The Palestinian town of Turmus Ayya is still reeling from the events of this week. On Wednesday, hundreds of Israelis from the neighboring settlement of Shilo descended on the West Bank town and began to set it ablaze, torching cars and homes, and firing live ammunition at residents. The rampage was an apparent retaliation for the killing of four Israeli civilians—including a 17-year-old boy—near another West Bank settlement the day before, an attack that the Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed was a response to an Israeli military raid in Jenin on Monday that left seven people, including a 15-year-old, dead.
These cycles of attacks have grown more common in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in recent months, heightening fears that a conflict that dates back nearly a century will escalate anew. “The town did not sleep last night,” Olfat Abdelhalim, whose home was vandalized in the attack, tells TIME. “Nobody slept.”
Like many residents of Turmus Ayya, Abdelhalim, 52, is a dual Palestinian American citizen. Though she resides in Chicago, IL, she returned to Turmus Ayya with her family for the summer. She was at a doctor’s appointment in Ramallah, the administrative West Bank capital roughly 15 miles south of her hometown, when she received a call from her kids. Israeli settlers were trying to break into the home and set it on fire.
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“I told them, ‘Just go downstairs and close all the doors,’” she says of her children, aged 15- to 20-years-old. Getting home to them wasn’t easy. Between Israeli military checkpoints and barricaded entrances to the town, it ultimately took her two hours. Abdelhalim says her children believed that they might die there. “They made the shahada,” she says, referencing the Islamic declaration of faith, which is often recited by Muslims on their deathbed. “Thank God, they were able to escape from a window on the first floor.”
Others weren’t so lucky. One resident, 27-year-old Omar Qatin, was fatally shot in the rampage and 12 others were wounded, according to the Palestinian health ministry. While Palestinian medics told the Guardian that Qatin was killed by Israeli soldiers who appeared in the town after the rampage had begun, witnesses told Al Jazeera that he was not near the military. Lafi Adeeb Shalabi, the mayor of Turmus Ayya, tells TIME that as many as 12 homes were burned or vandalized, and at least 20 cars were torched.
Abdelhalim says her children were visiting the area for the first time. “They wanted to know the place, they wanted to visit it and live here for a vacation in the summer,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re thinking now. They’re super shaky. But what can we do? I told them this is the Palestinian experience. You have to live through it.”
Settler violence has surged in the West Bank in recent years. In February, hundreds of Israeli settlers stormed through the Palestinian village of Huwara—torching homes and cars and injuring hundreds—in what Israeli military officials described as a “pogrom.” That attack followed the killing of two Israeli settlers near the town, which in turn was preceded by a deadly Israeli military raid in Nablus that killed 11 Palestinians.
Only two of the hundreds of Israeli settlers who participated in the attack on Huwara were put under administrative detention, the Times of Israel reported in March. But the human-rights group B’Tselem and Institute for Middle East Understanding non-profit tell TIME that, as far as they are aware, no one has ultimately been charged. The Israeli police has reportedly opened an investigation into the attack on Turmus Ayya, though no charges have been made as of this writing. The Israeli military condemned the “serious incidents of violence and destruction of property” in Turmus Ayya, but many observers noted that they failed to prevent the violence from occurring despite plenty of online evidence that an attack was forthcoming.
As in the past, the Israeli government used the attacks as a premise to expand settlements, announcing plans this week to build 1,000 new homes in an existing Israeli settlement, which are considered illegal under international law. Some 750,000 Israelis now live on more than 200 settlements built on Palestinian territory Israel has militarily occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. “Violence, directed at Palestinian persons and property, is inherent to Israeli settlements,” Itay Epshtain, an Israel-based humanitarian law and policy consultant and special advisor to the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a tweet noting the correlation between settlements and areas of violence within the occupied West Bank. “From their establishment to their expansion through outposts, settlements exteriorize harassment and violence against Palestinians in their path.”
This is Abdelhalim’s experience, too. Although she hasn’t resided in Turmus Ayya for more than a decade now, she remembers the construction of the Shilo settlement in the late 1970s, part of which was constructed on private Palestinian land, according to the Israeli NGO Peace Now. “Since then, the attacks never stopped,” she says.
In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. government’s Office of Palestinian Affairs said it was “appalled” by the attacks and urged the Israeli authorities to “protect U.S. and Palestinian civilians and prosecute those responsible.” Despite the many American citizens who live in Turmus Ayya, Abdelhalim says she doesn’t expect the U.S. government to do much more to intercede on their behalf, nor does she expect that the violence will end here.
“God knows what’s going to happen,” she says, adding, of the settlers: “They just live up the mountain over here, so they can come down whenever they want to.”
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