‘We need protection’: Palestinians brace for Homesh resettlement

Zena al-Tahhan

Al-Jazeera  /  June 1, 2023

Israel has begun taking steps to resettle the evacuated illegal outpost of Homesh near Burqa village in Nablus.

Burqa, Nablus, occupied West Bank Palestinian farmer and herder Samer Rashed Masood lost his only source of income last week.

At approximately 4pm (13:00 GMT) on May 24, Jewish settlers from the previously vacated illegal outpost of Homesh, some 500m (1,640 feet) away, burned the barn he built for his sheep 15 years ago to the ground.

Over the past week, Jewish Israelis had begun to rebuild and resettle the illegal Homesh outpost, which had lain empty since 2005, after the Israeli government authorized them to do so in March.

The arson attack cost 60-year-old Masood at least 100,000 shekels ($26,848) – his 15 sheep that are nowhere to be found, the price of the barn itself, agricultural equipment, and at least 1,000 stacks of hay and food for the sheep, all of which were burned.

Sitting on the land he inherited from his father in the village of Burqa, just off the highway between Nablus and Jenin in the north of the occupied West Bank, Masood told Al-Jazeera that the settlers came armed and prevented his sons from putting out the fire.

“The settlers stayed on my land until the barn was completely engulfed and there was nothing left to save,” said Masood, a father of three.

When he arrived at the scene shortly afterward, he found at least 20 settlers on his land, along with dozens of Israeli army soldiers.

“The army prevented us from advancing and started shooting live ammunition and tear gas at us. I went up to one of the soldiers and said: ‘You want to shoot me? Shoot me! I have nothing left. All of my money is gone,’” recalled Masood.

The assault on Masood’s property was one of dozens of attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians and their properties in Burqa in recent weeks and months.

The village’s 5,500 residents are now bracing for more attacks and demanding protection.

While Palestinian Authority (PA) officials told Al-Jazeera they have submitted an appeal to Israeli authorities against the resettlement of the outpost, for which there will be a court hearing on June 27, caravan apartments have already been erected at the site and Israeli authorities have paved a new road for the settlement.

According to Ghassan Daghlas, a resident of Burqa and the PA official responsible for monitoring Jewish settlement activity in the northern West Bank, at least 30 apartment units were erected overnight on Sunday – a figure Al-Jazeera could not independently verify.

“They are also building infrastructure – connecting them to electricity and water,” he said.

“It’s very depressing to wake up and find a settlement. The return of Homesh will affect the lives of at least 34,000 Palestinians living in Burqa, Silat al-Thahr, Bazzariya, Sebastia, and all other surrounding villages,” Daghlas told Al-Jazeera.

“It will mean more checkpoints and restrictions on Palestinians in the area, more soldiers, and the transformation of the region into a military base,” he continued, adding: “We are heading towards violence.”

‘Complete destruction’

Homesh was erected in 1978 as an Israeli military base on land belonging to private Palestinian owners from Burqa and the nearby village of Silat al-Thahr. In 1980, the Israeli army handed it over to settlers to live on, as happened with many settlements across the occupied West Bank.

All Jewish settlements, including outposts, are illegal under international law. Israel, however, considers only outposts as illegal under its own laws, based on the fact that they were built by individual settlers or settler groups, and not by the government.

Dozens of reports by monitoring and rights groups have shown that the Israeli government provides infrastructure, support and funding for settlers to build outposts. In addition, the Israeli government has over the past few years retroactively legalized many outposts and has passed legislation that makes it easier to do so.

Homesh was the largest of four settlements between Jenin and Nablus evacuated in 2005 as part of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement Plan. It is also the most controversial, with settlers pressuring Israel to allow them to resettle it since they were evacuated.

The plan by Sharon saw Israel remove more than 9,000 Jewish settlers in 17 illegal Jewish settlements located in the besieged Gaza Strip and four in the north of the occupied West Bank.

Despite the 2005 evacuation of Homesh, the Israeli army maintained a military base there, and settlers were allowed to access it and hold political and religious events and rallies that top Israeli officials attended, while the Palestinian landowners were forbidden from approaching it.

In 2007, settlers established a religious school, or yeshiva, at the outpost. The school continued to operate, and settlers were allowed to camp at the outpost but not have permanent homes.

While all Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered illegal under international law, Homesh is also considered illegal under Israeli law as the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the land belongs to private owners from Burqa and that the settlers cannot remain there.

It is uncertain what kind of presence settlers have in Homesh now, but there have been several settler attacks coming from Homesh throughout the years that have begun to intensify over the past year. This comes amid a wider pattern of increasing Israeli settler attacks in the occupied West Bank, even more so after a Palestinian man carried out a drive-by shooting attack and killed a settler in his car near the entrance to the outpost in December.

Head of the Burqa Local Council, Ziad Izz al-Din Abu Omar, told Al-Jazeera that the villagers need protection.

“The resettlement of Homesh will mean complete destruction for Burqa and the surrounding villages,” Abu Omar told Al-Jazeera.

“We do not have the capabilities to do anything. We want a clear position from our leadership. The least they could do is put officers to provide us with protection, at least at night. The officers are just sitting there in police stations – they might as well deploy them for protection so that if the settlers attack at night, people can mobilize and block them.”

But Shadi Abu Omar, a 38-year-old police officer in the PA and resident of Burqa, believes such a solution would come with a hefty price tag.

“People here are facing organized gangs that are supported financially and provided with weapons by this fascist state. I don’t think the PA has the capabilities to protect the people. The Kalashnikovs that the PA has, what are they going to do? How will they defend?” he asked Al-Jazeera.

“The only retaliation to power is power, and we do not have power. All we have at our disposal are rocks, tyres and our bare bodies. We do not have planes or tanks,” he continued.

On November 15, 2022, Abu Omar was viciously attacked by settlers and hospitalized when he attempted to plant an olive tree at the site of Homesh along with a group of activists.

As soon as they entered the settlement, a gang of about 40 armed settlers attacked them. Shadi was beaten on the head and body with a metal pipe, leaving him in need of 35 stitches on the back of his head, and with several broken bones in his arm and back.

The PA was not meant to last this long when it was established in 1993 as an interim governing body. The intent was that it serve for five years in the lead-up to the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the 1967-occupied East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip. The ongoing Israeli occupation, land theft and settlement building, among other things, meant that the Palestinian state was never created.

While the PA is nominally meant to still be administering parts of the occupied West Bank, it has limited control in Palestinian cities there and has a mostly administrative role. It also shares intelligence information with Israel as part of its policy of “security coordination” – openly stating that it is helping thwart attacks by Palestinians.

“If I carry a Kalashnikov or an M16 and go stand at the entrance to the town, what will my fate be? Death, or your house demolished, or you will be arrested, and your wife and children will be left out on the street. I do not want that,” the father of three said.

“By re-establishing Homesh, they are the ones who are returning us to the circle of violence. You are talking about 20 settlers who will dictate the fate and daily lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians.”

‘We need protection’

Fatma Ibrahim Ali Raad is a 64-year-old Lebanese woman who married a Palestinian man from Burqa and has lived in the village for the past 28 years.

She has been living largely alone since her husband passed away 13 years ago.

On May 24, settlers smashed three of her windows while she was out of the house. Since then, she has put screens on her windows to protect herself from further attacks.

“I would be lying if I told you we are not afraid,” she told Al-Jazeera from her home.

“They want to re-settle Homesh after 18 years. Now, whenever they feel like it, they will come down from the top of the hill to our homes with complete ease. They can be inside my house within minutes,” she fretted.

“If we had something to defend ourselves with, we would have defended. But we don’t have anything. We need protection – just like an international force was provided for Lebanon on the borders.”

The mother of six said she believes the ultimate goal of harassment by settlers and soldiers is to push Palestinians to leave.

“They are paid to come ruin and burn our homes, and to eradicate us, why? Because the intention – 100 percent – is that we leave our lands and homes for them to take over.”

Zena al-Tahhan is Al-Jazeera English’s digital correspondent in Jerusalem