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In shift, US labels Israeli settler violence a 'terror attack'

The State Department described the killing of a 19-year-old Palestinian as a "terror attack," using a term it typically reserves for attacks on Israeli civilians.
Mourners carry the body of 19-year-old Palestinian Qusai Jamal Maatan.

WASHINGTON — The State Department said Monday its rare use of the word “terror” to describe an Israeli settler attack that killed a young Palestinian reflects the administration’s “great concern” over a spate of violence in the West Bank

The Palestinian Health Ministry said late Friday that a group of Israeli settlers fatally shot 19-year-old Qusai Jamal Maatan and wounded several others in an attack on the outskirts of Burqa, a village in the central West Bank near Ramallah. 

Residents told the Haaretz newspaper that the clashes broke out after settlers from the nearby Oz Zion outpost brought a herd of sheep to graze on Palestinian land. The residents accused the settlers of vandalizing property, throwing stones, and shooting at Maatan and others.  

On Saturday morning, Israeli police said they arrested two settlers and detained five Palestinians over the violent altercation. Lawyers for the settlers said they were acting in self-defense after being pelted with rocks.   

But in a tweet late Saturday, the State Department called the shooting a “terror attack.” 

“We strongly condemn yesterday's terror attack by Israeli extremist settlers that killed a 19-year-old Palestinian,” the tweet said. “The US extends our deepest sympathies to his family & loved ones.”  

The department has previously referred to terrorist attacks against Israelis, but this appeared to be its first use of the label to describe settler violence targeting Palestinian civilians.  

“It was a terror attack,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said. “We are concerned about it, and that’s why we called it that.”

The tweet “made clear our position on terrorist attacks, on extremist settler violence,” Miller said. “We have also been clear that accountability and justice should be pursued with equal vigor in all cases of extremism, whoever the perpetrators are.” 

Miller also pointed to comments made Monday by Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, who said the West Bank was experiencing “an increase in nationalist crime and nationalist terror."

In a separate tweet, the State Department on Saturday also condemned what it described as a “terrorist attack” in Tel Aviv, in which a Palestinian gunman killed Israeli security guard Chen Amir and wounded two others. The gunman, who police identified as a 27-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Jenin, was killed on the scene. 

The US tweets come amid growing concern within the Biden administration over the policies of the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including its plans to build thousands of new housing units in Jewish settlements. The administration has also been publicly critical of Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary. 

Over the weekend, Netanyahu's opponents in Israel were quick to link the Burqa settler attack to the coalition’s extreme rhetoric. Benny Gantz, leader of the National Unity party, warned of "dangerous nationalistic Jewish terror” and blamed “the silence of our national leadership.” 

The United Nations said Friday it had documented nearly 600 settler-related incidents in the West Bank during the first six months of 2023, a nearly 40% increase from the same period last year. 

In retaliation for the fatal shooting of several Israelis, some 400 armed Jewish settlers in June torched cars, homes and orchards in the West Bank town of Turmus Aya. Hundreds of settlers carried out a similar rampage on the Palestinian town of Huwara in late February. 

A joint statement issued by a dozen American Jewish groups in July urged Netanyahu to stop “excusing” and “protecting” the perpetrators behind the wave of settler violence. 

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