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A new surge in violence in the West Bank is worrying the Biden administration


Most people know that there have been many, many years of violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, so much so that the day-to-day violence that goes on there might not register with people who aren't directly affected, or those stories don't even make the headlines. But we want to take some time now to understand a new surge in violence in the West Bank that is especially worrying the Biden administration. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been reporting on this, and he's with us now to tell us more. Daniel, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So could you just start by setting the context for us? How would you summarize what this year has looked like in the West Bank?

ESTRIN: Well, I'll start in the spring. There was a string of Palestinian attacks - deadly attacks on Israelis. And the Israeli army launched a campaign that's been going on now, every day nearly, for six months. The army enters Palestinian villages, arrests its suspects, confiscates weapons - this is not a new tactic, but what's new is that it's happening almost every single night. And instead of Palestinians meeting soldiers by pelting rocks at them, they are increasingly taking up guns and firing at soldiers. And the army, of course, fires back. This has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in seven years. About a hundred Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops, according to Palestinian officials. And Israel says that there have been more than a hundred Palestinian attacks this year - that they thwarted 300 Palestinian attacks, arrested thousands of Palestinians. And some analysts are asking, are we seeing the beginnings of a new kind of Palestinian uprising?

MARTIN: What is the thinking about why it's gotten to this point right now?

ESTRIN: Well, the power dynamics in the West Bank are crumbling. The big picture is that Israel occupies the West Bank - the overall territory - but Palestinians get to govern their own municipalities. They have their own security forces, and they cooperate with the Israeli military to prevent attacks on Israelis and arrest gunmen. What's happening now is that Israel is accusing the Palestinian security forces of simply losing their grip on some areas.

And I visited one of those areas this week - the ancient city of Nablus - and I met a Palestinian security chief. He joined the security services back in the '90s when the Palestinians signed the Oslo Peace Accords, and he told me he believed in the process at the time. You know, the idea was that Israel was supposed to gradually pull out of the West Bank. Police forces like him would get to control their own territories, and Palestinians would have control over their lives. But the process was frozen, and today, no Israeli leader, not even the Biden administration, is calling for peace talks right now to create an independent country for Palestinians. So then, he says, when Israeli troops sweep into the West Bank for arrests and clashes ensue and people get killed, Palestinians turn to him and say, you're a security officer. Why don't you defend us?

So that is why we're seeing this new phenomenon now of young men taking up guns and saying, well, we're going to have to defend ourselves. And that includes this security chief who I met. His 19-year-old son took up a gun. He'd shoot up Israeli soldiers. Israel pursued him for months and assassinated his son last month in an alley of the old city in Nablus. I went to the rubble where he was killed in, and out popped one of his comrades from this loosely affiliated group - a new group - they call themselves the Lion's Den. So it's kind of this chicken-and-egg situation, Michel, because Israeli soldiers come in. They say they have to come into Palestinian areas to combat militants, but then this firefight ensues, Palestinians are killed, and then that just inspires more men to take up arms.

MARTIN: You say that there are no sort of peace talks ongoing, so what is the current leadership doing about this? And we also said earlier that the U.S. is concerned. Is the U.S. proposing any strategies to address this?

ESTRIN: Well, the U.S., we've heard, is calling for more security cooperation between the two sides, more economic improvement for Palestinians, calling on Israel to allow that. But Israel is intent on pressing on with its military campaign. The Jewish holidays are approaching. Elections are coming up this fall. And Israel's top internal security chief says Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas needs to understand he can't expect an independent state now. He can't expect political gains. The best he can do is explain to his people that they can expect economic development and moves to improve living standards, which Palestinian leaders say don't satisfy their aspirations.

MARTIN: Is there something, anything on the horizon that could give Palestinians hope?

ESTRIN: If there is, it's hard to see what that is. You know, fascinatingly, some Israeli leading security analysts are now calling for a peace process, which no Israeli candidate for prime minister is advocating now. President Abbas, the Palestinian president, next week, will speak at the United Nations, and he's going to try to gain more international recognition for a Palestinian state. But that strategy - his entire strategy for decades, diplomacy as a path to independence, has failed. He's now in his late 80s, the final chapter of his rule. There's a big question mark about what happens in the West Bank when he's no longer on the scene. Will the militant Hamas take over? The phrase I heard over and over this week reporting, Michel, was Palestinians telling me there is a lack of, quote, "a political horizon." So that's the vacuum we're seeing these days.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. Daniel, thanks so much for your reporting. It's a sobering message, but thank you for that.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

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

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.