Killing of Israeli settlers sparks West Bank violence

Israeli settlers set fire to cars and buildings in the occupied West Bank on Sunday evening, after a Palestinian gunman killed two settlers in the territory earlier in the day.

Palestinian officials said one man died of gunshot wounds and more than 100 were injured during the settler violence, while social media footage showed buildings in the city of Hawara, where the two settlers were killed on Sunday afternoon, engulfed by flames.

The killings and reprisals came as Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Jordan in a pre-planned, US-backed effort to defuse a broader surge in violence which has fuelled fears that the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the verge of a serious escalation.

Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine’s president, condemned the settler attacks and said he held the Israeli government “fully responsible”.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to power in December at the head of a coalition widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israeli history, said the military was pursuing the killer of the two settlers and appealed for calm.

“I ask, even when the blood is boiling, not to take the law into one’s hands,” he said in a statement on Sunday evening. “I ask that the [military] and the security forces be allowed to carry out their work.”

However, opposition leader Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu’s government — which unites rightwing, ultrareligious and extreme-right groups and has handed key security posts to ultranationalist settlers, including Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir — of being a “danger to Israeli security”.

Sunday’s violence caps four weeks of escalating bloodshed during which Israeli forces killed 21 Palestinians in the two deadliest raids in the West Bank since 2005, and a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israelis in a settlement in East Jerusalem, in the worst shooting in the city since 2008.

Since the start of the year, Israeli forces have killed more than 60 Palestinians and Palestinians have killed 12 Israelis and one Ukrainian. According to the UN, 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank — which makes up the bulk of the Palestinian territories, but has been occupied by Israel for 56 years — since 2005.

Sunday’s talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials in the port city of Aqaba in Jordan, which were also attended by Jordanian, Egyptian and US officials, were part of a broader effort to de-escalate the situation ahead of Muslim and Jewish religious festivals in the coming weeks.

A statement issued after the meeting said that Israeli and Palestinian officials would pursue “confidence building measures” and that Israel would stop discussion of any new settlement units in the West Bank for four months. Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal.

However, in a sign of the fragility of the agreement, Smotrich, an advocate of Israeli annexation of the West Bank whom Netanyahu has granted wide-ranging powers over life in the territory, said he would not accept any freeze on settlement activity.

“I have no idea what they spoke about or did not speak about in Jordan,” he wrote on Twitter. “But one thing I do know: there will not be a freeze on the building and development in settlements, not even for one day. (This is under my authority).”

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