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Palestinian protests turn deadly as Israel considers the future of a new settlement

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story takes us to the Middle East. A new Jewish settlement on the Israeli-occupied West Bank has become a focus of constant protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

INSKEEP: Night after night, Palestinians have lit up the night sky with lasers and bonfires, and they've shouted. The protest has turned deadly, as Israel's new government considers whether to let this settlement remain. Even in a constantly tense place, this particular campaign stands out. NPR's Daniel Estrin begins his report from the West Bank village of Beita.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Palestinians in Beita call this the night confusion. Every single night for the last six months, starting at around 8 p.m., they come to the edge of this hilltop and scream. They scream across the valley to the soldiers protecting the new settlement on the next mountain.

Jihad Jaghoub, a car importer, comes here every few nights.

What do we see?

JIHAD JAGHOUB: Smokes, lasers...

ESTRIN: Palestinians are shining this long green laser on...

JAGHOUB: Yes, yes. Shining that - soldiers.

ESTRIN: No other West Bank protest matches the intensity of this one. Soldiers have killed eight Palestinians here. One night, Palestinians burned a Star of David and a Nazi swastika, enraging Israel's military command.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

ESTRIN: So now the soldiers have lit a flare in the sky. Suddenly, the night sky is lit up.

All this began last spring, when a group of settlers made their home on the hilltop Palestinians call Jabal Sabih, as the rest of the world was watching the Gaza-Israel war.

DANIELLA WEISS: As long as that lasted, we could continue with our building work. And we did it big time.

ESTRIN: Daniella Weiss, a veteran settler leader, tells me they paved a road, set up trailer homes, and within two weeks, 53 families had established a new settlement named Evyatar. In the past, big groups of soldiers have been dispatched to drag settlers off hilltops they've squatted on illegally - not this time, with Hamas missiles falling across Israel.

WEISS: Well, when the leaders of the country are preoccupied with a war, just try to imagine the immensity of the clash.

ESTRIN: Instead, she and her group were able to push ahead with their most daring settlement project in years - a big presence deep in the West Bank, right next to Palestinian villages on a hilltop Palestinian landowners say is theirs. Palestinians began protesting from the nearby hilltop, shining their lasers at the settlement.

WEISS: The laser touched me. I mean, I went through it.

ESTRIN: Weeks later, Israel installed a new prime minister, Naftali Bennett. One of his first challenges? What to do about Evyatar. His left-wing partners in government opposed it. The Biden administration also opposes settlement expansion. But part of Bennett's base are right-wing pro-settlement voters enraged he had deposed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

WEISS: So there Bennett had an unexpected chance to prove to his hesitant constituency that here I am better than Netanyahu in my attitude towards settlers and towards the Land of Israel.

ESTRIN: Bennett offered the settlers a deal. For now, they leave the hilltop. The government checks Palestinian ownership claims. Any land deemed up for grabs will be turned over to a Jewish religious school and settler homes, and the government will declare Evyatar legal.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND AMBIENCE)

ESTRIN: Until there's a decision, troops guard the empty trailer homes. An Israeli couple drive up the hill with their baby to deliver a care package to the soldiers, while below a Palestinian farmer is forbidden to harvest his olives.

DROR ETKES: So they got what they wanted because the settlement is not - it's not dismantled. It's there.

ESTRIN: Dror Etkes is an Israeli activist who maps and opposes settler takeovers of West Bank land.

ETKES: I would say they have a good chance, you know, to eventually make sure that there will be some type of an Israeli entity there. Even if it won't be a settlement, it will be a military base instead. The goal is to make sure the Palestinians won't come there.

ESTRIN: Palestinians say in a half a year of protests, Israeli soldiers have shot and killed eight Palestinian protesters climbing up the hill toward the settlement. The army says they were throwing stones and firebombs. Villagers say they were too far away from soldiers to do them any harm. The youngest killed was 16-year-old Mohammed Hamayel.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALKING ON GRAVEL)

ESTRIN: We find his father Said approaching a lookout near where his son was killed. He walks with an oak cane and a bushy beard.

SAID: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He hasn't shaved since his son was killed. He says he goes to bed hoping he doesn't wake up. He comes here to feel his son's presence.

SAID: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: The boy dreamed of studying international law, but now his father says, "we are convinced that this land won't be liberated without blood."

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Beita, in the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROHNE'S "PAST LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.