Mondoweiss / January 19, 2023
A local hiking group of mostly Palestinians were on a hike from the outskirts of Ramallah to Jericho when they were attacked by a group of armed Jewish settlers. If they had defended themselves, they would probably be dead.
It was a typical Friday afternoon for Ibrahim Kharoubi, a Palestinian resident of the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, and one of the co-founders of a popular local hiking group: “Let’s Hike.”
On the second weekend of January, Kharoubi and his team were embarking on one of their longer hikes: a popular trail that starts off on the outskirts of Ramallah, passes through the rolling hills of the southern Jordan Valley, and ends near the village of al-Auja, on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Jericho.
Kharoubi, who, along with members of the “Let’s Hike” team, take groups of Palestinians and foreigners on weekly hikes in different parts of the West Bank, had done the trail three times before without a hiccup. That day was supposed to be the same.
The group of 41 hikers, which included primarily Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem, along with a number of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a handful of foreign nationals and Palestinians with dual citizenship from France, Italy, Canada, and the US.
They had set off on foot from the Ramallah-area village of Taybeh at around 9 a.m. on Friday, January 13, and spent the afternoon hiking down through the mountains, to the outskirts of Jericho. It was just after 4 p.m., as the sun began its descent behind the mountains, and the group were at the tail end of their hike. Their bus was waiting just beyond the hill in front of them.
Ibrahim and a couple of other hikers were at the front of the group, when at around 4:10 p.m., they saw a group of hooded figures coming down from the hilltop in front of them. As the group of seven got closer, Kharoubi and the hikers could make out the wooden clubs in their hands and M16’s strapped around them.
It was in that moment when it dawned on them that they were in real danger.
When the group of seven young men approached the group of hikers, Kharoubi and the others realized they were Israeli settlers from a nearby settlement outpost.
VIDEO : They went on a hike to enjoy nature. They ended up beaten by Israeli settlers instead. – Mondoweiss
“They immediately started harassing us, and were really aggressive,” Kharoubi told Mondoweiss. “They started asking us ‘who are you? Why are you here? You are not allowed to be here. Go back’.” Kharoubi said, recounting the aggressive nature of the settlers, and the fact that at least two of them had M16s on their sides, along with what looked like a trained attack dog.
Tamara Wa’rii, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, was at the front of the group with Kharoubi and a few other women. Using the Hebrew she knew, she approached the settlers and attempted to diffuse the situation.
“I knew Ibrahim did not speak Hebrew, so I thought if we went and stood next to him they would calm down because we were mostly a group of women,” Wa’rii recounted, adding that the settlers had a camera, and were filming the group the entire time.
“I said that we were on a hike, and we were just following the signs on the path. When he asked where we wanted to go, I said we just wanted to get to the bus, which wasn’t far away.”
As Wa’rii was attempting to reason with a blonde-haired settler, who seemed to be the leader of the group, the settler suddenly began hitting and shoving her.
“I pushed him back off of me, and that’s when he raised his bat to hit me,” she said, referring to the wooden club being carried by the blonde-haired settler and one of the other settlers.
After that, everything happened fast. The group of settlers began attacking the group, with Kharoubi, Wa’rii, and those at the front of the group receiving the brunt of the attack.
“They pepper sprayed me, Tamara, Nibal, and Jumana,” Kharoubi said, referring to Wa’rii and two other women that were part of the group, adding that he was also hit with a club by one of the settlers.
“I was hit, Nibal was kicked in her back by one of the settlers, and Maisa was badly bruised when one of the settlers hit her with his bat on her shoulder,” Wa’rii said.
As screams began to emerge from the front of the group of hikers, Samera Ayyad, a Palestinian with dual Israeli and Italian citizenship, rushed from further back to where Kharoubi, Wa’rii and the others were being attacked.
“At first, when I heard the screams I thought someone had fallen down and gotten hurt,” Ayyad told Mondoweiss. “Then I saw the settlers harassing and attacking the first part of the group.”
As Ayyad ran toward the front of the group she pulled out her phone and started filming. A few seconds later, she said the blonde-haired settler approached her and started yelling at her in Arabic, telling her to put her phone away. The settler then struck Ayyad with his club, hitting her left hand, and knocking her phone down.
As she bent down to grab her phone, Kharoubi put himself between Ayyad and the settler, who was raising his club again, in an attempt to strike Ayyad a second time.
“At that moment, I was just thinking about the group, and keeping everyone safe,” Kharoubi recounted, saying that he urged the group members not to fight back, and to walk away from the settlers.
“I told them to get back. Even if the settlers were hitting us, not to hit back. Because anything we do, they might shoot us,” he said, remembering the two settlers armed with M16s, and a third who was potentially armed with a pistol.
Throughout the course of the attack, Ayyad and Wa’rii said the settlers hurled a number of violent threats at the group, including threats along the lines of “we will break your arms,” “we will smash your heads in,” and, “we’ll kill you if you return.”
“At that moment you feel like you can’t defend yourself. Nothing can describe how we were feeling,” Kharoubi recounted to Mondoweiss. “As Palestinians we are not weak, but at that moment you just know that these settlers might shoot and kill you, so you can’t do anything.”
“It was a terrible feeling. We were just trying to think of how to stay alive.”
According to Ayyad, the physical attack lasted around 10 minutes, though the entire ordeal lasted a few hours.
When the group got enough distance between themselves and the settlers, the settlers retreated to their outposts, which as far as the group could see, were made up of a couple of makeshift tents and structures.
There was one major problem, however. The settlers’ outpost was blocking the path that the group needed to take to get to their destination, where their bus was waiting to take them back to Ramallah. The sun was starting to set, and turning around wasn’t an option.
Kharoubi decided to call the Palestinian police, who connected the group with the Israeli police and army. At the same time, a number of the foreign nationals and Palestinians with dual citizenship phoned their embassies and consulates.
After more than two hours of waiting in the valley, the sun long gone and the weather starting to cool down fast, two Israeli army soldiers arrived at the scene and escorted the group past the outpost and to their bus.
According to Kharoubi, four members of the group had to be hospitalized for their injuries but were discharged the same night. Several other members of the group also sustained minor injuries but chose not to go to the hospital.
More than 12 hours after the group had set off from Ramallah, they finally returned to the city.
The next day, some group members who had filmed the attack uploaded the videos of the incident to social media, where the video was shared thousands of times across Twitter and Instagram. Several local and international media outlets picked up the story, and interviewed Ayyad and others about the harrowing events of that afternoon.
“Mentally, I feel very tired,” Wa’rii said. “The next Monday after the attack I had to commute to work in Tel Aviv, and pass through the checkpoint that I go through on a daily basis. That day when I was standing at the checkpoint I just couldn’t handle it. I felt very oppressed.”
Mohammad Jaber, a computer engineer living in Ramallah and one of the “Let’s Hike” team members, was also on the hike that Friday.
“We work the whole week in the office, with all this pressure, just waiting for the weekend so we can relax with friends, meet new people, and enjoy our weekend,” Jaber said. “We want to just go out and enjoy nature; to forget work, the situation of our country, and everything around us, and just enjoy our day.”
“But they attacked us for no reason. It makes you feel like you must be part of this conflict, whether you want it or not. It’s not your choice,” Jaber continued.
“At that moment when the attack was happening, all of us were thinking that we may die at any moment. It’s still on my mind until now.”
‘It’s more common than you think’
Kharoubi and the “Let’s Hike” group have consistently gone out on weekly hikes for the past two years, though he and his friends who started the group have been hiking on trails across the West Bank since 2015.
“When we started this group, we saw the situation in our country and felt like there aren’t a lot of outlets for someone to feel free,” Kharoubi told Mondoweiss. “But through these hikes, we were able to feel some freedom, far away from all the pressure, the occupation, Jewish settlements, etc. It was a way to escape all of this.”
Many of the treks that the group goes on are in rural areas of the West Bank, far away from Palestinian cities and any areas controlled by the Palestinian authority.
More than 60% of the land area in the West Bank, including much of the West Bank’s agricultural and rural land, is classified as ‘Area C’, and is under the full control of the Israeli military. It is also where the vast majority of settlements are located. In Area C, settler attacks are a near-daily occurrence, with Palestinians and their property being the primary targets.
Aware of the dangers posed when hiking in areas close to the settlements, the group makes sure to hike only on designated trail paths, which, like the one they took on Friday, are trails marked and recognized by official Palestinian organizations, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Despite taking the necessary precautions, the group has come under attack before. Among the dozens of hikes the group has done, Kharoubi said they had been attacked by settlers two times prior, with Friday’s attack marking the third time.
According to Kharoubi, the group was attacked once near the Ramallah-area village of Deir Ibzi’ in June 2021, when a settler with a gun confronted them and prevented them from passing through the area. A second time, the group was hiking in the Jordan Valley in March 2022, when a settler armed with an M16 confronted them, forcing them to change their path because they were “walking in an area where his cows graze.” Both incidents occurred on formal hiking paths promoted by the Israel Nature and Parks authority.
“We had never been attacked like this before,” Kharoubi said, referring to Friday’s incident, which took place in the al-Muarrajat area of the Jordan Valley, near two illegal Jewish settlements: Mevo’ot Yeriho and Rimonim. According to Israeli media reports, there is a new illegal herding outpost near Rimonim; the group suspects the settlers could be from there.
Other members of the group, like Wa’rii, told Mondoweiss that they had been attacked by settlers before on other occasions, during hikes not associated with “Let’s Hike.” She said that once while walking through the Palestinian village of Lifta in Jerusalem, which was depopulated by Israeli forces during the Nakba, an Israeli settler pulled his gun on her and her friends while they were walking through the area.
“It’s much more common than you think,” Wa’rii said. “Since the attack on Friday I’ve heard so many stories from different friends about times they were attacked while just going out for a walk or to enjoy nature.”
A few days after the attack, despite increased media attention, the group had not been contacted by any Israeli authorities or police about the attack. On Monday, Samera Ayyad, who holds Israeli citizenship, went to file a formal complaint with the Israeli police.
Because the attack occurred in ‘Area C’, the group’s only option was to pursue an investigation with the Israeli police. The Palestinian police have no jurisdiction in Area C, leaving them completely powerless in instances of settler violence against Palestinian civilians.
According to Ayyad, police told her the case would be transferred to an Israeli police station in the area where the attack occurred, and that she would be notified of any developments. Almost one week after the attack, neither Ayyad nor any member of the group has been contacted by Israeli authorities. Ayyad said she doesn’t have much hope that anything will come of her complaint.
“I’m not hopeful, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. I feel a sense of privilege holding Israeli and Italian citizenship, so I felt it was important to act, especially because so many Palestinians are in this situation and nothing ever happens,” she said.
Wa’rii, who does not hold any foreign citizenship, said she feels like the only reason the group was helped in the first place on the day of the attack was because they had a number of foreign nationals and Palestinians with dual citizenship with them.
“It felt like my life didn’t really matter. If we were just a group of Palestinians, no one would help us. Had we been in a different situation, and really tried to defend ourselves, we could have been arrested, or even shot on the spot. And probably still nothing would have happened to the settlers,” she said.
Settler attacks on Palestinians and their property, which reached record highs in 2022, are rarely ever investigated or prosecuted by Israeli authorities.
Increasingly, rights groups like B’Tselem have documented a policy of “settler state collusion,” where “instead of taking preventive action, the Israeli authorities aid and abet the settlers in harming Palestinians and using their land.”
In the rare case that an investigation is opened by Israeli police, the vast majority of those investigations are closed. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group that documents incidents of settler violence in the West Bank, reports that 92% of investigations into ideological crimes against Palestinians are closed with no indictment filed.
“Because they are Jewish Israelis, no one was held accountable,” Wa’rii said, doubling down on the fact that the group had clear video evidence of the attack, with many of the settlers’ faces clearly visible in their videos.
“We were being attacked, and no one was arrested. I feel mentally tired from this fact,” she continued. “Look at how easily you can be put in a situation where, because you are Palestinian, you cannot defend yourself.”
“After the initial fear and confusion subsided, I just felt really angry,” Mai, a Palestinian-American from Birzeit who was also on the hike during the attack, told Mondoweiss. “I feel angry about how the settlers have complete impunity, over our lives, our property, and our right to self-determination. Over everything.”
Mai, who asked only to be referred to only by her first name, said that if the roles were reversed, and it was a group of Palestinians attacking settlers, or even just defending themselves from the settlers, things would have ended very differently.
“If this was the other way around, it would have ended in an extrajudicial killing,” she said.
Wa’rii nodded her head, saying, “It would have ended in arrest, and a swift investigation. If the attackers were Palestinian, the police would have been a whole search operation until they were apprehended. There would have been real consequences.”
Mai continued: “There is a direct connection between lack of law enforcement and the emboldened actions of settlers. They are government funded, and receive protection from the army,” she said.
When asked if they believe the situation will continue to worsen under the reign of Israel’s new far-right government, some members of the group responded in the affirmative, though they said it won’t deter the group from continuing their hikes.
Maisa Abu Baker, a resident of Ramallah and one of the hikers who was injured in the attack, told Mondoweiss that despite what happened, she plans on going on next weekend’s hike.
“I don’t have a problem going out next Friday and seeing the same settlers again,” she said. “This is our land, and we should be able to walk on it as long as we please.”
“From my side, we will continue to go on hikes. It is our land at the end of the day. This will not change our minds,” Mohammad Jaber said. “It is Palestine, this is the reality here. We will not be afraid.”
Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss