimated that between 300 and 400 people took part in the rampage, although only 10 arrests have been made, and anonymous security officials told Israeli media that plans made by the IDF’s central command were “faulty”.
A joint communique from the Jordan summit expressing “readiness and commitment to work immediately” to prevent further violence was not just undermined by the rioting in Huwara, but by members of the Israeli government.
Several elements of Israel’s new far-right administration are ardent members of the settler movement, who have variously called for the full annexation of the West Bank, relaxing the rules of engagement for Israel’s police and soldiers, and harsher punishments for Palestinians who commit terror attacks. Their plans to neuter Israel’s supreme court have also prompted the biggest political crisis in the country’s history, bringing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets in protest against moves they say will erode democratic norms.
While the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a video statement on Sunday night calling on people not to “take the law into their own hands”, members of his coalition fanned the flames, telling the IDF to show “no mercy” and visiting the scene to support the rioters.
By Monday, they had melted away, and the streets of Huwara were deserted except for soldiers and armoured patrol vehicles that roared up and down the main road. At Tapuach junction, a settlement known for its violent outlook to the south of the village, settlers carrying pistols and automatic rifles mingled with IDF units as they waited to march on Huwara again in the evening as part of the funeral procession for the killed brothers. Meanwhile, in the south of the West Bank, reports emerged of another shooting attack that killed a 27-year-old Israeli.
Inspecting the damage at his workplace in the middle of Huwara, Sakir, a 22-year-old mechanic, said that he thought the Israeli settlers living in the area had grown bolder since the new Israeli government entered office in December. “They know they can do whatever they like,” he said.