Israeli settlers and Palestinians have been locked in a cycle of bloodshed for decades. But extremist settler attacks could send the conflict out of control.
This past Saturday morning, Bilal Mohammad Saleh, a Palestinian sidewalk vendor of sage and thyme, went out with his family to pick olives.
It’s olive harvesting season in the West Bank and Mr. Saleh was helping pluck the fruit from the gnarled trees that his family has owned for generations.
Then, four armed Jewish settlers showed up, witnesses said. They started yelling, and the olive pickers stopped what they were doing and began to run.
But Mr. Saleh forgot his phone.
“I’ll be right back,” he told his wife.
Two gunshots rang out, and in an instant, Mr. Saleh, who was known for his love of fresh leaves and being a fun dad, was face down in the olive grove, dead.
While the world’s attention has fallen on Gaza, violence in the West Bank, a much bigger and more complex Palestinian-majority area, is hitting its highest levels in years.
Some of the specific incidents, like the killing in the olive grove, reflect a longstanding problem in the West Bank that has gotten much worse since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks: Heavily armed settler extremists have operated with impunity for years, many Palestinians say, and now their assaults are becoming bolder, deadlier and nonstop.
Experienced observers believe the spike in violence is part of a broader campaign to scare Palestinians off their land that has been allowed to accelerate amid Israel’s enraged and wounded mood. Since Oct. 7, settler violence has displaced more than 800 Palestinians, including entire herding communities.
“The strategy is: We are here, this land belongs to us and we will kick you off it, with all the means we have,” said Dov Sedaka, a reserve Israeli general who works for a foundation that supports Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.
“It’s awful,” he added.
He said because of the military operations in Gaza and the shock all Israelis felt about the atrocities committed by Hamas, Israeli soldiers were now, more than ever, failing to live up to their duty to protect Palestinian civilians in occupied areas.
“They’re not stopping the extremist settlers,” he said. “They’re closing their eyes.”
According to witness statements, video footage and analysts who have examined larger patterns of the violence, settler extremists in the West Bank have been attacking Palestinian homes and businesses, blowing up their generators and solar panels, burning down the tents of seminomadic Bedouin herders — and even shooting people.
United Nations officials say that since Oct. 7, the Israel Defense Forces and armed settlers have killed more than 120 Palestinians in the West Bank. (Most of those deaths occurred in clashes with Israeli soldiers.)
Even before the Hamas attacks, settler violence was hitting its highest levels since the United Nations began tracking it in the mid 2000s. According to U.N. figures, there used to be one incident of settler violence a day. Now it’s seven.
On top of that, the number of protests by Palestinian youth, furious about the relentless bombardment of Gaza, is also rising. These protests frequently lead to deadly confrontations with Israeli troops. Soldiers are also staging nightly counterterrorism raids, which the Israelis say are necessary to crack down on armed groups. But the raids, often conducted in tight alleyways and densely inhabited neighborhoods, can set off more bloodshed as well.
The West Bank, which has been rocked by major uprisings before, feels primed to explode. And the worry, among Palestinians and the Israeli security establishment, is what happens if it does. Should the violence spin from the West Bank, it could risk opening another front in the war, further raising the chances of a larger, even more catastrophic regional conflict.
Palestinians and rights activists blame the increasingly combustible atmosphere on Israel’s right-wing government, whose ministers have vowed to expand the settlements and hand out more weapons to settlers. Deadly Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the West Bank are also at their highest point since the 2000s, adding to the tensions and the sense that this whole territory is on edge. On Thursday, Israeli officials said that Palestinians opened fire on a car and killed the Israeli driver.
Gaza and the West Bank are two separate areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, effectively sealing it off and leaving its residents subject to a tight blockade that throttled its economy.
But Israel still occupies the West Bank under a highly contentious system that leaves Palestinians stateless, limits their movements, and tries them in Israeli military courts — restrictions that do not apply to settlers. The Israeli military routinely blocks roads, shoos Palestinians off streets and strictly controls access from one area to another.
Complicating the West Bank further is the growing number of Israeli settlements — more than 130 — that most of the world considers illegal because they were placed on occupied land.
These communities, often built on strategic hilltops and encircled by walls and razor wire, are interspersed among a patchwork of Palestinian cities and towns administered by the Palestinian Authority, a semiautonomous Palestinian body. Roughly half a million Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, alongside an estimated 2.7 million Palestinians.
Many settlers reject Palestinians’ claim to the land, arguing that Jews have been living in this territory since biblical times and that Israel justly won the territory decades ago in war.
According to Naomi Kahn, a settler who works for a nonprofit organization that supports the settlements, Palestinians say “Everything in the Middle East is their land.”
“Try again,” she said. “I’m not buying it.”
In recent days, threatening leaflets, widely presumed to have come from settler extremists, have been slipped under the windshield wipers of Palestinian cars.
“A great catastrophe will descend upon your heads soon,” read one flier. “We will destroy every enemy and expel you forcefully from our Holy Land that God has written for us. Wherever you are, carry your loads immediately and leave to where you came from. We are coming for you.”
Sam Stein is a Jewish peace activist from Long Island who has spent years working in the West Bank and has physically inserted himself between settler extremists and Palestinians. He said that all the recent violence was “not random acts of hatred.”
Instead, he said, it is a “guided approach” to create “Jewish continuity” in the West Bank.
Jewish settlers are aided in this project by the fact that they are allowed to carry weapons and Palestinian civilians are not. Another recent incident, one of many, shows how Palestinians often pay the price.
On Oct. 13, Zakariya Al-Arda, a Palestinian construction worker living in a small West Bank town called At-Tuwani, was walking up a hill after Friday prayers with about eight friends. A video from that day shows that none of Mr. al-Arda’s group are carrying firearms though one is holding a rock.
A settler from Havat Ma’on, an outpost bordering At-Tuwani that is considered illegal even under Israeli law, comes down the hill brandishing a rifle. He clubs Mr. al-Arda with the butt. When Mr. al-Arda tries to defend himself, the settler shoots him.
The bullet pierces his stomach, a few inches below his lungs. He survives. But that single bullet has sown fear through the entire community.
“We did nothing to the settlers,” said Mr. al-Arda’s brother, Khaled. “They’re constantly harassing us, vandalizing our property and threatening our safety. What do they want from us?”
Boaz Natan, a settler and former soldier who oversees security in Havat Ma’on and the neighboring settlement Ma’on, knew about the shooting but said he didn’t want “to get into whether this was OK or not.” Still, he said, the settlement’s security committee immediately took away the man’s gun because they didn’t want “lone actors to do whatever they think needs to be done.”
The Israeli police are investigating the incident, according to the I.D.F.
Palestinian leaders say their people are more frightened — by what is happening in Gaza and now across the West Bank — than they have been in a long time.
“Israel says they have the right to respond. They responded,” said Mustafa Bargouthi, a senior Palestinian lawmaker. “How many more thousand Palestinians should still die before they stop?”
In the case of Mr. Saleh, the man killed while picking olives, his family remains in shock.
He lived in a village called Al Sawiya, north of Jerusalem. Forty years old, he struggled to support his four children with his small business selling fresh herbs in Ramallah, one of the West Bank’s bigger cities.
According to an I.D.F. spokesman, an off-duty soldier “allegedly” fired his military-issued weapon during the incident and has been taken into custody for questioning. The spokesman said that Israeli soldiers are required to intervene if they are present when violence erupts.
But in this case, Mohammad Yasser Saleh, one of Bilal’s cousins, said that Israeli soldiers sat in a jeep parked at the top of the hill during the shooting incident and watched the whole thing. The IDF declined to comment on why the soldiers did not intervene.
The killing has left Mr. Saleh’s children in a daze.
Musa, 8, remembers what his father was doing right before the gunshots rang out.
“He was carrying me while dancing and making me laugh,” he said. “He then lifted me up to an olive tree and said, ‘Let’s see how many olives you can pick.’”