Home World Israeli settler violence brings destruction and fear to West Bank as war rages

Israeli settler violence brings destruction and fear to West Bank as war rages

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Israeli settler violence brings destruction and fear to West Bank as war rages

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By Jeremy Bowen

KHIRBET ZANUTA — A few nights ago, the school in Khirbet Zanuta, a small Palestinian village in the hills south of Hebron, was destroyed along with most of the houses, by a bulldozer.

Its tracks lay fresh and undisturbed in the sand when we arrived. The village was empty as its population of about 200 Palestinians left around a month ago, after sustained pressure and threats from armed and aggressive Jewish settlers who live in nearby outposts that are illegal under both Israeli and international law.

A twisted metal sign lies in the rubble of the school in Khirbet Zanuta. In bold black letters it reads “Humanitarian Support to Palestinians at risk of forcible transfer in the West Bank”. The sign records the donors who gave money to the project. The European Union was the lead donor and, among a panel of European development agencies, is also the coat of arms of the British royal family over the words British Consulate-General Jerusalem.

Nadav Weiman came with the BBC to the village. He is a former Israeli special forces soldier who is now an activist with Breaking the Silence, a group of former combatants who campaign against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Nadav believes that Jewish settlers, the most militant of whom are known by name to local Palestinians, were once again flouting the law with the police and army.

“They’re demolishing Palestinian villages, beating up Palestinian farmers, stealing their olives, trying to open a third front, an eastern front against the Palestinians in the West Bank. Why? Because they want the land without Palestinians.”

Two Israeli soldiers came to investigate what we were doing. One of them told an Israeli member of the BBC team that he was a traitor for visiting Palestinians. They filmed us but took much less interest in what had happened in Khirbet Zanuta, a few miles down the road.

When I asked the police if they were investigating the flattening of the school and the village, they emailed back that they were waiting for a complaint. In fact, lawyers for Zanuta’s Palestinians had petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court.

In three days of travelling through the occupied West Bank, Palestinians have said consistently that since the war in Gaza started on 7 October, Jewish settlers are better armed and much more aggressive.

Violent attacks, including fatal shootings of Palestinians by armed Jewish settlers in the West Bank have risen sharply. So many attacks are happening that Israel’s closest allies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have condemned violence by extremist settlers and demanded that those guilty of crimes should be prosecuted.

In practice, settlers rarely end up in court and if they do, they can usually expect light sentences.

The settlers are armed and supported by powerful allies in the Israeli government, led by Itamar Ben Gvir, the minister for national security and Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister who also has security responsibilities in the West Bank.

Controversially, Mr Smotrich just found more than $100 million for the settlers. Apparently referring to opinion polls saying Palestinians were supporting Hamas, he told The Times of Israel newspaper that “there are two million Nazis in Judea and Samaria, who hate us exactly as do the Nazis of Hamas-ISIS in Gaza”. Judea and Samaria is a biblical term for the West Bank.

The reality of settler attacks was captured in a video taken by Muntassar Mhilat, a young Palestinian man from a family of Bedouins who live in the Judean desert not far from Jericho.

Their family home was invaded by about 20 violent, armed Jewish men. Muntassar filmed them yelling and pointing weapons.

“He was shooting at my uncle, so I ran down there and confronted him. We were pushing each other and screaming, head-to-head. And I was filming him. Then, around 20 settlers came.”

The video shows a settler loading his M-16 assault rifle and pointing it at the family. One of the women there, Umm Omar, carrying a month old baby, thought they were about to die.

“They attacked our house, stole our sheep, threatened my kids with guns and threatened me. Then they hit me and my husband’s sister. I thought they were going to slaughter us.”

No-one was killed. The settlers accused them, falsely the family said, of stealing their goats. The man who pointed a loaded weapon was wearing a police jacket.

A common complaint is that settlers have been drafted into the security forces as reservists since 7 October and are abusing the power and position that come with the uniform and automatic weapons issued by the state.

The family recognised some of the attackers, as they came from an illegal outpost about a mile away. They know there will be a next time and feel sick with worry.

The harassment of Palestinians is also economic and psychological.

South of Hebron Palestinian farmers are ploughing with the donkey because local Jewish settlers have threatened to steal or break their tractor if they use it.

Almost at the other end of the West Bank, in a village outside Nablus called Burin, Ahmed Tirawi, a farmer looked across the valley at his olive trees, starting to rot because he has been forbidden by the local settlers to pick them.

“If I go up there on the hillside to harvest my olives, it’s taking my life in my hands. The settlers make attacks on the farmers here – one bullet and they will kill me.”

The olive season is always a time of tension, but this time he said it has been “horrible”.

“My feelings are more than anger. I feel humiliated by all of this. I am powerless to protect myself from just one settler. It’s such a humiliation to be so alone and unable to protect yourself. The only solution is international law, two states and to protect people from the Israeli occupation.”

I went to talk to Yehuda Simon, a prominent settler leader at his own outpost, Havat Gilad, near Nablus. He is a lawyer who has represented settlers accused of attacking Palestinians, and he nodded approvingly when I said Palestinian farmers in the area near where he lived were being stopped from harvesting their olives.

“The army came to the conclusion that the Palestinians coming to harvest olives are gathering information in order to carry out an attack like on 7 October.”

He dismissed the repeated, documented reports of settlers attacking Palestinians.

“I don’t hear about people who kill Palestinians. Okay. If the Palestinian just sits on his balcony and the settlers come and kill him, it’s never happened. Okay. And I don’t believe that the British and United States and all countries in the world, they are a friend of Israel… even Joe Biden is against Jewish people. He doesn’t like Jewish people.”

As for the Arabs: “They could stay here with us, but not try to kill us in the beginning.”

For more than a century, Arabs and Jews have been fighting over this small piece of land. The war in Gaza hasn’t just increased violence in the West Bank. The way it ends, when it ends, will affect whether the next generation can escape this endless conflict.

The sight of families forced out of their homes raises memories of 1948 for Palestinians. By the time Israel won the battle for its independence, more than 700,000 Palestinians had either fled or been expelled from their homes at gunpoint. The new state took their property and never allowed them to go home. Palestinians call the events of 1948 the “Nakba” or catastrophe.

Settler violence and the loss of homes confirm, for Palestinians, their worst fears, that powerful forces in Israel’s government and the settler movement want them out and are using the huge crisis surrounding the war in Gaza to make it happen. — BBC

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