How a campaign of extremist violence is pushing the West Bank to the brink

But Saleh forgot his phone.

“I’ll be right back,” he told his wife.

Two gunshots rang out, and in an instant, Saleh, who was known for his love of fresh leaves and being a fun dad, was facedown in the olive grove, dead.

While the world’s attention has fallen on the Gaza Strip, 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 intense battle inside Gaza and the anguish 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 Israeli military 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 UN began tracking it in the mid-2000s. According to UN figures, there used to be one incident of settler violence a day. Now it’s seven.

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 Palestinians opened fire on a car and killed the driver, a Jewish settler.

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 semi-autonomous 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 flyer. “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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Jeffrey Gettleman Rami Nazzal Adam Sella