Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a stark warning Sunday instructing Jewish settlers not to “grab land illegally” in the occupied West Bank, after humanitarian bodies raised the alarm over a series of deadly attacks on Palestinian villagers.
At the same time, Netanyahu repeatedly endorsed the construction of settlements approved by the government, which are considered illegal under international law.
“Calls to grab land illegally and actions of grabbing land illegally, are unacceptable to me. They undermine law and order in Judea and Samaria [West Bank] and must stop immediately,” he said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday.
“Not only will we not back such actions, our government will take strong action against them.
“These calls and actions do not strengthen settlement – on the contrary, they hurt it. I say this as someone who doubled settlement in Judea and Samaria despite great and unprecedented international pressure to carry out withdrawals that I have not carried out and will not carry out. These calls hurt the vital interests of the State of Israel and they must stop immediately.”
Israeli authorities describe the West Bank as Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu stressed a twin approach to security. “We have been targeting a record number of terrorists and also building in our country on a broad scale according to approved construction plans. I emphasize – approved.”
The recent uptick in violence peaked on Wednesday, when Israeli settlers attacked the Palestinian village of Turmusayya in the occupied West Bank, the day after the killing of four Jewish settlers nearby, according to the mayor of the village.
Those killings had been in retaliation to an Israeli military operation in the Jenin area on Monday, which left seven Palestinians dead and 91 injured, according to the UN. Seven Israeli soldiers were injured.
Israeli security forces have recently ramped up armed hostilities against Palestinian militants, amid Netanyahu’s campaign for illegal settlers’ outposts to be expanded and turned into full settlements.
Senior Israeli security officials condemned what they called “nationalist terrorism” by some settlers, after the latest attacks took place on Saturday around the Palestinian village of Umm Safr, north of Ramallah.
“In recent days, violent attacks have been carried out by Israelis in Judea and Samaria against innocent Palestinians,” the Chief of the Israeli General Staff, Gen. Herzi Halevi, the Director of the Israel Security Agency [ISA], Ronen Bar and Israel’s Police Commissioner, Yaakov Shabtai, said in a statement.
“These attacks contradict every moral and Jewish value; they constitute, in every way, nationalist terrorism, and we are obliged to fight them.
“Israel’s security forces are operating against those rioters, risking the lives of IDF soldiers, Israel Police officers and ISA personnel,” the statement said, adding that arrests would be made as the violence “diverts the security forces from their main mission of operating against Palestinian terrorism.”
Israeli police were met with resistance when trying to seize vehicles belonging to settlers said to have set fire to two houses, a truck and two vehicles as part of the attacks in Umm Safr, according to a spokesperson for the force.
“The rioters proceeded to throw stones and other projectiles at both police officers and their vehicles, resulting in significant damage,” the police spokesperson said.
It took several hours to reopen the settlement gate, which the individuals had “deliberately damaged” to prevent “entry or exit.”
Additionally, a search of vehicles elsewhere had revealed “a gasoline-like substance, gloves, batons, and a knife,” which were confiscated, and two suspects were apprehended.
Separately, the IDF said on Saturday that rocks had been thrown in Umm Safr while Israeli citizens reportedly set fire to Palestinian property. It said an Israeli citizen had been arrested, adding: “The IDF condemns such acts of nationalist crime that lead to escalation.”
Ghassan Douglas, a Palestinian official who monitors settler violence, said that 10 houses in Umm Safr were set on fire Saturday and seven vehicles destroyed. He accused settlers of firing live rounds at the village and two bullets had hit the camera of a Palestine TV crew. Videos obtained by CNN showed properties and an electrical generator on fire, as well as a group of settlers opening fire from a road.
Palestine TV cameraman Mohammad Radee told CNN on Sunday that he and a reporter had tried to hide behind a house in the village. “We were surprised that a handful of settlers managed to track us and started firing towards us directly from a distance of 20 meters.”
A family of eight was rescued from one burning house, according to Palestinian civil defense teams.
The Palestinian authorities said on Sunday that the Israeli authorities had been forced to make a “clear and public recognition of the existence of national terrorism committed by thousands of settlers carrying weapons, who enjoy public protection from the occupation army and political cover from ministers in the Israeli government.”
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said that the Israeli statement was issued to address international opinion, but “not intended to arrest settler elements and their terrorist leaders or start collecting their weapons.”
Kareem Khadder and Hadas Gold reported from Jerusalem, Sana Noor Haq wrote in London. CNN’s Tim Lister and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed reporting.