United States President Joe Biden has called for an end to escalating attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Settler violence against Palestinians has intensified since the Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 and Israel’s continuing bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip.
Some Palestinians have been killed by settlers, according to Palestinian authorities. Rights groups say settlers have torched cars and attacked several small Bedouin communities, forcing them to evacuate to other areas.
Biden said that attacks by “extremist settlers” must end.
“It has to stop. They have to be held accountable. It has to stop now,” Biden said on Wednesday.
Settler attacks had been steadily increasing for months before the current round of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian armed group Hamas, which governs Gaza.
That escalation of violence began on October 7 when Hamas carried out an attack on southern Israel that killed more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians, and captured around 220 others as hostages, according to Israeli authorities.
Since the attack, Israel has imposed a “complete siege” on Gaza and bombarded the territory, where Palestinian authorities say the Israeli assault has killed at least 6,546 people and wounded more than 17,439.
In the occupied West Bank, tensions have soared as Israel carried out mass arrests and stepped up military raids, and settlers have carried out attacks on Palestinians, forcing some communities off their land.
The West Bank Protection Consortium, a coalition of nongovernment organisations and donor countries, including the European Union, has said that hundreds of Palestinians have been forcibly displaced by settler attacks.
Biden said settler attacks “pour gasoline” on an already dangerous situation, but did not say what steps, if any, the US would take to pressure Israel to rein in the attacks, which sometimes take place in the presence of Israeli soldiers.
Biden casts doubt on Gaza authorities’ death toll
The US president also said he had doubts about the accuracy of the death toll from the ongoing fighting reported by Hamas authorities in Gaza.
“I’m sure innocents have been killed and it’s the price of waging a war,” Biden said.
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, said that comment showed that Biden seems unable to empathise with Palestinians.
“I’ve been saying for years that Biden seems utterly incapable of empathizing w/Palestinians,” Elgindy wrote in a social media post. “Today he confirmed it.”
I’ve been saying for years that Biden seems utterly incapable of empathizing w/Palestinians. Today he confirmed it. https://t.co/oqTOhSJEuj
— Khaled Elgindy (@elgindy_) October 25, 2023
Israel ‘preparing for ground invasion’
Biden also that he has not directly sought assurances from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel will hold off on an expected ground invasion into Gaza before hostages can be released.
“What I have indicated to him is that if that’s possible, to get these folks out safely, that’s what he should do. It’s their decision,” Biden told a news conference. “But I did not demand it. I pointed out to him, if it’s real, it should be done.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Netanyahu said the decision on when Israeli forces would go into Gaza would be taken by the government’s special war cabinet, but he declined to provide any details on the timing or other information about the operation.
“We have already killed thousands of terrorists and this is only the beginning,” Netanyahu said in a televised statement.
“Simultaneously, we are preparing for a ground invasion. I will not elaborate on when, how or how many. I will also not elaborate on the various calculations we are making, which the public is mostly unaware of and that is how things should be.”