+972 Magazine / June 23, 2023
An Israeli settler pogrom in the West Bank town of Turmus Ayya leaves Palestinians, including many U.S. citizens, wondering who will protect them.
One man shot dead; dozens of houses and cars set alight or damaged by other means; and a pervading feeling of fear and helplessness. This was the toll of Wednesday’s Israeli settler pogrom in the Palestinian town of Turmus Ayya, near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank – one of several this week alone.
The attack began Wednesday afternoon following the funeral of 17-year-old Nachman Mordoff, an Israeli settler who had been killed in a shooting attack by Palestinians at a gas station near the Eli settlement the day before. In contrast to the previous night’s pogrom in the nearby village of Al-Lubban al-Sharqiya, and February’s pogrom in Huwara, this time Israeli forces were simply absent from the scene.
According to eyewitnesses, soldiers only arrived toward the end of the assault, in order to escort the hundreds of settlers — most of whom were masked and some armed — out of the town. And only after the settlers had left did Israeli police arrive, one of whom shot and killed 27-year-old resident Omar Qattin who had gone out to try and repel the settlers.
CCTV footage from the event shows armed settlers shooting toward the houses of Palestinians who are trying to protect their property. Another video shared by the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din shows dozens of masked settlers attacking a home in the town, a solitary army jeep arriving and rolling a tear gas grenade into the street, and settlers fleeing without any attempt by the army to detain any of them.
The IDF Spokesperson stated afterward that the army had no advance intelligence about the attack on Turmus Ayya so they were unable to prevent it from taking place, yet only a month ago settlers entered the town and set several cars on fire, while in January they set fire to a home.
‘Everything was burning’
As some residents of Turmus Ayya assessed the damage on Thursday, others put up pictures of Qattin, who had been shot and killed by police. Bilal Hijaz, 38, who was born in Turmus Ayya and today lives in Georgia in the United States, arrived in the town around two weeks ago with his family for a summer vacation. On Wednesday, he took some belongings out of his house, which had been completely burned down, and loaded them into a car. “We’re going to another house,” Hijaz said, stepping carefully around the stones scattered in front of the burned house.
Hijaz examined the rooms of the house, including the children’s room which had been set on fire through a broken window, and the bed that had gone up in flames. At the time of the attack, Hijaz’s 68-year-old mother, Rebiha, and his 8-year-old son, were staying in a unit at the front of the house.
“I heard voices and went out to look, and two settlers attacked me,” Rebiha recounted in a voice choked with tears. “One of them hit me on the head with a stick and another kicked the child. I said to them: ‘Not the child.’ I stood between them. He’s only eight. I couldn’t get help because my phone was outside.”
Rebiha took her grandson to the rear part of the housing unit, closed the door, and hid in the bathroom for more than half an hour, while the settlers set alight the housing unit and the main home. “I poured water on the boy’s head, because smoke started coming in from outside,” she said. “After a while we heard voices, the child was afraid, but it was his uncle who had come to get us out.”
“We didn’t expect this to happen,” said Hijaz, whose shock at the events was etched on his face. His family all have American passports, as do many residents of Turmus Ayya. “[I came] to show my kids our village, to let them know about Palestine,” he said, explaining the reason for their visit.
Hijaz was out of his house during the attack itself. “I [saw] the guys from the settlement, there were over 200 people on the street and between the trees,” he recalled. “I could see the house burning. All that I was thinking about was my mom and my little boy inside the house. We tried to get close, they started to throw stones and even shoot at us. We had to back up, they continued with the shooting and stones.”
At the start of the attack, only a few residents tried to push back the settlers, Hijaz said. But after calls came out from the mosques, a large group arrived from neighboring villages to try to protect the town. Only after more than 40 minutes was Hijaz able to reach his house. “Everything was burning,” he said. “All the guys tried to open the door, with the hosepipe to [put out] the fire. We started screaming, ‘Are you ok, say something.’ There was a lot of smoke, we couldn’t see anything, we didn’t know if they were alive or not. Luckily when we came [my mom] heard it was us, [and] opened the door.”
The police and the army “came to protect their guys, not our people,” Hijaz said. “[Qattin was] killed by [them] shooting down the street. [The Israelis] don’t care about us.”
‘A scene out of the movies’
The home belonging to Khalija Diab, 75, was also burned down. On the edge of town, it overlooks the settlement of Shiloh and Route 60, from where the settlers arrived. “Hundreds of settlers came,” she said, while standing in the doorway of her home next to a charred car, holding a wooden pole in case the settlers came back. The attackers also set fire to a pair of bikes, bushes, and the compound at the entrance of the house. They also tried to break the windows, and were prevented from getting into the house by the bars on the windows.
Materials for building a fence are laid out in the yard — a donation the family received after previous attacks, the most recent of which took place two months ago. But the family has not yet managed to put it up. Broken flower pots are scattered around the house, and the settlers also set fire to a small room behind the building used for baking bread.
“The settlers put stones on the road so that [people] could not come and help us,” Diab said. “They burned the car, and tried to break the windows in order to attack me. It was hard for me to breathe, I was scared and locked myself in the house.”
Most of the damaged houses are in the northern part of Turmus Ayya, close to the road leading to Shiloh and the surrounding settler outposts. However, some of the settlers made it a little over half a mile into the town, and attacked numerous homes. One of the houses that was damaged belongs to a family that lives part of the time in the United States. A car parked near the house was also set on fire. On Thursday morning, family members were cleaning up the glass and taking the burned car out of the parking lot.
Tareq, 30, who grew up in the United States and now divides his time between New York and Turmus Ayya, said the attack “was a scene out of the movies, houses getting burned and people running away.” He estimated that around 300 settlers took part. “I was outside the house, they set fire to the car, shot at the house and threw stones, [and] only the women were inside,” Tareq said. “Three of them had M16s. They were the only people who were not masked, and they were shooting towards us.
“I managed to go into the yard, through other houses, where settlers were still at the gate of the house,” he continued. “I took the women and the girls down to the back of the house. We were terrified, all night we slept in one room.”
Tareq described the attack as an organized event. “The settlers came in the middle of the day, at 2 p.m., when everybody is at work. They came in groups. The [soldiers] knew they were coming because they would have had to gather somewhere, probably near the highway in Shiloh.
“If five [Palestinians] gather in front of the town, the army will come straight to us,” he continued. “The army and police came at the end, when the people chased the settlers out. The 12 Palestinians who were wounded — it was all from these forces.”
‘We thought it was our last day on earth’
A few hours after the pogrom, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh arrived on the scene. As he was delivering a statement to the press, one of the older residents interrupted him, saying: “The responsibility is with our government. We have 70,000 armed men and they’re not protecting us.” The resident was referring to the fact that the town is located in Area C and B of the West Bank, both of which are officially under Israeli security control, meaning the Palestinian Authority is not authorized to deploy its forces there.
“When you have a corrupt government on both sides, no one will protect you, [you] only [have] yourself, and we only have stones,” Tareq said, before going back to cleaning up the glass at the entrance to his home.
Hijaz said that “many people were calling [the American embassy] to get some protection. It’s not the first time it’s happened but it’s the biggest attack I’ve seen. We always try to call, but the thing is [Israel] has a lot of support from the U.S. — I don’t think [the Americans] will be able to help.”
Tareq also does not expect assistance from the U.S. “It’s not the first time,” he said. “I got shot in October in my hand, they burned my car and nothing happened. [The U.S. government] just pretended to do something.”
Olfat Abdel Aziz, 52, is an American citizen who has lived for the past 30 years in Chicago. She was not at the family’s home in Turmus Ayya when the settlers arrived and started attacking, but four of her nine children were. “Our taxes in the U.S. are used to kill us here,” she said. “The American government must stop it.”
Her 20-year-old daughter Amal told +972 that she was doing homework when suddenly she saw dozens of settlers outside the window attacking homes in the town. “We went downstairs and locked the door. We heard everything breaking. It was terrifying. We texted our families ‘we love you.’ We truly thought it was our last day on earth. Some of the settlers are American; in the U.S. they would be our neighbors, but here they attack us.”
Amal’s sister Nur, 21, added: “The settlers saw us through the window and started to attack us. They had Molotovs, stones, and guns. They don’t see us as human beings, they see us as cockroaches they want to get rid of. While we were hiding we called the emergency line of the U.S. embassy and consulate but no one answered.”
It is not clear whether it is because U.S. citizens live in the town that State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel opened Wednesday’s daily press briefing with a statement condemning the violence in Turmus Ayya, and calling for “full accountability and legal prosecution for those responsible for these attacks, in addition to compensation for lost homes and property.”
+972 reached out to the IDF Spokesperson and the police for comment on why their forces did not come to the town during the attack, and whether they made any arrests.
The IDF Spokesperson responded: “This is a serious incident. The IDF condemns any use of violence and destruction of property. Events of this type push the population that is not involved in terrorism into the cycle of escalation and prevent the IDF and the security forces from focusing on their main mission — protecting the security of Israeli citizens and preventing terrorism.”
“IDF forces were deployed as part of the assessment of the situation, but not in a sufficient manner,” the statement continued. “The events described are under investigation and lessons will be learned in order to prevent such events before they occur.”
Israel Police responded, simply: “Upon receipt of the report, an investigation has been opened with the aim of ascertaining the truth.”
On Friday morning, dozens of diplomats from the United States, Europe, and other countries came to the town to meet residents and see the damage. One of the homes they visited was that of the Suleiman family — who live most of the year in Chicago — which was completely burned from the inside, as family members and workers continued removing furniture and clearing the damage.
The diplomats eventually gathered in the town hall. Among the delegation was the EU Representative to the West Bank and Gaza, Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, who told residents that they were there “to express our solidarity with you, because we empathize with your plight, and because we need to report to our capitals what you are suffering from and recommend actions and remedies so that this comes to an end.”
He continued: “Under international law, [Israel] has the obligation to ensure the economic and social wellbeing of the people of Palestine as long as the occupation endures — none of which was observed and respected two nights ago.”
Lourdes Lamela, from the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs, spoke briefly but didn’t specify what action the United States would be taking. The residents, for their part, are demanding concrete steps from the Biden administration.
Illinois State Representative Abdelnasser Rashid, a Palestinian-American who spent six years living in Turmus Ayya as a child and who had come to visit the town with his wife and kids, told those assembled: “I have to have the conversation with my children — who are 7 and 5 years old — that every Palestinian parent has: that the Israeli government does not believe that we deserve equal rights; that the Israeli government believes that we can be hurt, or even killed, with no consequences or accountability.”
Rashid went on: “Let me be very clear. The brutal, racist Israeli military occupation is only possible because of U.S. government support — because of U.S. government funding and complacency. So I call on the United States government to immediately do everything it can to hold Israel accountable and to hold the perpetrators of these attacks accountable, and to protect Turmus Ayya and every other Palestinian village, and all civilians.”
The wife of Omar Qattin, who had a green card and whose family are U.S. citizens, told the diplomats while holding back tears that despite the claims by Israeli police that they were returning fire after being shot at, Qattin was not carrying a weapon when he was killed (the police did not repeat this claim in their statement to +972). “He didn’t care about himself, he cared about the safety of others. He was pulling children out of the fire, the elderly, the moms, the dads. He rescued everybody except for himself. He couldn’t rescue himself. He wasn’t even fighting, he was just trying to protect people. He was brave, and we’re all so proud of him. I’m in so much pain but it makes me happy that he died bravely rescuing people.”
Along Route 60, settlers have displayed photos of Mordoff, the Israeli teen who was killed in Tuesday’s shooting attack, alongside the word “revenge.” In Turmus Ayya, residents fear that without protection, they will continue to be targeted by escalating settler attacks.
Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, reporter for Local Call, and a founding member of the Activestills photography collective