How Jewish settler violence is fuelling West Bank tension

Donald Macintyre & Quique Kierszenbaum

The Observer  /  November 28, 2021

As attacks on Palestinians worsen, we speak to farmers, Jewish settlers, Israeli human rights activists, and the mother of a three-year-old boy left injured in a raid.

The assault was already under way when, having hastily collected her youngest child from a neighbour, Baraa Hamamda, 24, ran home to find her three-year-old son, Mohammed, lying in a small pool of blood and apparently lifeless on the bare floor where she had left him asleep. “I thought that’s it, he’s dead,” she says. “He won’t come back.”

Mohammed wasn’t dead, though he wouldn’t regain consciousness for more than 11 hours, having been struck on the head by a stone thrown through a window by an Jewish settler, one of dozens who had invaded the isolated village of Al-Mufakara, in the West Bank’s rocky, arid south Hebron hills.

At about 1.30pm, settlers from the two outposts, Havat Maon and Avigayil – illegal even under Israeli law – which the Palestinian village sits uneasily between, advanced on the flock of a Palestinian shepherd from neighbouring Rakiz, throwing stones and stabbing sheep, killing six of them. More than a dozen of Al-Mufakara’s 120 residents retaliated with stones in an attempt to repel the settlers. But the settlers, several armed, rapidly entered the village and, as women barricaded themselves and their children in their homes, left a trail of smashed windows, an overturned car, shattered windscreens, punctured water tanks, slashed tyres, vandalized solar panels – and six injured Palestinians, including Mohammed.

At first a few troops apparently tried to separate the sides – an IDF video shows them restraining one settler. But Mahmoud Hamamda, Mohammed’s grandfather, says that when reinforcements arrived they focused on dispersing the Palestinians defending the village, about half of whom now retreated into the valley below. “They were beside the settlers, shooting teargas and stun grenades and rubber bullets at the Palestinians,” he says. “If Israel went by the law, none of these settlers would be here … and yet Israeli soldiers come with M16s and confront people like this who have no weapons.”

Which raises the question of what Israel is doing to curb what increasingly looks like rural settlers’ systematic use of violence. The incursion into Al-Mufakara, which Israel’s liberal daily Haaretz called a “pogrom”, is the highest-profile event in a recent rise in settler violence. Israeli human rights organizations claim it is increasingly being used as a strategy to try to clear many of the 300,000 Palestinian residents in the rural 60% of the occupied

Arguably the settlers were trying by force what Israel has long attempted by bureaucratic means. Unlike most settlers, Palestinian residents of villages like Al-Mufakara are refused permits to build clinics and schools or pave their hair-raisingly rough access roads. Denied access to utilities, they can pay five times more for water than Israelis. Many homes have been served military demolition orders. This is compounded by the tens of thousands of acres of “state land” allocated to settlers on pastures used by Palestinians for generations.

The Israeli human rights agency B’Tselem claimed this month that the state has “harnessed settler violence to promote its policy of taking over Palestinian land for Jewish use”.

While Naftali Bennett, who in June replaced Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, is a rightwing nationalist, he was obliged to include Labour and Meretz (the most leftwing Jewish party) as well as – for the first time – an Arab party, the Islamic-inclined Ra’am, in his coalition. The core political bargain Bennett struck with his left-of-centre partners was that he would not implement his own dream of annexing de jure key parts of the West Bank; in return the government would focus on policies within Israel itself: no annexation but no end to occupation.

Bennett wholly shares the settler leaders’ expansionist view that Israel stretches to the river Jordan and has promised to continue growing existing settlements. While foreign minister Yair Lapid immediately tweeted condemnation of the Al-Mufakara rampage as “terror” and “not the Jewish way”, Bennett did not.

Backbench Meretz Knesset members such as lawyer Gaby Lasky have been forthright on the government’s need to order the military to use its clear legal powers against militant settlers’ deployment of violence as a “strategic tool”, including the riot control methods the army regularly deploys against Palestinians.

She points out that the Fourth Geneva Convention – the one violated by all settlements in territory seized by Israel in 1967 – specifically requires, in article 27, that subjects of an occupying power “shall be protected … against all acts of violence or threats thereof”. While settlers answer to Israel’s civilian courts and Palestinians to military ones, “legally [the army] can disperse [the settlers]; they can arrest someone until the police come”. Instead, she says, there has been “impunity for the violent settlers”.

After rising diplomatic concern – including in Washington – defence minister Benny Gantz let it be known he had summoned the top brass from the military, police and intelligence on 18 November with a view to toughening enforcement against what he called “hate crimes” in the West Bank, including new guidelines against troops “standing by” during settler attacks on Palestinians. Those present included Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Central Command head Yehuda Fuchs, who, on a rare visit to Al-Mufakara after the settler invasion, promised that the “army’s duty is to protect all the residents”.

But Avner Gvaryahu, a former special operations sergeant in the northern West Bank and executive director of the anti-occupation veterans’ group Breaking the Silence, is deeply skeptical. “Words mean nothing,” he says. “Only actions matter. So far, settler violence has been ravaging on and Gantz has done nothing.”

 Words mean nothing. Only actions matter. So far, settler violence has been ravaging on and Benny Gantz has done nothing

Avner Gvaryahu – Breaking the Silence

 He doubts that, even if more police are deployed in the field, “there will be any fundamental change” because the occupation, the settlements and the outposts “are all part of a system of violence. In this reality, we have a duty to protect Palestinians, yet we know that most soldiers are not told they have the authority and are simply not given the orders to enforce the law on settlers.”

There was certainly scant evidence during this year’s olive harvest – after the attack on Al-Mufakara – that the change of government had modified settler behaviour. In the village of Turmus Aya, farmer Mumtaz al-Salmah (42) described how on 23 October three Palestinian family groups fled from about 20 masked and stone-throwing settlers, who then upended bags of picked olives, set one car on fire and slashed the tyres of others. Al-Salmah, the last to withdraw, says he was clubbed in the back of the head and neck and that troops who arrived used teargas and stun grenades to push back villagers who had turned out to support the families, to stop them throwing stones. “I’m scared to take women and children out to pick olives now,” he says. “They [the settlers] attack us on our own land and in front of our own children and I can’t do anything.”

Soldiers too have been attacked by extremist settlers. But there are cultural factors aligning many of them with settlers. Experts estimated in 2016 that between a third and half of army cadets espoused religious Zionism, the credo of the more ideological settlers – compared with 10% of the population as a whole.

Saying that religious Zionism is “dominant” up to senior officer level, the Israel Centre for Public Affairs’ Yehuda Shaul, another leading anti-occupation campaigner, adds that settlers often enjoy “symbiotic” contact with locally based IDF units. Drawing on his own experience as a conscript in Hebron, he says of the settlers: “Sunday they’re in my barracks using the shooting range because they’re part of my reserve units, on Saturday they hosted me for cholent [the traditional Sabbath stew]; on Tuesday their leader joined the [IDF] meeting on intelligence and operations; on Wednesday I did a tour with them of the Tomb of the Patriarch and on Thursday you want me to arrest them. Are you nuts?”

The presence of Jewish Israeli civilians can afford Palestinians farmers some protection. On a Friday this month, at the northern West Bank village of Burin, London-born professor of Jewish theology Michael Marmur, who chairs Rabbis for Human Rights, was on a ladder picking olives with the Qaduz family below the notoriously extreme – and illegal – outpost of Givat Ronen. In Burin the previous month, troops did not prevent settlers repeatedly stoning a home occupied by three women and a small boy, and only when a larger army force finally arrived after 40 minutes, did the settlers finally leave, while torching 100 olive trees. Describing the “hilltop youth” settlers at the cutting edge of the battle for Area C as “under-stimulated and over-motivated”, Marmur quotes the biblical injunction not to “look away”, and declares it “a moral imperative to stand up against daily breaches of human rights”.

Farmer Jamal Qaduz (48) showed his gratitude to his Israeli visitors not only with generous portions of arrayes (meat-filled pitta) but by saying as he climbed towards his as yet unharvested olive trees closer to Givat Ronen: “Next week we will need many more volunteers, I am afraid to go higher without them.”

Qaduz lodged a police complaint about the previous week’s incident, albeit with little hope. According to the Israeli human rights agency Yesh Din, more than 80% of such complaints do not lead to a criminal investigation and only 9% between 2015 and 2019 resulted in an indictment.

No guns were fired by settlers at Burin. But events took a darker turn in the south Hebron hills village of Khalat al-Daba on 10 November. Settlers, told by a military civil administration officer to dismantle a tent they had erected, ostensibly to provide shade for their sheep but close to a Palestinian farm building, remained in the area, moving their flock into olive trees cultivated by the villagers.

Itai Feitelson arrived with other activists – Palestinian and Israeli – shortly after 8pm, following reports that the settlers had started throwing stones, breaking the leg of a 64-year-old Palestinian. Feitelson (26) is one of a new generation of Israeli activists who spend considerable periods in the south Hebron hills, learning Arabic and supporting Palestinian farmers. From what he describes as a “mainstream Israeli home”, Feitelson did his three years military service in northern Israel, choosing the “middle way” of an intelligence posting that would not enmesh him in the occupation, but gradually decided to become more engaged. He says: “I don’t like being shot at but I like picking olives, I like going with the shepherds, I like being in the villages.

You don’t have a lot of victories. Sometimes you can de-escalate a situation or prevent an arrest; or you feel a protest is being suppressed less severely because there are Israelis here.”

That night in Khalat al-Daba, however, Feitelson could only witness events rapidly unfolding in the darkness. They accelerated dramatically when, at what seemed the moment of maximum tension, the soldiers suddenly “get in their jeeps and leave”.

There was an ominous lull, followed by “massive stone throwing from both sides” until, just seven minutes after the army left, the “settlers started shooting like crazy” –apparently from pistols – wounding two Palestinians and hitting vehicles, including a Palestinian ambulance. It then took 40 minutes until the reappearance – at the urging of the villagers – of the army, who ordered the Palestinians back into the village, and eventually escorted the settlers back to the – illegal – outpost of Mitzpe Yair.

“I’ve seen settlers shooting,” says Feitelson, “but never for 40 minutes. The craziest thing from my understanding … is that the army left. It was so obvious the situation was going to escalate.”

This month’s B’Tselem report focused primarily on a new kind of “unauthorized” outpost – 40 “farms” across the West Bank gradually seizing pasture and vital water sources from Palestinians. This, says Yehuda Shaul, “will drive the final nail into the coffin of the Palestinian herding communities”. Violence, argues Shaul, is “existential for the farms … a necessary step” towards the goal of “displacing Palestinian herding communities”.

On 7 November, men from one such farm, owned by the settler Issachar Mann, advanced on the village of Al-Tha’ala and succeeded in watering their sheep at a cistern long used – and maintained – by Palestinian shepherds. Such cisterns are crucial for the Palestinian herding economy because the villagers depend on them to water their sheep.

A Palestinian activist, Basil Adraa, arrived in time to film chaotic scenes as soldiers pushed the Palestinians back into the village while allowing the settlers’ sheep to reach the cistern. The military say the cistern is “permitted to both parties”. The Palestinians understandably see it as entirely theirs. In a telling exchange, an officer demands Adraa’s name. Adraa replies in Hebrew: “Why don’t you tell the masked settlers to identify themselves?”

“Don’t worry,” the officer replies, “I know them very well.”

The Al-Tha’ala incident came while in nearby Susiya, Hamdan Mohammed was describing a bizarre scene the previous day when settlers broke into the village playground, generating images of grinning grown men and teenage boys on seesaws and swings while IDF soldiers stood around preventing the Palestinians from entering. It was the sabbath, prompting Hamdan to say: “They do not respect their own religion.”

Well over a millennium ago Jews and Muslims inhabited the area at times. Palestinian Susiya is earmarked for demolition, deemed illegal in Israeli law, though no more so than 150 far more recent “unauthorized” Jewish settlement outposts, including the one of Givat Ha Degel, from which some of the playground invaders had come. In international law the Palestinian part of the village is entirely legal, which is why the EU and the US have long argued against its demolition.

Israeli Susiya, of which Givat Ha Degel is an outpost, is the largest settlement in the area. But although some of its 1,500 residents joined the playground break-in, prominent Susiya settler Nadav Abrahamov says it was a “mistake”. He says there was “no violence”, but that settlers in the area had “got really angry” to see a new playground in an area under demolition orders, and then – that very morning – Israeli activists had arrived to film recently built houses in Givat Ha Degel.

Nevertheless, says Abrahamov, the episode “was a stupid incident. It shouldn’t happen.” He further insists that the storming of Al-Mufakara was the action of “a minority of a minority” – while acknowledging he does not know “exactly what happened”.

Any solution, Abrahamov says, requires the removal of the Israeli activists, whom he repeatedly describes as “anarchists”, and who, he insists, are the “ones creating the tension”. He says that “without them we [the settlers and the Palestinians clinging on in their Susiya] can find a way of living together”. He says Susiya settlement leaders stopped residents repeating the playground break-in the following sabbath, in effect striking a bargain with the army in which the latter would bar “anarchists” from the area. The military indeed established temporary checkpoints that Saturday, stopping cars with Israeli registration plates reaching the south Hebron hills – including, for more than two hours, the Observer’s.

Yet despite the Susiya settlers’ assertion that free of “anarchists” they could cohabit with a Palestinian Susiya they would prefer didn’t exist, there remains an unbridgeable gulf between their view and that of the international community about who has and hasn’t the rights to inhabit the south Hebron hills – and the rest of Area C. The designation as Area C, indispensable to the future Palestinian state that foreign governments insist they want, was supposed to be temporary, pending a final peace agreement. Instead the settlers are now waiting for its full annexation into Israel. “We are an integral part of Israel but not [yet] the state of Israel,” laments another Susiya settler, Shmaya Berkowitz.

Nor does the notion that settler violence is confined to an ultra-extremist fringe sit easily with the charge of agencies such as Yesh Din, supported by growing evidence, that it is “part of a calculated strategy for dispossessing Palestinians of their land”. Or that of Yehuda Shaul, a committed supporter of a two-state agreement with the Palestinians, that “settler violence is not a story of 50 lunatics out on the edge of the movement … but an essential step in the evolution of the settlement project”.

The IDF said last week that it was “committed to the wellbeing of all residents in the area and acts to prevent violence within its area of responsibility”. Referring to the settlers, it added: “Any claim that the IDF supports or permits violence by residents in the area is false.”

Back in Al-Mufakara, Baraa Hamamda says her children were traumatized by that September afternoon; they have become preoccupied by windows, knowing they are made of glass that can be broken by a stone. “They say ‘how do windows help us? We don’t need windows.’”

Donald Macintyre is the author of Gaza, Preparing for Dawn

 Quique Kierszenbaum in Al-Mufakara