In the Palestinian village of Umm al-Kheir, residents described masked men in army uniforms overrunning their community last week. The men smashed residents’ cellphones so no one could document the beatings that followed.
In nearby Susiya, five men in similar dress beat Ahmed Nawaja, 38, underneath his olive tree. His daughters cried, he said, as the attackers slammed their rifle butts down on his body.
Violence by Israeli settlers, long aimed at depopulating rural Palestinian parts of the occupied West Bank, had grown common in the months since Prime Minister President Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in late December — at the head of a coalition that included far-right settler activists who have been convicted of anti-Arab incitement and have advocated for the annexation of the West Bank.
Palestinian communities where
people have been forcibly displaced
by settler violence in 2023:
Area A: Under full Palestinian control
Area B: Administered by Palestinian Authority
with Israeli security presence
Area C: Under full Israeli control
Source: West Bank Protection Consortium, B’Tselem
Laris Karklis and Samuel Granados / THE WASHINGTON POST
Palestinian communities where people have been forcibly displaced by settler violence in 2023:
Under full Palestinian
Authority with Israeli
Under full Israeli
Source: West Bank Protection Consortium, B’Tselem
Laris Karklis and Samuel Granados / THE WASHINGTON POST
Since Hamas militants killed more than 1,400 people and plunged Israel into war on Oct. 7, the pace of the assaults has more than doubled, as the radical settler movement exploits the crisis to hasten demographic change across the territory. At least 11 Palestinian communities have been completely abandoned since the beginning of the year, including six since Oct. 7, according to the West Bank Protection Consortium, a group of nongovernmental organizations funded by the European Union.
The United Nations has recorded 222 settler attacks against Palestinians over the past month. Eight people, including a child, have been killed. Another 64 Palestinians have been injured, more than a quarter by live ammunition.
The list of incidents recorded by Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group that has spent years monitoring the West Bank, grows by the day: On Sunday, Palestinian farmers in Qusra found that 500 olive trees, passed down through generations, had been destroyed; their agricultural land was covered with cement. On Monday, settlers burned olive trees between the villages of Burin and Huwara. On Wednesday, settlers attacked harvesters in Qaryut, built a rock barrier to prevent them from returning to their village “and fired live ammunition at those approaching,” Yesh Din said.
The breadth and intensity of the violence has revived memories of the “nakba,” or catastrophe, during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes, never to return. Their villages were destroyed, or resettled and renamed, their histories erased. It is a deep and enduring trauma that has touched nearly every Palestinian family — one many fear is repeating itself.
At least 1,100 Palestinians were forced to leave their communities between January and the first week of October. In just the past month, more than 900 people have fled. An estimated 3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, alongside more than 500,000 settlers, whose numbers have increased by 16 percent over the past five years as U.S.-led peace talks over a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have collapsed.
The South Hebron Hills had been home to some 4,000 Palestinian residents, most of them living off their land in Area C, an administrative area covering 60 percent of the West Bank — once envisioned as part of a future Palestinian state but still under Israeli occupation.
Settler leaders and government ministers now openly describe it as part of Israel. Jewish communities are expanding across the region. Some are brightly lit developments that grow fruit and make wine, while others are remote outposts, harbingers of future migration.
In a letter to Netanyahu published Monday, far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for a ban on Palestinians harvesting olives close to West Bank settlements. The government, he said, must “create sterile security areas around [Jewish] communities and roads and prevent Arabs from entering them.”
Scores of roads have been closed throughout the West Bank since Oct. 7, by soldiers at checkpoints or with freshly dug earthen berms. On Wednesday night, dozens of women from settler communities near the Shavei Shomron intersection gathered in protest that their own road had been kept open, following a spate of recent shootings in the area.
“We know it’s not everyone in those [Palestinian] villages” who poses a threat, “but it’s most of them,” said one protester, Miriam Levi, who was there with her three children. “I’m a mother; I don’t want to be out here protesting, but under these circumstances I have to.”
Militancy is surging in West Bank. Palestinian gunmen have killed at least 15 settlers in 2023, according to U.N. data. But the perpetrators generally hailed from the territory’s cramped cities and refugee camps — where Israeli forces have killed nearly 400 Palestinians this year, the U.N. says — and not from the agrarian communities now being hollowed out by vigilante violence.
“The West Bank is boiling,” said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, after overnight Israeli drone attacks killed at least eight Palestinians in the city of Jenin, according to Palestinian health authorities. “If we [didn’t] have Gaza today, all our attention would be [on] the West Bank.”
The most radical and combative fringe of the settler movement, known as the “hilltop youth,” has long considered itself the vanguard of the Jewish state. They believe it is their God-given right to be in the West Bank, and they are willing to take it by force if the government will not do it for them.
Netanyahu issued a rare condemnation of settler violence on Wednesday, under pressure from the Biden administration and other Western allies, saying, “I condemn this and we will act against it.”
But in nearly half of all settler attacks documented by the United Nations this year, Israeli forces were either accompanying, or actively supporting, the perpetrators.
The Israel Defense Forces did not comment on the incidents in this story, but said during settler attacks that “soldiers are required to act to stop the violation and, if necessary, to delay or detain the suspects until the police arrive at the scene. In situations where soldiers fail to adhere to IDF orders, the incidents are thoroughly reviewed, and disciplinary actions are implemented.”
The emergency call-up of reservists to the front lines in Gaza has further blurred the boundaries between state and settler in the Hebron Hills, as civilian volunteers guard the settlements in military uniforms.
In the Bedouin Palestinian communities below, gnawing fears have turned to claustrophobic terror.
Farmers are afraid to plant their crops or take their herds out to roam. Some residents have stopped going out altogether, subsisting on whatever was in their cupboards on Oct. 7. Adults make sure the children eat first. Children ask the adults why they’re not eating.
During daylight hours in Susiya, settlers and reservists have stopped and threatened residents as they drive through the village. At night, villagers move their bedding outside, hoping it will be easier to hear the raiding parties when they come. Nobody sleeps much.
Nawaja’s wife, Halimeh, was aghast this week to find a fresh bullet lodged in the dirt that her two daughters had played in. “It must have come from that raid,” she sighed.
They had heard the familiar crunch of the pickup truck’s tires just after 9 p.m. one night in late October as the girls tossed and turned beneath their blankets. There were five men in the vehicle, all masked, Nawaja recalled. Four of them pulled guns on the family as a fifth beckoned to Nawaja. “They told me to sit down, and then they started kicking me, first with their metal boots,” he said, showing wounds still visible on his legs.
Throughout they were shouting, “Where’s your wife?”
Halimeh tried to call out to them, but another man put a gun to her head. “Don’t move,” she remembers him saying. The girls at her side were distraught. Sara, 8, wretched in fear. Her sister Siwar, 7, had a nosebleed, Nawaja recalled, apparently from the stress.
Down the hill in the dark, they could hear shouting from another farm. Nawaja pleaded with his attackers.
“You try to reason with them, but you can’t,” Halimeh said.
The attackers departed as quickly as they had arrived, leaving her husband on the ground and the girls distraught.
Halimeh sent them away the next day, to stay with family in the nearby city of Yatta. When they call now, their first question is whether the men have returned.
Nawaja slumped in his chair. “We’re not leaving; we don’t have another home,” he said. “This is my land; they’re my olive trees.”
In other communities, the lights are going out.
On a wind-whipped hilltop last week, in the village of Zanuta, stony-faced residents took drills and sledgehammers to their homes, on land they had clung to for generations, to prevent settlers from moving in behind them. The final straw for its 150 people was an attack days earlier. They were exhausted.
“Those settlers are above the law; they are the state now,” said Aser al-Tal, a 59-year-old shepherd. Finding a new home was something they could manage — brokenhearted — he said.
“But if my son was killed here, I couldn’t bring him back.”
From the parking lot of a nearby settlement, the ruined village was framed by the window of a hut housing volunteer security guards.
“They tried to fight with us when we first got here, but we had to show them that we we’re not going anywhere,” an Israeli woman said of the villagers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she was not allowed to talk to media. She said members of the settlement had called the army on several occasions to “maintain order.”
“The soldiers are guarding them,” Tal said. It’s what had finally broken his resolve to stay in Zanuta. He and 29 relatives are now in al-Thahria, south of Hebron, unable to imagine what their future might look like.
“Those settlers could slaughter us and no one would care. What do you want me to say?” he asked, beginning to cry. “There are no words to describe the misery of this life.”
As the sun set this week in Umm al-Kheir, the brightest light came from the Carmel settlement, just 50 yards away. A fence was all that separated them. An Israeli security guard walked its length with a flashlight as another flew surveillance drones above the Palestinian homes.
The incessant buzz was unsettling, growing louder and then fainter as it zipped through the sky.
Awdah Hathaleen, an English teacher from the village, prepared for another night watching the fence. Attackers in IDF uniforms had ransacked the area repeatedly in recent weeks. His youngest son was quieter than before, and when he spoke he was developing a stammer.
“The doctor said he can work on it, but only when the stress eases,” Hathaleen said, as the young boy shrank behind him. He no longer knew, he said, if they would ever feel safe.
Lorenzo Tugnoli in Zanuta and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.