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Palestinians describe Israeli settler rampage in villages near Ramallah

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AL-MUGHAYYIR, West Bank — The attack by Israeli settlers on this Palestinian village was the worst anyone here could remember. There were pools of dried blood on the rooftop where assailants shot a man dead; a pile of lambs with their necks slit was thick with buzzing flies.

At least two Palestinians were killed in the rampage across West Bank villages near Ramallah over the weekend, according to residents, monitoring groups and paramedics, fueled by calls for retribution after a 14-year-old Israeli shepherd went missing in the surrounding area and was later found dead. The Israeli military said he was the victim of a “terrorist attack.”

Hundreds of settlers roamed the roads and hillsides of al-Mughayyir, eyewitnesses said, throwing stones and firing on residents. They set homes and vehicles ablaze, including a firetruck that had been called to put out the flames engulfing a family business. Palestinians threw rocks back at the attackers, they said, but were easily outmatched.

Members of the Israel Defense Forces in the area made little effort to stop the violence, according to eyewitnesses. Video filmed by a local journalist and obtained by B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, and provided to The Washington Post shows Israeli troops in al-Mughayyir during the attack on Friday; military vehicles drive along a smoke-filled road as masked attackers look on.

Members of the Israel Defense Forces approach Israeli settlers but make little effort to stop their violence in al-Mughayyir in the West Bank on April 12. (Video: B’Tselem)

In a statement to The Post, the IDF said its forces operated “with the aim of to protect the property and lives of all citizens and dispersing the confrontations. … Complaints about soldiers’ behavior that is not in accordance with orders will be examined.”

Violence by Israeli settlers, long aimed at depopulating Palestinian parts of the occupied West Bank, increased last year after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power — at the head of a coalition that included far-right settler activists who have been convicted of anti-Arab incitement and have advocated for the outright annexation of the West Bank.

Since Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants killed about 1,200 people in Israel and plunged Gaza into war, there have been an average of seven settler attacks per day on Palestinians and their property — more than triple the rate in 2022 and the highest figure since the United Nations began keeping statistics in 2006.

Last year, Netanyahu’s government approved the highest number of housing units in Israeli settlements since watchdog group Peace Now starting recording figures in 2012.

The Biden administration imposed sanctions this year on individual settlers connected to attacks on Palestinians, as well as on two illegal outposts in the West Bank. “There is no justification for extremist violence against civilians,” the State Department said in a statement announcing the latest measures in March.

Yet the attacks have continued.

The assault on Friday began hours after Binyamin Achimair, 14, left a farm in the settler outpost of Malachei HaShalom to herd sheep and didn’t return. A broken hoe was found close to his route, local media reported.

His body was discovered Saturday and laid to rest the next day at a service in Jerusalem attended by hundreds of friends and family members. “You touched so many people with your kindness and your love,” his sister Rachel said in her eulogy.

The IDF said Binyamin was “murdered in a terrorist attack.” In a statement, Netanyahu said Israeli forces were hunting for the “killers and their collaborators.”

Noor Shehada, a 17-year-old high school student who lived on the edge of al-Mughayyir, recalled the sense of dread. “There is a settler missing,” she texted her father. “Come home.”

In the local mosque, where townsmen gathered for midday prayers Friday, a phone call from an elderly worshipper’s wife alerted the congregation that settlers had entered the town. Mujahid Abu Aliya, a paramedic with the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, said he received the first report of a casualty just after 12:30 p.m.

Dozens of settlers took part in previous assaults on the area, residents said. This time it was hundreds. It felt to Noor like they were coming from all sides. She recalled looking up from her phone, where residents were posting updates on Telegram, to see a group of young men running down the hill toward her family’s farmland.

“You see something running over the hills, something coming toward us,” she said.

Photographs taken from the roof of a house on the outskirts of the village show dozens of cars lining the road that day. Settlers with faces covered, some shirtless in the springtime sun, cross the olive groves toward the home of Rasmi Abu Aliya, 55, some appearing to carry weapons.

On Monday, a Palestinian police detective moved carefully between the damaged properties, examining each as a crime scene. He has learned that settler attacks follow a familiar pattern.

“The same organization, the same style, it’s the same,” said Ahmad Sejdiya, from the Palestinian Authority’s public prosecutor’s office. “These crimes are usually organized. It’s well-planned and they prepared.”

At least 60 homes across the region were attacked and more than 100 vehicles were burned, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli group that monitors settler violence.

As the attack unfolded, some residents passed their children through open windows to relatives, who fled deeper into the village while the men stayed to defend their homes. Jihad Abu Aliya, a friend of Rasmi, joined him and his relatives on the rooftop, where settlers were pelting them with stones. The men broke the rocks into smaller pieces and hurled them back, he said, but it was futile.

The attackers had already set fire to two cars in the yard, video from the rooftop shows. Rasmi feared they would then burn the ground floor, where his parents, both in their 90s, were cowering.

A video filmed by relatives on the ground below shows the terror inside the family’s living room. “They are trying to break the windows,” one man can be heard shouting. “You see the guys, here they are,” he says as he zooms in through the curtains on the figures moving outside.

Jihad was shot in the head as he poked his head above the lip of the rooftop balcony, eyewitnesses said. He died within minutes, they said, but his body sat unattended for hours until the settlers left.

“The attacks were preventing us from reaching him,” said Moslem Abu Aliya, Rasmi’s nephew. “We were almost choking from the smoke.”

Next door, Amer Abu Aliya walked with a limp Monday. He said he had been shot in the leg by a settler as he stood in his yard. Four other relatives inside the house had wounds from live bullets, fired by the attackers, and rubber bullets, which residents said had been fired by Israeli forces at rock-throwing Palestinians.

“During the dispersal of the confrontations, the security forces used, among other things, means to disperse demonstrations,” the IDF said in its statement.

Amer’s house was badly burned. So was his brother’s. His youngest daughter, Yasmeen, stood Monday in what had been her bedroom, now charred and broken. She had been asking her father over and over for her Legos, though he kept telling her they were lost in the blaze. Her uncle Zaki, 55, said she had barely slept in the nights since the attack.

Emergency responders said both settlers and soldiers had obstructed their work. Mujahid Abu Aliya, the paramedic, said that one of the ambulances was initially turned back by the army as it tried to leave the village with casualties on board.

The IDF said “ambulances were delayed for a security check and then they were given the authorization to continue.”

Maj. Tarek Abu Omar, at the nearby Beytun fire department, said his men also came under attack as they rushed to the scene of a fire at a mechanic’s shop. A video shared by one of the firemen shows them fleeing their vehicle in a panic. The truck was later torched.

The firefighters were eventually evacuated to their station.

“They were in a very bad state,” Abu Omar recalled. “I spoke to a crew member who had ripped his oxygen mask off out of fear and thrown it as he ran.”

As the immediate trauma subsides in al-Mughayyir, the scale of the damage is sinking in. Several families lost homes they had built with their life savings. The sheep killed in this farming community left shepherds without a source of income.

Yesh Din said hundreds of farm animals were slaughtered across several villages. In Anan Abu Aliya’s yard, several dozen sheep and lambs were found dead in their enclosure. The hay was sticky with blood.

Noor, the high school student, remembers sprinting toward her own family’s sheep and trying to herd them deeper into the village. Settlers threw stones at her and she threw them back. Her mother, Lamia, was knocked briefly unconscious by a rock, Noor said, and later beaten on the ground.

The settlers opened fire shortly after that, hitting Noor twice in the leg, she said. It was surreal, she recalled, to feel no pain at first, even as her family started crying out that she had been injured. “I looked down at my trousers and saw the hole,” she said Monday after leaving the hospital.

She returned to find that the house her family had spent 10 years saving for — “we put money aside every time we had any,” Lamia said, her face badly bruised now — was burned out. They had not even finished paying for the furniture, her father, Shehada, said.

The items that hadn’t been burned or blackened were slashed with knives.

Noor said her school books were the only thing she hoped to rescue. Her final exams are two weeks away. Some were fire-damaged, but she thought she could still use them.

On the way out, she used her finger to write a message in the soot on the kitchen wall: “Our souls are valuable, but our country is more valuable,” it read.

Meg Kelly in Washington, Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, and Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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