A settler attack on a West Bank village in September left a trail of damage
Hundreds of settlers are engaged in violence against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, the senior Israeli commander in the West Bank has said.
Majr-Gen Gadi Shamni said diverting military resources to deal with settlers impaired the army's ability to carry out operations against militants.
A recent UN report recorded 222 acts of settler violence in the first half of 2008 compared with 291 in all of 2007.
Palestinians have long complained of settler harassment and intimidation.
They have also complained the Israeli military does little to stop or restrain the settlers.
"In the past, only a few dozen individuals took part in such activity but today that number has grown into the hundreds. That's a very significant change," Maj-Gen Shamni told the Israeli Haaretz newspaper.
"These hundreds are engaged in conspiratorial actions against Palestinians and the security forces. It's a very grave phenomenon."
"This is harming our ability to carry out security missions in the territories. We have to divert our efforts to there from other issues.
"The margins [in the settler community] are expanding, because they are enjoying a tailwind and the backing of part of the leadership, both rabbinical and public, whether in explicit statements or tacitly."
The general said that in some cases Israeli soldiers who had intervened to stop settlers from attacking Palestinians had themselves been attacked by settlers.
"The majority [of settlers] here act normally. We're talking about a hard core of a few hundred activists," Maj-Gen Shamni said.
'Wind of extremism'
Israeli political leaders have made comments along similar lines recently.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has spoken of an "evil wind of extremism" threatening Israel's democracy.
This was in reaction to a pipe bomb attack on a leading Israeli academic and critic of the occupation of Palestinian land by presumed hard-line right-wingers.
Mr Olmert has also described a mass attack by settlers on the West Bank village of Asira al-Qabiliya as a "pogrom".
Settlers have said the attack was in response to the wounding of a nine-year-old boy by a Palestinian who had been trying to set fire to an empty house in the near-by Yitzhar settlement.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak has urged tougher penalties for settlers who attack Palestinian property.
About 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, among a population of about 2.5 million Palestinians.
All settlements are consider illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.