The Israeli settlers streamed down the hill toward Palestinian farmland, some waving sticks, some throwing stones, all masked.
They began beating a group of Palestinian villagers and Israeli rights activists who had been planting olive trees on the edge of a Palestinian village. One settler threw a flammable liquid across an activist’s car and set it ablaze. At least seven people were injured.
The mob attack outside the village of Burin last month, captured on video by human rights advocates, was part of an escalation of civilian violence across the occupied West Bank in the past year. In 2021, the number of injurious attacks by settlers on Palestinians, and by Palestinians on settlers, reached their highest levels in at least five years, according to the United Nations.
Settlers injured at least 170 Palestinians last year and killed five, UN monitors reported. During the same period, Palestinians injured at least 110 settlers and killed two, U.N. records show. The Israeli army said that Palestinians had injured 137 Israeli civilians in the West Bank last year.
But if the numbers are roughly comparable, the power dynamic is different.
The settlers benefit from a two-tier legal system in which settlers who commit violence are rarely punished, while Palestinian suspects are frequently arrested and prosecuted by military courts. Of the 111 police investigations into settler attacks monitored by the Israeli rights group Yesh Din in the past five years, only three led to indictments.
Settlers, unlike Palestinians, have the protection of the military and are rarely in danger of losing the land they live on.
And it is the settler violence that is now attracting most alarm — not only among Palestinians, but also from the Israeli security establishment.
Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, described it as “a serious phenomenon” and announced the formation of special military teams to patrol flashpoints like Burin. Three Israeli reserve generals wrote in January that settler violence posed a threat not only to Palestinians, but also to Israel’s stability and its global image.
But the impunity of recent settler attacks has led to concerns that the Israeli military is not doing enough to stop them. In some cases, repeated attacks have driven Palestinian farmers off their land, helping expand direct Israeli control over the West Bank.
“I was scared and shocked. Can you imagine being on your own land and suddenly being attacked by a criminal gang?” said Brusli Eid, 46, one of the Burin residents attacked last month. “They’re trying to make us sick of being on our land.”
Violence has long been deployed by Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel occupied the territory in 1967, and it has since been settled — illegally, according to most interpretations of international law — by hundreds of thousands of Israelis, many of whom consider the land their biblical birthright.
Settler attacks are carried out by an extremist minority, condemned by Israeli officials, and do not involve the vast majority of Israeli settlers.
And the recent violence, which rose sharply during the Gaza war this past spring and the Palestinian olive harvest in the fall, is still far lower than in more intense periods of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But rights groups have documented several instances over the past year when the military either stood by and did nothing as an attack took place or, as in Burin last month, did too little, too late.
“Time and again we see incidents of settler violence in which the army stands next to the settlers and effectively provides them protection,” said Lior Amihai, director of Yesh Din. “That gives settlers the confidence to continue their attacks and vindicates the Palestinian belief that they have no one to call for protection.”
Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, commander of Israeli troops in the West Bank, said that he was concerned about what he called “settler terrorism” and was exerting “a lot of effort to avoid it.”
His job, he said, was to protect all residents of the West Bank, “never mind if they are Israelis or Palestinians.”
To the villagers of Burin, settler attacks are part of a strategic attempt to push them off their land. Since the 1980s, the village has gradually become sandwiched between the hilltop settlements of Yitzhar and Givat Ronen.
Both settlements are built partly on privately owned Palestinian plots and are protected by the Israeli army. Among their 2,000 residents are followers of two extremist rabbis.
And while most Israeli settlements are considered legal by Israel, and illegal under international law, Givat Ronen and outposts of Yitzhar are unauthorized by the government and illegal under Israeli law.
Israelis coming from the direction of these settlements attacked Palestinians or vandalized their property in Burin and neighboring villages at least 18 times in 2021, according to Yesh Din.
Violence against farmers and vandalism against their trees have become so common — more than 11,700 Palestinian-owned olive trees were damaged last year, according to the U.N. — that the Israeli army provides escorts so farmers can safely reach their groves.
But because the army patrols each affected plot as little as two or three days a year, some farmers reached their groves just twice last year, not nearly enough time, they say, to complete the necessary work.
Although Givat Ronen and the Yitzhar outposts are unauthorized, the government has taken no action to remove them and has instead provided them with military protection, while municipal authorities have supplied them with services like garbage collection.
The farmers could take their land claims to court, but such cases are rarely successful.
The prime minister’s office and the Defense Ministry both declined to comment on this dynamic.
Since Gantz sent in new military patrols in the fall, the rate of attacks has fallen. But the olive harvest was nearly over by then, so it is likely to be another year before the effect of the new patrols can be assessed.
Palestinians say they will mean little if the army does not maintain this presence — and if it does not arrest violent settlers.
Brusli Eid, a Palestinian police detective, named for martial arts movie star Bruce Lee, was shot in 2011 by a settler in his elbow and pelvis while building a home nearby. Israeli authorities dropped criminal charges against three suspects in the attack, citing a lack of evidence.
“What does that look like to you?” he asked. To him, he said, it looks like “the Israeli government is protecting the settlers and encouraging their actions.”