After Jewish settler attacks, a Palestinian town fears for its survival

Raja Abdulrahim

The New York Times  /  April 19, 2023

A surge in attacks by Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, amid inflammatory statements by Israeli leaders, has Palestinians on edge.

Whenever Izz al-Deen Qisrawi, 4, hears a noise outside his home, he runs to the TV to check on the nine security cameras his parents installed, fearing an attack by Jewish settlers.

For two years, the Qisrawi family says, settlers living on a nearby hillside have terrorized them, surrounding their home, throwing rocks and firebombs and trying to climb over the wall outside.

With each attack, this Palestinian family in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Huwara fortified their home — adding the cameras, metal barricades and a higher wall — while putting off family vacations and saving for their children’s college funds to pay for it all.

“If you see the security, you wouldn’t think this is a home. It feels like we’re living in a prison,” said Izz al-Deen’s mother, Leena Qisrawi, 38. “Every time they attack us from a new angle, we put up new fortifications.”

Huwara, a town of about 8,000 people, sits on the only major road connecting the West Bank’s north and south, and is traversed regularly by both Palestinians and Israeli settlers. That has long put it on the front line of Israel’s expanding settlements in the West Bank, and it is a target of frequent attacks and harassment by settlers driving through.

But on Feb. 26 the violence reached new levels, traumatizing the residents of Huwara and leaving them fearful for their safety, as attacks by settlers surge and Israel’s right-wing government vows to assert greater control over the occupied West Bank.

That day, two settlers were shot and killed by a suspected Palestinian gunman as they drove through Huwara, prompting an angry mob of hundreds of Israelis from the hillside settlements to rampage through the town and neighboring villages, throwing rocks and burning homes, businesses and vehicles. In the wake of the attack, in which a Palestinian man was killed, the Israeli finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a settler himself, called for Huwara to be “erased” by the state.

Hundreds of Israeli soldiers are now deployed on its streets, occasionally shutting roads and intersections, forcing businesses along the main road to close and seizing rooftops and entire buildings.

Weeks after the rampage, the town is still making repairs, with burned-out vehicles parked in some lots and fire-damaged buildings dotting the main road. The Israeli Army, which said its forces were there to de-escalate tension and prevent violence, would not specify how many soldiers it had in Huwara.

Though Huwara is small, it has served as an economic center for this part of the West Bank. People from surrounding Palestinian villages and even Israelis from nearby settlements have come here to shop in the businesses around town and bring their vehicles to be fixed in the mechanic’s shops that line the main road.

But now, with soldiers everywhere, rifles at the ready, Palestinians have stopped coming, said Firas Demaidi, 36, who owns a supermarket.

“The army has transformed it from a large economic hub into a ghost town,” he said. “They’ve ruined us economically.”

In the past, many Palestinians in the area relied on the land around Huwara for their livelihoods, growing crops like olives and dates, and foraging for wild vegetables. But after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and in the decades since, their farmland has become increasingly off limits as settlements in the area expand, cutting into and dividing West Bank territory that residents hope will one day become a Palestinian state.

One of those growing settlements is Yitzhar, a religious settlement built partly on privately owned Palestinian land, which sits on the hills above Huwara and is now within walking distance of the town. Some of the settlers there are followers of two extremist rabbis, one of whom, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, published a book in 2009 offering religious justification for killing non-Jews who pose a threat to Jews.

Residents of Huwara say that most of the attackers on Feb. 26 came from Yitzhar, whose expanding frontiers are visible from the Qisrawi family’s balcony.

The two brothers and seminary students whose killing sparked the rampage, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, lived in Har Bracha, a Jewish settlement in the hills above Nablus.

Violence between settlers and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has surged this year.

From Jan. 1 to March 13, the United Nations recorded 219 settler-related attacks that led to four Palestinian deaths as well as injuries or damage to Palestinian property, more than twice the number in the same period last year. Israeli forces killed more than 70 Palestinians in the West Bank over that period.

Attacks by Palestinians on settlers have also more than doubled in that period, with 20 this year, resulting in the deaths of 12 settlers and one foreigner, the United Nations said.

The Israeli government has promised more support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal under international law but which have steadily expanded over the past 40 years. Mr. Smotrich, the finance minister who called for Huwara to be erased, is among the leaders of the Israeli government who support ultimately annexing all of the West Bank, believing that every part of Israel and the occupied territories was promised to Jews by God.

The International Criminal Court classifies the act of an occupying power transferring its own population into occupied land as a war crime. Palestinians say the repeated attacks by settlers are aimed at driving them off their land.

In 2021, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank was more than 465,000, according to Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settlement activity. That compares with a little more than 200,000 in 2001.

Huwara residents say they are vulnerable to more attacks because not many settlers were arrested after the attacks in February and March, amid what Palestinians say is a general lack of accountability.

On balconies and rooftops across Huwara, residents have collected buckets of rocks to repel attacks, saying they don’t trust the soldiers to protect them. Huwara, like some other Palestinian towns, has set up neighborhood watch groups to give early warnings of potential trouble from the minarets of local mosques.

“They’ve attacked us before, but nothing like this,” said Ms. Qisrawi, a mother of four and a school principal, remembering the night of Feb. 26. “I thought they were going to slaughter us and burn us alive.” Rights groups have documented some of the attacks on the Qisrawis’ home.

Nawal Demaidi, 70, lives in an apartment above her son’s supermarket in Huwara. Security camera footage from the market on Feb. 26 shows settlers piling planks and plastic jugs against the front door of the building and setting them on fire. Behind them, the blue-and-red lights of an Israeli police vehicle can be seen, but the authorities did not intervene as the settlers fed the growing fire.

From a front balcony, her son pointed to what he said was evidence that Israeli forces had helped the settlers: tear gas canisters and stun grenades with Hebrew inscriptions.

In the days after the attack, he filed a complaint with the police. Nothing yet has come of it.

“The judge and executioner are one and the same,” Mr. Demaidi said.

The Israeli Army said that an inquiry into the military’s response to the Feb. 26 attacks concluded that there was an insufficient number of soldiers in the area to prevent “violent riots.” It added that it had learned lessons regarding dispatching reinforcements quicker “when there is suspicion of such a severe incident recurring.”

But residents said soldiers and border police not only failed to intervene to help them, but when they threw rocks and other projectiles in response to the settlers, the Israeli forces fired back at the Palestinians with stun grenades, tear gas and, in some cases, live ammunition.

In Zaatara, one of the other villages attacked on Feb. 26, Sameh Al-Aqtash, a father of five, and other residents tried fending off settlers throwing rocks and seeking to force their way into the village. Behind them were Israeli soldiers, the residents said. Gunfire broke out and Mr. Al-Aqtash was shot in the abdomen.

Because the settlers and Israeli forces were blocking the only road out of Zaatara, his family had to take him in a truck over mountain paths. He died along the way. The United Nations said he was killed either by settlers or Israeli forces.

An Israeli Army spokesman said it would not investigate Mr. Al-Aqtash’s killing. The army referred questions to the police, who confirmed they had opened an investigation into his death.

For now, the residents of Huwara say they are living in fear of more attacks. One of the things that has unsettled them was a music video with a song based on a popular Jewish religious pop song that began circulating online and in settler WhatsApp groups, in the days after the Feb. 26 attack.

“Who is going up in flames now? Huwara,” the lyrics went.

“Houses and cars too — Huwara.

“Evicting from there the elderly, women and girls.

“Burning all night.”

Raja Abdulrahim is a correspondent in Jerusalem focused on Palestinian affairs

Hiba Yazbek, Myra Noveck and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting