Updated Jun 21, 2023 - World

Israel conducts rare drone strike in West Bank, escalating already high tensions

Jewish settlers set fire to Palestinian homes and vehicles in the Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya on June 21. Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Violence in the occupied West Bank dramatically escalated this week after the Israeli military killed six Palestinians in a raid, Palestinian militants killed four Israeli settlers in an attack, Israeli settlers rampaged through a Palestinian town and torched dozens of homes and cars, and Israel conducted a rare drone strike on a car.

Thought bubble: The rapid escalation, which came as State Department's senior Middle East diplomat Barbara Leaf visited Israel and the West Bank, shows how quickly the situation in the West Bank can deteriorate and what little influence the Biden administration's warnings to prevent or stop the violence has had on either side.

Driving the news: Several hours before Leaf landed in the region on Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved a resolution that will allow it to significantly speed up the process of approving new construction in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

  • The Israeli government also announced that the government committee that approves new planning and building in the settlements will convene next Monday to approve about 4,500 new housing units in the settlements.
  • Two U.S. officials said Israel told the Biden administration in advance of both decisions. The U.S. pressed the Israelis not to go forward with the plans, but they did so anyway, the officials said.
An Israeli Air Force AH-64 Apache attack helicopter releases flares during an Israeli army raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank on June 19. Photo: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images
An Israeli Air Force AH-64 Apache attack helicopter releases flares during an Israeli army raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank on June 19. Photo: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images

As Leaf held talks with Palestinian officials in Ramallah on Monday, the Israeli military conducted a raid against Palestinian militants in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.

  • The situation escalated further after an Israeli armored vehicle was hit by an IED and encountered heavy fire. The Israeli military used attack helicopters that fired rockets for the first time in 20 years during the raid in an effort to extract its forces.
  • Six Palestinians were killed in the raid. Most were armed, but a 15-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl were also killed. At least 90 Palestinians, including many civilians, were wounded, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. The Israeli military killed another Palestinian in a separate incident in a village near Bethlehem.
Israeli forces work at the scene of the shooting attack near the Jewish settlement of Eli on June 20. Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On Tuesday, two Palestinian gunmen affiliated with Hamas killed four Israeli civilians, including two 17-year-olds, during an attack on a restaurant near the Israeli settlement of Eli in the West Bank.

  • In response, the Prime Minister's Office announced the approval of immediate planning of an additional 1,000 housing units in the Eli settlement.

The situation continued to escalate on Wednesday when hundreds of Israeli settlers arrived in Turmus Ayya, a Palestinian town near Eli that is home to many Palestinian Americans, and started torching dozens of Palestinian houses and cars, according to the town's mayor. At least one Palestinian was killed by Israeli police.

  • The Israeli military and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the settler violence.
  • Later Wednesday, Israel conducted a drone strike on a car the Israeli military said carried three Palestinian militants who had attacked an Israeli village. It was the first such strike in two decades. The three in the car were killed, according to Israeli officials.
  • Hamas called on “the resistance in the West Bank to escalate the confrontation.”
People stand by a torched vehicle, reportedly set ablaze by Israeli settlers, in the occupied West Bank village of Turmus Ayya today. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
People stand by a torched vehicle, reportedly set ablaze by Israeli settlers, in the occupied West Bank village of Turmus Ayya today. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Worth noting: In addition to the escalation in the West Bank, Netanyahu announced on Sunday he will unilaterally resume the government’s controversial judicial overhaul legislation.

  • The Biden administration has been opposed to the plan and stressed that any judicial reform should be done through a broad consensus.

The big picture: The Biden administration’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been of containment and de-escalation.

  • Israelis and Palestinians agreed to take steps to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank earlier this year during meetings held with the U.S., Jordan and Egypt in the Jordanian city of Aqaba and the Egyptian coastal city of Sharm el-Sheikh, but the situation on the ground worsened

What they're saying: State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller condemned Tuesday’s attack near Eli.

  • He also expressed concern about the continuation of violence in Israel and the West Bank and the killing of civilians. “We will continue to work with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to promote steps toward de-escalation," he said.
  • State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said during Wednesday's daily briefing that the U.S. is concerned by the reports regarding the settler attack on the town of Turmus Ayya. “We condemn these violent acts," he said.
  • Patel added that the U.S. expects the Israeli government to persecute the perpetrators in addition to providing compensation for the property lost.

Palestinian Minister Hussein al-Sheikh said he told Leaf on Monday that the understandings reached in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh no longer exist because Israel disavowed them.

  • “I added that it is not possible to continue holding these conferences if there is no actual and tangible positive development on the ground," al-Sheikh wrote on Twitter.
  • Al-Sheikh said Leaf expressed concern about the security situation and urged a return to direct dialogue between the parties.

The other side: In Israel, Leaf met with the head of the Shin Bet security agency, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and other senior officials and urged them to de-escalate the situation, Israeli officials said.

  • It's unclear how the Israelis responded to Leaf's comments.

The Biden administration also made it clear to Israel this week that settlement announcements and escalation in the West Bank are making it harder for the U.S. to convince Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to continue the normalization process with Israel, according to a U.S. official.

  • The U.S. official said the Israeli policy and the situation on the ground could also decrease Biden's motivation to pay political capital in order to help Israel get a deal with Saudi Arabia. Israel's Haaretz newspaper was the first to report the U.S. message.
  • Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said at a press conference with Blinken that "without finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people … any normalization will have limited benefits."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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