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Palestinians appear to have been killed in reprisal attacks in the West Bank

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The West Bank, like much of the Arab world, has erupted in protest after an explosion at a hospital killed at least 500 people in the Gaza Strip.

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FADEL: The cause is still unconfirmed. But even before this, there were signs that tensions in the West Bank could easily boil over. Israel's punishing airstrikes on Gaza, the total siege of basic goods, hospitals running out of fuel, people running out of food has many Palestinians outside Gaza - in the West Bank and inside Israel - wondering how much harder their lives might get. And they have reason to worry. In the days following the Hamas assault in southern Israel, the worst attack on civilians in Israel's history, at least 61 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Many appear to be reprisal killings. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem has been documenting some and sharing videos online.

A warning - you're about to hear the sound of gunfire.

In one video, a settler accompanied by an Israeli soldier shoots a man at point-blank range.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shrieking).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Shrieking).

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FADEL: In another, a group of Palestinian men are being shot at.

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FADEL: These acts of apparent revenge are what set us on the road from Jerusalem to the village of Qusra in the northern West Bank. What happened there just days after the Hamas attack tells the story of just how combustible tensions are right now between Israelis and Palestinians beyond Gaza.

NUHA MUSLEH, BYLINE: This is a road called road 60.

FADEL: That's NPR producer Nuha Musleh.

MUSLEH: It starts all the way in the south and goes all the way to the highest tip in the West Bank.

FADEL: The route is scenic. Palestinian villages dot the horizon alongside Israeli settlements that are rapidly expanding. The Oslo Accords in the 1990s raised expectations that this land would someday be part of an independent state for Palestinians with Jerusalem. But in the years since, Israeli settlements have grown, and the Israeli military maintains its control on the West Bank. In Qusra, the residents are Palestinian, but the village falls under Israeli authority and is surrounded by expanding settlements that the U.N. Security Council has said violate international law.

So we've just arrived in Qusra, and this is an area where a few people have been killed in violence in the West Bank. And as we were driving up, you can kind of see the way this land is divided - settlements coming in, Palestinians being moved out. And Qusra is surrounded by settlements. So we're here right now, and we're about to meet the mayor.

We head inside to meet Hani Awda Abu Aalaa in his office.

Can I ask, just in the last few days, what's been happening in Qusra?

HANI AWDA ABU AALAA: (Through interpreter) In the first stage of the suffering of this village this last week, three Palestinians were killed when they tried to defend children in a house that was attacked by the settlers. In the second stage of what happened here this week, the soldiers came into our village and killed another person from Qusra, making the number of martyrs in Qusra four martyrs in one day.

FADEL: A few days later, when they carried the dead in a funeral procession coordinated with Israeli authorities, the mayor says they lost two more people when settlers shot a father and son.

ABU AALAA: (Through interpreter) We are not against Jews. Let us establish this. We are against settlers and the ones who call themselves soldiers, whom, to us, are not soldiers who defend us as citizens.

FADEL: He says this is the worst settler violence they've seen, and he says the attackers came from a settlement nearby called Esh Kodesh - holy fire in Hebrew. But these attacks, he says, are not isolated incidents. The walls of his office are covered in pictures of settler violence he says Qusra has endured.

ABU AALAA: (Through interpreter) The attacks on Qusra are ongoing and are on a daily basis. As you can see in all these pictures, we have an attack on a mosque. We have attack on agricultural sites. Wherever you look here, it's attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers, the worst of which was the one we had a couple of days ago.

FADEL: The images show destroyed olive groves, a damaged mosque, a man killed and protests. We leave his office and head to a gathering hall for the village.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: Inside, women have come together to mourn their dead. They cry. They hold each other, and they pray.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken, crying).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: And when pictures of the dead are passed around the hall, the wails grow louder.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Crying).

FADEL: Hassan Mohannad Abu Sarour was 21 when he was killed last Tuesday. His mother sits between her aunt and her cousin. Their arms are draped around her shoulders protectively.

It's too hard to talk about it.

MUSLEH: (Speaking Arabic).

HANNAN AWDA: (Through interpreter) He is her oldest son.

FADEL: Abu Sarour's mother stays silent, and Hannan Awda, her cousin, speaks on her behalf. He heeded the call to help when the attack began. He was shot.

AWDA: (Through interpreter) They have killed our young people. They want to evacuate us from our own lands. They say these lands are ours, not yours.

FADEL: When we leave the hall, the mayor, Hani Awda Abu Aalaa, is waiting. He gets in the car with us and takes us to the limits of his village. He wants to show us parts of the land the residents here no longer use because it's vulnerable to settler violence and harassment.

MUSLEH: We're going to go down because he's going to show us now the bigger picture.

FADEL: We stop at a hilltop.

ABU AALAA: (Speaking Arabic).

MUSLEH: This piece of land was supposed to be the site of a building. After these incidents, he's gone. His land is going to stay, but he's gone. And his project is gone with it.

FADEL: He points at a higher peak across the way to show me the settlements that overlook this edge of the village.

ABU AALAA: (Speaking Arabic).

MUSLEH: Esh Kodesh is right there, on the left-hand side. In the center is a military camp. And he says the settlers, along with the soldiers, gather there and come down to attack us together. Then there's Rahel, right there, on the far right, and Rahel is expanding nonstop.

FADEL: So now, for the safety of the farmers in this village, they no longer come here. We leave and end up at the house that was attacked last Tuesday - the place where many of the villagers were killed. The windows on the front of the home are shattered, the wood nearby burned, a car destroyed. Abu Aalaa blames Hamas and Israel's far-right government for the war and these killings in his village. Settlers who want to attack Palestinians, he says, are more emboldened than ever.

MUSLEH: They had posted on social media that we will take revenge. These people are violent all the time against the people of Qusra and the neighboring villages, but the war empowered them as well.

FADEL: When you say the settlers are emboldened, what does that mean for the future of Qusra?

ABU AALAA: (Through interpreter) I see the future as a bleak future. I see it as a black future.

FADEL: He wants it to stop.

ABU AALAA: (Speaking Arabic).

MUSLEH: When I try to understand what happened in the war, I tell you that these people in Gaza have been under siege for so long and have been killed in such a way. This is why the war took place. And if our situation continues here with settler attacks, the same thing will happen. People will start feeling the same way as Gaza. The more aggressiveness on the one side, the more is the aggressiveness from the other side.

I don't agree with this, he says. But I address the Israeli people and say, enough, enough - enough killing on both sides.

FADEL: The Israeli army said it was checking when NPR asked if the army killed one of these villagers but didn't get back to us in time for this broadcast. We also asked the police if anyone involved in these killings of six Palestinians was arrested. No arrests, but they say it's under investigation. And a lawyer who represents Israeli settlers accused of violence told NPR there have been many Palestinian shooting attacks since the war began and no arrests. It underscores what the mayor and the villagers told me - that armed settlers harass and, in this case, kill them with impunity.

So while we were in Qusra, our colleague, Ari Shapiro from All Things Considered, went to the settlement where Qusra residents said the attackers came from, and he joins me now to talk about that. Hi, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: You know, Ari, in Qusra, we found a community that was afraid. They feel the Israeli military is there to protect the settlers and not them, and they're particularly worried about attacks from a settlement, Esh Kodesh. And you met someone from there, right?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Nati Rom is his name. He got out of his truck carrying an M16 and a Glock. Nati Rom said he needs his weapon to defend himself. And after we met, I followed up to ask him about some of the specific claims in your reporting. He said, quote, "completely fake."

NATI ROM: All the dead people, the dead terrorists, are from the bullets of the IDF after they started a riot and after they shoot almost every day on Jews in the village.

SHAPIRO: He said the men killed at the funeral were, quote, "condemned terrorists that were involved in the lynching of children."

FADEL: Just to be clear, there's no evidence of anyone lynching children or being an accused terrorist among the dead. It's not something we heard from anyone - not the Israeli military either. And videos of the incident show what look like unarmed villagers in Qusra getting shot at - so a very different story.

SHAPIRO: Yes. And while there may never be closure on this specific incident, we can definitively say that settlement violence against Palestinians in the West Bank has increased dramatically since the massacre of October 7. I spoke with an expert who's been studying this for decades. His name is Dror Etkes, and here's what he told me.

DROR ETKES: Not only the numbers - also the severity of these attacks. You know, there's a difference between verbal and violent - than to get into a community and to shoot in the air.

FADEL: Yeah. And that's the kind of stuff we were hearing from the mayor. He's really worried that these attacks that took six people from his village are just going to increase, and he described the future as bleak. What did you hear from people?

SHAPIRO: What Nati Rom of Esh Kodesh said really stuck with me. When I asked him to paint a picture of the future he wants to see, he said, quote, "you can't make peace with people who want to kill you. The future is, we'll be able to eliminate the snake."

FADEL: That's quite ominous. You can hear more of Ari's reporting from the settlements tonight on All Things Considered. Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.