US says ‘engaging’ with Israel after West Bank settler attacks

White House comments come after US ambassador to Israel said Washington will not ‘stand by and watch settler violence’.

Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the European Union representative to the West Bank and Gaza, examines the ruins of a building in the West Bank village of Turmus Ayya, days after a rampage by Israeli settlers [Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo]

White House National Security spokesman John Kirby has said the United States is “actively engaging” with Israel following an Israeli settler attack on a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank that is home to many Palestinian Americans.

During a news conference on Friday, Kirby said several US government officials had met with victims of the attack in Turmus Ayya, a village near Ramallah.

On Wednesday, residents said about 400 Israeli settlers had stormed the village and set cars, homes and vast tracts of farmland on fire before Israeli forces then descended upon the community.

At least one Palestinian, 27-year-old Omar Qattin, a father of two who worked as an electrician for the local municipality, was killed in the violence and several others were injured.

“We’ve certainly seen reports now of US citizens … having become victims of some of the violence, and we’re actively engaging with the government of Israel about that,” Kirby told reporters on Friday, without providing further detail.

The assault on Turmus Ayya came amid a string of similar settler attacks near Nablus, a city in the occupied West Bank, in an apparent response to Palestinian gunmen killing four Israeli settlers near the Eli settlement.

Palestinian and international human rights groups have long decried Israel’s failure or refusal to halt attacks by settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories.

And in recent months, they have accused key members of the Israeli government – including far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – of condoning the violence.

On Thursday, Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, made an uncharacteristically firm call for Israel to take action to stem the attacks.

“We do not stand and watch settler violence,” Nides said during a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian youth in Tel Aviv, as reported by Israeli media.

“I’ve been very clear and very specific that we will not stand by, and we’re pushing the Israelis to take whatever action they need to take to stop those people,” he said. “At the same time, my heart breaks for the families that lost a loved one 48 hours ago. My heart breaks for all these families.”

Shift in tone, but action unlikely

The statements represent a shift in tone from the Biden administration, said Michael Omer-Man, director of research for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based advocacy group.

But meaningful action from the US is less likely, he said, although targeted travel restrictions on Israeli settlers accused of violence could be on the table.

“I think the difference that we’re seeing here is that this administration, which is particularly averse to conflict with Israel, has designated Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and the sort of violent, aggressive, unapologetic settler movement as targets within the Israeli government that they are willing to criticise publicly,” Omer-Man told Al Jazeera.

“But if they’re not holding the broader Israeli government to account for that, then I don’t know what it’s worth,” he said. “The level of what [the US] is willing to do, the scope of what they’re willing to do, is so little, it’s hard to draw hope from that.”

Despite publicly opposing the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, which eat into a future Palestinian state, the Biden administration remains a staunch defender of Israel.

The US has long hailed its “ironclad” relationship with the country, which receives about $3.8bn in unconditional aid from Washington annually.

Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his government had approved 1,000 new settler homes in Eli, calling the move a “response to terror”.

On Friday, Israeli National Security Minister Gvir, speaking at a settler outpost in Mount Sabih, called on the government to launch a widespread military campaign in the West Bank and to expand illegal settlements, according to Israeli media.

That came as the United Nations Human Rights Chief Volker Turk warned that violence in the West Bank “risks spiralling out of control” amid Israel’s use of heavy weaponry.

After Israeli forces stormed the Jenin refugee camp on Monday, Israel for the first time in 20 years used helicopter gunships in the occupied West Bank to attack the camp.

At least seven Palestinians, including children, were killed and 91 others were injured.

Turk said on Friday that the raid was a “major intensification of the use of weaponry more generally associated with the conduct of armed hostilities, rather than a law enforcement situation”.

Israel also conducted its first known targeted drone strike in the West Bank on Wednesday. The Israeli military said the drone had killed three Palestinian gunmen that opened fire at a checkpoint north of Jenin.

Source: Al Jazeera