By Ali Sawafta
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli settlers attacked Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank overnight on Tuesday, torching buildings and cars in apparent retaliation for the killing by Hamas of four Israelis near a settlement the day before, residents and officials said.
Yaqoub Oweis, chairman of the village council of Al-Lubban Al-Sharqeya, said a large group of settlers attacked while Israeli soldiers and police stood by as they burned a petrol station, orchards, a cement factory and dozens of cars.
“The attack was unprecedented and abnormal,” he said. “There was heavy gunfire but we couldn’t distinguish whether it came from settlers or the soldiers because of the darkness.” Attacks were also reported in other West Bank towns and villages.
The latest round of violence, after days of relative calm, underlined the volatility of the Israeli-occupied territory, where for over a year the military has been conducting regular sweeps leading to repeated clashes with Palestinian fighters.
Palestinians have complained repeatedly of attacks by settlers in the West Bank, an issue that has also drawn mounting international concern, particularly following a rampage through the town of Huwara earlier this year.
The overnight attacks came hours after two gunmen fired on a roadside restaurant and petrol station close to the settlement of Eli, killing four Israelis in an attack Hamas – the Islamist group that rules Gaza – said was a response to a major Israeli operation in the West Bank city of Jenin on Monday.
Local Palestinian families said settlers cut the road, forcing them to seek refuge at a petrol station where they hid in their cars, before being forced to flee.
‘WE NEED TO FLATTEN BUILDINGS’
“The settlers attacked the town, damaged and torched homes and cars,” said Mahmoud Dawoud, from the village of Al-Lubban Al-Gharbeya, who added that the settlers smashed his car and two belonging to his brother.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
Not long before the attack, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, from one of the hard-right parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition, called for tougher action and he repeated the call on Wednesday.
“We need a military operation, we need to flatten buildings, we need targeted killings,” he told parliament. “That’s how you act against terrorism.”
However, other ministers played down the demand for additional measures. “There’s no need for any new decisions, only adaptation of existing ones,” Energy Minister Israel Katz, a member of the government Security Cabinet, told Army Radio.
U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, aimed at establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, collapsed in 2014 and show no sign of revival.
Netanyahu’s government is set on expanding settlements in the West Bank and includes members who rule out a Palestinian state. Hamas, which advocates armed resistance against Israel, has been steadily expanding its operations in the West Bank.
Monday’s operation in Jenin, the apparent trigger for the killing of the four Israelis, touched off some of the most intense fighting for months with Israeli forces – who had been carrying out an arrest raid – caught in an hours-long gunbattle with heavily armed Palestinian militants.
Five Palestinians were killed and two, including a 15-year-old girl, died later of their wounds, while more than 90 were wounded in the fighting. Seven Israeli personnel were wounded.
So far this year, 174 Palestinians, most of them militants but several of them civilians, have been killed by Israeli forces. At the same time, 24 Israelis and one foreigner have been killed in attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank, around Jerusalem and in some Israeli cities.
(Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi and James Mackenzie; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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