With focus on Gaza, Israeli settlers ramping up attacks on Palestinians in West Bank

With everyone's focus on the conflict in Gaza, violence from Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank has increased since the war began, activists and observers say.

Palestinian attacks on Israelis in West Bank have also risen

Why Hamas is gaining support in the West Bank

5 months ago
Duration 8:19
Many in the West Bank see Israel’s war against Hamas as an attack on the Palestinian people. CBC’s Margaret Evans breaks down why some say it will only increase support for the militant Islamist group.

Just days after Hamas launched its deadly attacks on Israel, setting off a war in Gaza, an unarmed Palestinian was shot in the stomach by a Jewish settler in the West Bank village of Masafer Yatta.

Zakirah Adra remains in the intensive care unit, according to his cousin, Basel Adra, a Palestinian activist and journalist who witnessed the shooting and captured it on video.

Adra, who says violence and harassment against Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank has been a regular occurrence for years, stresses it has gotten "much, much, much worse" since Hamas's attacks on Oct. 7.

"What's really going on here is that they are taking advantage of the war," he said.

With everyone's focus on the conflict in the Gaza Strip, it's just one example of how settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank has spiked since the war, say activists and observers.

The difference from pre-Oct. 7 is not so much in the dynamics of the settler attacks as "the scale and intensity of those attacks," said Dror Sadot, a spokesperson with the human rights group B'Tselem.

"The settlers are exploiting the fact that no one's looking at them at the moment," Sadot said.

'They kept beating me'

Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro, who lives in the West Bank city of Hebron, said that on Oct. 7, he was detained by settlers dressed as Israeli soldiers, along with soldiers themselves, and held for 10 hours. Amro said he was abused during that time.

"They kept beating me, hitting me, kicking me, spitting on me, threatening to shoot," said Amro, adding the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have also evicted him from his house.

Palestinians being displaced amid death threats made by Israeli settlers in Nablus area, according to the UN.
A Palestinian family in Nablus, West Bank, deals with the fallout after its home was damaged by Israeli settlers. Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank are being displaced amid death threats made by Israeli settlers in the Nablus area, according to the United Nations. (United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs)

"This is what is going on now in the West Bank — the Israeli military, under the right-wing government, is using this great opportunity for them to get rid of their enemies. I am the enemy," said Amro, a vocal critic of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. "It's crazy. It's [an] unannounced war in the West Bank, unannounced ethnic cleansing."

The West Bank is home to an estimated three million Palestinians, as well as about 700,000 Israeli settlers, who are living there illegally.

According to the United Nations, in 2023 there were, on average, three incidents of settler violence per day in the West Bank. Since Oct. 7, that has more than doubled to seven per day, on average, more than a third of them involving firearms.

Clashes with IDF soldiers have caused more deaths among Palestinians in the West Bank, but vigilante-style settler attacks have killed 29 people this year, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least eight of those deaths have happened since Oct. 7.

"In many of these incidents, settlers were accompanied by members of the Israeli forces, or the settlers were wearing uniforms and carrying army rifles," said UN human rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssell in a statement to CBC.

The violence is forcing entire communities from their land, says the UN. Since Oct. 7, nearly a thousand Palestinians from at least 15 herding communities in the West Bank have had to flee their homes.

WATCH | Israeli settlers in the West Bank are arming themselves:

Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank are arming themselves

6 months ago
Duration 2:48
Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and other Israelis are arming themselves at the encouragement of the government in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks. And that's raising concerns about whether the practice will protect lives, or escalate to more violence.

Dan Owen, a researcher for the Israeli-based human rights group Yesh Din, said that since Oct. 7, their group has documented more than 172 incidents of violence in more than 80 Palestinian communities across the West Bank. 

"You have these communities [that] are being forced to leave their residence. This is basically the endgame of this settler violence," Owen said. "At the moment, Palestinians all over the West Bank are absolutely terrified."

Biden urges halt to violence

Sadot said settler actions against Palestinians include general harassment, noise and setting trees on fire. In more extreme cases, they include setting homes on fire, physical attacks and killings.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said that retaliation by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank in the aftermath of Oct. 7 amounted to "pouring gasoline" on already burning fires in the Middle East. 

"It has to stop. They have to be held accountable," Biden said on Oct. 26.

WATCH | Why are Palestinians dying in the West Bank?

Israel-Hamas war: Why are Palestinians dying in the West Bank? | About That

6 months ago
Duration 7:47
As the number of dead and wounded from Israeli airstrikes climbs in Gaza, desperation is circulating throughout Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank. Andrew Chang explains how Hamas's attack last week, and Israel's response, have turned the West Bank into an active battleground.

Following his meeting last Friday with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters he had heard a "clear commitment from the [Israeli] government to deal with extremist violence in the West Bank — to condemn it, to take action to prevent it, to take action against those who perpetrate it."

"The protection of civilians must take place not just in Gaza, but also in the West Bank," Blinken told reporters.

Blinken also discussed the issue in person with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In a call with Biden last month, Abbas demanded an end to settler attacks against people in Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank, while also stressing the need to stop the killing of civilians on both sides of the conflict.

In a statement to CBC News, the IDF said Israeli police are largely responsible for dealing with Israeli violations of the law.

Because of the IDF's constant presence in the area, "soldiers do encounter incidents of violations of the law by Israelis, some may be violent incidents or incidents directed at Palestinians or their property," the IDF statement said. "In these cases, the soldiers are required to act to stop the violation and, if necessary, to delay or detain the suspects until the police arrive at the scene.... In situations where soldiers fail to adhere to IDF orders, the incidents are thoroughly reviewed, and disciplinary actions are implemented accordingly."

Nadia Matar, co-chair of the Sovereignty Movement, which supports Jewish settlement in the West Bank, rejected the concept of settler violence.

"It's settler self-defence," she said.

Palestinian activist Issa Amro stands with Israeli activists in the embattled West Bank city of Hebron, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. Israeli peace activists toured the occupied West Bank's largest city Friday in a show of solidarity with Palestinians, amid chants of "shame, shame" from ultra-nationalist hecklers.  (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Palestinian activist Issa Amro, centre, is seen standing with Israeli activists in the West Bank city of Hebron on Dec. 2, 2022. Amro said that on Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas attacks on Israel, he was held for 10 hours and abused by the Israeli military. (Maya Alleruzzo/The Associated Press)

Matar said Palestinians in the West Bank often approach Jewish communities and start filming and harassing them. 

"And when you tell them to leave, then we are being accused of being the aggressor," she said. "If we sometimes need to defend ourselves, then it's called that Jews are being violent."

Last night, the Israeli army arrested Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi after she allegedly posted a threat on Instagram to "slaughter" Jewish settlers.

"We'll slaughter you, and you'll say that what Hitler did to you was a joke. We'll drink your blood and eat your skulls. Let's go, we're waiting for you," read the post, which was written in Hebrew and Arabic, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

Palestinian attacks on Israelis on the rise

Since Oct. 7, visible support for Hamas has grown among Palestinians in the West Bank, including areas where the Islamist group has not traditionally been strong, Reuters reported.

Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the West Bank have also escalated. Israeli officials say there have been more than 550 since Oct. 7, the New York Times reported.

So far this year, at least 23 Israeli civilians had been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is much higher than in previous years, Israeli officials told the New York Times.

Israeli peace activist Yehuda Shaul, who described the recent West Bank violence as being "on steroids," said he doesn't believe the attitude of the settlers — like any large group of people — is monolithic.

"There are different dimensions, different levels," said Shaul, who is also the co-director of the Ofek Israeli Center for Public Affairs.

He said there's probably widespread support among settlers for moving Palestinian communities out of Area C of the West Bank, where more than 300,000 Israelis live in settlements and outposts. 

"But going and beating people out of their homes reduces [that] support ... in the community," Shaul said.

He fears what could happen if the Israeli government does little to stem the current violence.

Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, recently expressed its concerns to the Israeli government about the increased tension there.

"It's something we hear slowly, slowly more from security people," Shaul said. "[They] are opening their mouth out of fear of opening up another front, of putting the entire West Bank in flames."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Reuters, The Associated Press