Armed Jewish vigilantes going house to house, knocking down doors, blasting through windows, shooting, and setting entrances and exits on fire; terrorized residents gathering children and the elderly and hiding them in bedrooms, or rushing them out to the street despite the unknown dangers there, or climbing onto rooftops to hide behind water tanks; men rushing back from work after hearing that their village is under attack; the smell of gasoline, charred cars, and burning furniture; gunshots and angry orders yelled in Hebrew to bewildered Palestinians frozen in place, or running blindly; confusion, terror, and the knowledge that there is no protection, no army ready to beat back the assault, only sheer determination to survive: these images are seared into the minds of most Palestinians. Between 1947 and 1949 armed Zionist militias roamed through Palestine, ethnically cleansing the inhabitants of more than five hundred villages, massacring many, and forcing out an estimated 750,000 Palestinians, who along with their descendants remain scattered across the world. Stories of the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948, are central to Palestinian consciousness, passed down from generation to generation in history books and at the family table.
So the news on February 26 from Huwara, a village south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, struck fear into most Palestinians, who know where this story ends. The day before, two Jewish settlers—brothers living in the illegal settlement of Har Bracha, one fresh out of army service, the other about to start—were killed by a Palestinian gunman as they drove through the village. (Palestinians often target settlers and military personnel, whose presence in the West Bank is illegal under international law, and those settlers regularly pass through Huwara on their way to and from settlements in the northern West Bank.) Presumably to seek vengeance, hundreds of settlers armed with knives and guns took to Huwara’s streets and those of nearby villages on a bender of destruction and crime, leaving behind a dead man, hundreds injured, the charred remains of vehicles and buildings, and traumatized families who had been blocked from escaping their blazing homes. Al-Haq, the preeminent Palestinian human rights organization, called the rampage a “systematic act of reprisal and collective punishment” that may amount to a crime against humanity.