Ruth EglashJERUSALEM —
December 13 at 10:51 AM
Violence broke out in the West Bank on Thursday as two Israeli soldiers were shot dead, the Palestinian driver in an alleged car-ramming attempt was killed and two Palestinians suspected of earlier attacks were gunned down by Israeli forces.
Hamas claimed that both of those Palestinians were its operatives, threatening a delicately forged cease-fire deal between Israel and the militant group.
One had been accused of involvement in a drive-by shooting Sunday, which wounded seven Israeli civilians, including a pregnant woman whose prematurely born baby later died. The other, suspected of killing two of his Israeli co-workers, had been on the run for nine weeks.
There were no assertions of responsibility for Thursday’s incidents, and the Israeli military declined to comment on whether it believed that Hamas was also responsible.
Israeli forces sealed off checkpoints around the Palestinian city of Ramallah and carried out a large-scale manhunt for the perpetrators of Thursday’s shooting, which occurred at a bus stop near the Israeli settlement of Givat Assaf. The Palestinian assailant in the alleged car-ramming attack was fatally shot at the scene, the Israeli army said.
The uptick in violence increases pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to act more aggressively against Hamas. He was already facing widespread criticism for agreeing to a cease-fire with Hamas after a barrage of rockets from Gaza last month and allowing millions of dollars of cash to enter Gaza to pay salaries. Israeli security officials have said the group is trying to expand its presence in the West Bank.
By sundown, street demonstrations had broken out in Jerusalem and the West Bank, with West Bank settlers protesting outside Netanyahu’s residence and stone-throwing Palestinians clashing with Israeli forces in Ramallah.
In response to the violence, Netanyahu’s office said that he had decided to legalize thousands of settler homes built illegally in the West Bank. He also requested that Israel’s attorney general take legal steps to facilitate the construction of 82 residential units in the West Bank settlement of Ofra.
In addition, he ordered the “accelerated demolition of terrorists’ homes” and “increased administrative detention” — incarceration without charges or trial — for suspected Hamas militants in the West Bank.
“Our guiding principle is that whoever attacks us and whoever tries to attack us — will pay with his life,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Our enemies know this and we will find them.”
Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, said that Israeli settlers were carrying out revenge attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank, shooting at houses, destroying vehicles and throwing stones in the presence of soldiers, who did nothing to intervene.
“As justified as their anger may be regarding recent attacks on innocent civilians, it is unconscionable that civilians would take the law into their own hands,” the group said.
The Israeli military named the dead soldiers as Sgt. Yovel Mor Yosef, 20, and Cpl. Yosef Cohen, 19. They were both posthumously promoted. A third soldier was critically injured when the gunman, who was not alone in his car, exited his vehicle at the bus stop before fleeing toward Ramallah, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli army spokesman.
Hours later a car attempted to ram soldiers at a checkpoint in al-Bireh, northeast of Ramallah, the army said. Palestinian television said the man, 60-year-old Hamdan Tawfiq, had failed to stop for soldiers as he suffered from hearing problems.
The incident came just a day after the baby of a 21-year-old pregnant woman shot in the chest in Sunday’s attack died after being delivered early by emergency Caesarean section.
The gunman suspected in the shooting fled the scene and evaded Israeli authorities for three days until he was killed Wednesday night, the military said. Hamas later asserted responsibility and hailed the attacker, Saleh Barghouti, as a “martyr” alongside Ashraf Naalwa, accused of killing his Israeli co-workers Oct. 7.
“The flame of resistance in the West Bank has not and will not be extinguished until the occupation is defeated from our entire land, and we regain our rights in full,” Hamas said in a statement. It called the Israeli killings of the two men a “crime.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, described the killings of the Palestinians as “summary executions” and criticized the “rampage” by settlers.
Netanyahu’s decision to enter a cease-fire with Hamas last month after a botched Israeli raid led to the worst bout of rocket fire since the 2014 Hamas-Israel war dented his security credentials. His defense minister quit in protest, leaving the government on the brink of collapse.
The deteriorating humanitarian situation in the choked-off, 140-square-mile strip has become a security concern for Israel, which has been negotiating with Hamas to bring about calm. As part of that effort, Israel has been allowing Qatar to send $15 million in cash into Gaza each month to pay the salaries of civil servants.
Yonatan Fighel, senior research analyst at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya and a former military governor in the West Bank, is among many within Israel’s security establishment who believe that the government’s policy is misguided.
“By giving attention to Hamas, enabling Qatar to pour money into Gaza to create silence there, at the same time the Israeli government is weakening the Palestinian Authority,” he said, referring to the Palestinian body headed by Mahmoud Abbas that governs parts of the occupied West Bank.
“They are weakening the moderates and encouraging the extremist,” Fighel said.
The Palestinian Authority has also opposed Israel’s direct negotiations with Hamas over the situation in Gaza. A statement issued by Abbas’s office said Israel’s “repeated raids into cities, incitement against the president and the absence of horizons for peace are what led to this unacceptable rise in violence, which we condemn and reject, and for which the two sides are paying the price.”
The attacks pose a challenge to Israeli military forces operating in the West Bank. Israeli authorities have had some success in tackling lone-wolf attacks and larger-scale attacks, but appear to have struggled with the emergence of small cells funded and supported at a distance by Hamas and other groups.
Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, said Israeli security services had warned in recent months of an increase in attempted attacks in the West Bank. The last few attacks were likely part of that activity, he said.
“They are the ones that succeeded,” Schweitzer said. “It is an effort by Hamas to instigate some unrest in the West Bank, as well as on the southern front.”
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.