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Israel-Palestine war: Settler attacks on the rise in West Bank villages

Israeli settler rampages have increased dramatically in intensity and frequency since Hamas launched a multi-pronged assault on southern Israel

A Palestinian man inspects the damage to a store in the village of Huwwara in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on 6 October 2023 (AFP)

Israeli settlers seize livestock, wreck agricultural equipment and destroy the olive groves upon which Palestinian farmers depend for their livelihood.

They arrive armed with M16 machine guns and beat up villagers with their fists, sticks, iron bars, or the butts of their rifles.

Homes are repeatedly ransacked and whatever valuables the Palestinians own are seized.

Women and the elderly are not spared from the violence.

In the 300-strong farming community of She’b Al Butom in the occupied West Bank, the fear of what could possibly come next is etched on the faces of nearly everyone here, young and old.

As they watch and read the latest reports coming out of Gaza – in which more than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air strikes – attacks here are also on the rise.

At least 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in the past three weeks alone. 

For a few days after the 7 October attacks, in which Palestinian armed groups rampaged through southern Israel after storming through the barrier fence separating the two territories, Israeli settlers concentrated their attacks on villagers living in outlying properties.

Residents told Middle East Eye that the attacks were fierce, with one family having to flee to a nearby town after settlers destroyed their farm buildings and bulldozed their home.

Emboldened, the settlers would soon return, this time wearing military uniforms. They would attack further properties. 

They would proceed to beat up several locals and ransack their mud-built homes.

On Friday, they came again, farmer Khalid Jibril told MEE.

“They pointed a gun at my wife, beat me, stole my phone and pointed their guns at children,” he said.

“Just mention the soldiers to the children. They [will] stand [still] shaking.”

Ben Gvir and Smotrich leading the charge

Families, already haunted by previous displacement, said they were experiencing what could be another period of forcible dispossession.

Late last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered into a coalition government with Itamar Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party and firebrand Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party.

Ben Gvir’s far-right Jewish Power party was founded by Meir Kahane. A far-right rabbi and former MP, he previously led the Kach party, an organisation which was outlawed by Israel after one of its followers gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron as they prayed.

Meanwhile, Smotrich, a self-declared “fascist homophobe”, was appointed finance minister and also handed broad authority over civilian issues in the West Bank, enabling him to increase settlement construction and thwart Palestinian development.

Since then, Smotrich has been in charge of civilian affairs in Area C of the occupied West Bank, where Israel has full security and civilian control.

Area C is the largest section of the occupied West Bank, comprising about 60 percent of the Palestinian territory. It is also where more than 400,000 illegal Israeli settlers live.

Although control of part of this area was meant to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1999, as per the Oslo Accords, the handover didn’t materialise, leaving security, planning and construction matters in the hands of Israel.

Since the 7 October attack, both Ben Gvir and Smotrich, and several other elements within the Israeli government, have attempted to stoke further tensions with the Palestinians of Area C, other parts of the West Bank and Palestinian residents of Israel.

While Ben Gvir has been freely distributing weapons to settlers in border towns such as Sderot, Smotrich, as finance minister, has vowed to freeze funding to the Palestinian Authority over its alleged support for Hamas.

Israel collects around more than $100m a month in duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli customs and then transfers it to the PA.

Israel has made such deductions in the past, citing PA payments to families of Palestinians jailed by Israel for attacks against Israelis.

‘Revenge is coming’

As the rhetoric against the Palestinians has escalated in recent weeks, so too have the attacks.

MEE previously reported that Israeli settlers were distributing menacing leaflets and leaving bloodied dolls at schools, warning Palestinians to either leave or be killed.

Residents of one West Bank village said they were sent warning letters which read: “You wanted war – wait for the great Nakba”, a reference to the 1948 displacement of 750,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.

In another, residents were sent a photo of masked settlers holding petrol cans and weapons, with the words: “To all the rats in the sewers of Qusra village, we are waiting for you and we will not feel sorry for you. The day of revenge is coming.”

In Um al-Khair, a tiny village flanked on all sides by Israeli settlers, Palestinians were told to raise Israeli flags outside their home by 7pm local time or face repercussions.

After a farmer’s house was burned down, locals said they called Israeli police for assistance, hoping they would come and arrest the perpetrators. Instead, the police accused the victims of being “liars” and threatened them with imprisonment.

MEE reached out to the Israeli police for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

On Monday, all of the residents of Khirbet Zanuta decided to flee their homes due to the uptick in settler violence, with many going to areas populated by Palestinians.

As a result, the rugged hills and valleys of the occupied West Bank are losing the farmers, herders and nomadic Bedouin tribes that have lived here for centuries. 

In the nearby village of Tuwani, residents spoke of constant harassment. 

The village patriarch, Hafez Husseini, told MEE that while many villagers had bowed to settler pressure, he couldn’t bear fleeing his home like many Palestinians had done when Israel was founded in 1948.

“No, never. Nothing will make me leave my home,” he said, emphatically.

Jibril, the farmer, appeared to echo that sentiment.

But upon receiving clear threats to his children – warnings that they could be targeted or even killed – he, too, could be forced to leave his ancestral home.