Analysis: Weekend of violence sees terror attack and settlers rioting

Hallel and Yagel Yaniv > Courtesy via Times of Israel

A weekend of violence in the West Bank saw two Israelis murdered in a terror attack and a deadly and unprecedented riot by settlers in the Palestinian town of Huwara.

The violence came during a summit at the Jordanian port of Aqaba aimed at reducing tensions ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

What happened

  • Two brothers Hallel Yaniv, 21 and Yagel Yaniv, 19, were shot dead by a Palestinian gunman on Sunday as they were travelling on Route 60 in the West Bank.
  • An estimated 400 Israeli settlers rioted in Huwara and villages near to the city of Nablus. One Palestinian man was killed before Israeli security forces were able to regain control of the situation. The rioting has been widely condemned in Israel.
  • The summit at Aqaba was attended by representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt and the United States. Measures around security and economic cooperation and the status of the Temple Mount/al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf were discussed.
  • The violence comes amid continuing Israeli security operations around Nablus targeting the Lion’s Den, a Palestinian militant organisation responsible for a series of terror attacks stretching back to early 2022 which helped to destabilise the left-right “unity government” which was defeated in the general election in November.
  • On Monday evening, there was a further suspected terror attack close to the city of Jericho on Route 90. A 25-year-old man was shot and critically injured, according to early reports.

Terror in the West Bank 

Israeli security forces continue to search for the lone gunman who shot the two brothers at close range in the northern West Bank town. The killer – who was wearing a shirt displaying the Lion’s Den insignia – is believed to have taken advantage of a traffic jam and is reported to have used a handgun or makeshift submachine gun. There have been a number of shooting attacks directed at Israeli motorists close to Huwara – a flashpoint because it is the only Palestinian town through which Israelis regularly travel en route to settlements in the northern West Bank. As the two young men were laid to rest on Monday, their family appealed for an end to violence and urged the rioters in Huwara not to engage in further attacks.

Widespread condemnation as settlers riot

  • In the aftermath of the terror attack, groups of settlers rioted in Huwara. Around 30 homes and dozens of cars were set ablaze and Israeli forces rescued nine Palestinian families from their burning homes.
  • The murdered Palestinian man was named as 37-year-old Samah Hamdallah Aktash, who died from gun shots to the stomach. Dozens more injuries were reported.
  • An Israeli military reserves battalion was dispatched to Huwara, along with fire brigades, and used riot control equipment to disperse the settlers. On Monday, there was criticism in Israeli of the failure of the security forces to anticipate the violence, given talk of settler protests in the town.
  • Ghassan Douglas, a Palestinian official who monitors Israeli settlements in the Nablus region, said: “I’ve never seen such an attack.”
  • The president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, strongly condemned the rioters, saying: “Taking the law into one’s own hands, rioting, and committing violence against innocents — this is not our way, and I express my forceful condemnation.” There was also an appeal for calm from the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • But opposition leader Yair Lapid blamed the right-wing government for the attack. Referring to far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich, he said: “Smotrich’s militias set out to burn Hawara.”
  • On Monday, Zvika Fogel, an MK from far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s extremist Otzma Yehudit party, appeared to back the rioters, saying: “Yesterday, a terrorist came from Huwara. A closed, burnt Huwara — that’s what I want to see. That’s the only way to achieve deterrence.” Fogel later partially rowed back his comments, while Ben Gvir belatedly told supporters not to take the law into their own hands.
  • Responding to the developments, Lapid tweeted: “This isn’t a fully right-wing government [as its supporters term it]; it’s a full-blown anarchy government.” He later said the government had “lost control” and Netanyahu was too weak to rein-in his far-right ministers. Labor leader Merav Michaeli wrote to the attorney general requesting a criminal investigation into Fogel’s comments be opened, while Lapid suggested the far-right MK should face jail time for incitement.
  • Britain and the US condemned both the terror attack and the rioting in Huwara

Bloody backdrop

Eleven Israelis have been murdered in terrorist attacks in recent weeks, while 60 Palestinians have died – including 11 during an IDF raid last week – since the beginning of the year as the security forces continue to attempt to disrupt the Nablus-based militant group Lion’s Den. Most of the Palestinians who have died are linked to terrorist groups or were killed while carrying out attacks. However, a number of innocent civilians have also been killed, while the circumstances surrounding some deaths are being investigated. The PA, which has responsibility for security in Nablus, has struggled to control Lion’s Den, which is reported to lack a hierarchy, and is composed of young men who are affiliated with a range of Palestinian factions, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.

A bid for calm

The Aqaba summit was attended by senior Israelis and Palestinians, including Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi; Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar; and the PA’s head of intelligence Majed Faraj. US National Security Council officials and Jordanian and Egyptian security personnel were also in attendance. The attendees agreed to meet again in Sharm el-Sheikh next month.

The outcome of the summit included a number of commitments, including:

  • a joint committee to discuss renewed security coordination between Israel and the PA, as well as efforts to assist the PA to reassert its security control in key Palestinian towns and cities;
  • a joint civilian committee to advance confidence-building economic measures;
  • a commitment to maintain the status quo at the Temple Mount/al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf complex;
  • and no new Israeli decisions on settlement construction for the next four months. However, Hanegbi made clear that the Israeli government would not rescind its decision to legalise nine outposts and to build 9,500 additional housing units in the West Bank, while – under pressure from far-right ministers – Netanyahu denied he had authorised a settlement freeze.
  • US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan welcomed the meeting, saying: “This was the first meeting of its kind in years, and resulted in the Aqaba Communiqué, with commitments by the Government of Israel and the PA to de-escalate and prevent further violence. The two sides also affirmed their commitment to all previous agreements between them, and to work towards a just and lasting peace.”