The war in Gaza has emboldened settlers in the West Bank. In five accounts from the occupied territory, Palestinians speak of terrifying, ever-present settler violence — beatings, killings, house raids — backed up by the Israeli military.
Israeli forces intervene in demonstrations with bullets, rubber bullets, and tear gas as a group of Palestinians gather near the Beit El military checkpoint to stage a protest against Israeli attacks in Ramallah, West Bank on October 16, 2023. (Issam Rimawi / Anadolu via Getty Images)
This piece was originally published in Jewish Currents.
For Palestinians living in the West Bank, settler violence has long been a relentless facet of everyday life. With the formation of Israel’s far-right coalition government in December 2022, settler attacks have only escalated, graduating from small-scale attacks on shepherds grazing their flock to mob violence on whole communities.
In February, after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis near the West Bank town of Huwara, settlers rampaged through the Palestinian town, killing one resident and wounding one hundred, in addition to vandalizing homes and shops and setting hundreds of cars afire. At the time, Bezalel Smotrich, Israeli finance minister and head of civil administration in the West Bank, called for Huwara to be “wiped out.” Several months later, the pattern repeated after a Palestinian gunman killed four Israelis near the settlement of Eli, triggering a Huwara-style riot where hundreds of settlers entered nearby Palestinian villages and attacked residents and property.
Once again, the government spurred on the settlers, with Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, calling for a military operation in the West Bank that would “blow up buildings [and] assassinate terrorists — not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands.” Israeli police and the army are often party to such settler violence, either through inaction or through direct participation.
But while the distinctions between legal and extra-legal violence — between official policy and settler activity — were growing increasingly murky in the West Bank since last December, those distinctions seem to be altogether collapsing after Hamas’s attacks, and Israel’s declaration of war, on October 7. Three days after the attacks, Ben-Gvir pledged ten thousand assault rifles to “civilian security teams” in settlements — as well as in border towns and mixed cities — and this process is already yielding violent results.
In an article published in Haaretz on Thursday, Hagar Shezaf detailed how soldiers and settlers abused three Palestinians rounded up in the West Bank village of Wadi Al-Siq for hours in an ordeal that one victim compared to American soldiers’ notorious torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. The men were stripped naked, beaten, urinated on, and burned with cigarettes; their captors tried to shove an object into one of their anuses.
Left-wing Israeli activists were also beaten, and both groups were robbed. Against such an offensive, Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, told Al Jazeera, West Bank residents “have no protection at all.” According to B’Tselem, over 550 people — and eight entire communities — have been forced to leave their homes since October 7.
The dispatches below speak to the intensification of these dynamics in the last two weeks. West Bank residents recount facing local settlers suddenly wearing the uniform of the Israeli army; of blocked roads restricting movement between towns; and of ever-present violence against which they have no defense. In response, entire Palestinian villages are being forced to relocate, although many vow to maintain their presence on the land to slow its seizure by settlers and the army.
Though the West Bank is often discussed in isolation from Gaza, close observers have long warned that the Israeli approach to Gaza is slowly taking hold in the West Bank as Palestinians are pushed into smaller and smaller enclaves, penned in by roadblocks and routinely met with violence. The accounts below testify to the acceleration of this process of “Gazafication” in the West Bank — one with dire human costs for the area’s millions of Palestinians.
“Things are different now: the soldiers and settlers are just waiting for a chance to kill you.”
These are hard days. We are really scared. All the areas here in the South Hebron Hills are connected; the people are really close to the settlements. It has been bad for a long time, but now it’s a completely different level. So many of the entrances and roads are closed. There are no hospitals or clinics here, no big shops. Yatta, where the hospital is, is usually forty minutes away, but now it could take you five to six hours.
Since the war started, if you call the police or army to report a settler attack, they mostly don’t respond. We used to film [settler violence]; now, if they see you doing that, they will shoot you. The settlers and soldiers shoot at people on the highway and injure people in the villages. No one is safe.
I have a relative who was disabled in a settler attack years ago. He always sits in a specific spot next to his family’s tent, which is close to the settlement. Before the war, the settlers and soldiers knew him. But in the past weeks, the army has attacked him twice.
The soldiers, who are different than the usual ones because of the war in Gaza, were shouting “Move!” and “Put your hands up!” and he didn’t understand. They were about to shoot him until the people in the village started to shout; they explained the situation to the soldiers and they left. The people called the police, and the police said they would talk with the army. But two days ago, soldiers came back and did the same thing again. When two guys from the village tried to explain that my relative couldn’t understand, the soldiers said, “If you say even one more word, we will kill you.”
In our village, we believe in nonviolent resistance, and we have been resisting the occupation for years. Things are different now: the soldiers and settlers are just waiting for a chance to kill you. But we have a long tradition of sumud [steadfastness]. We have been steadfast on our land for generations. Our ancestors taught us to stay on our land, to take care of everyone in our community. We will keep steadfast. We will not leave. Inshallah one day, we will get our justice.
— Mustafa (pseudonym), as told to Maya Rosen; South Hebron Hills; October 17
“The settlers come wearing soldiers’ clothes, which is a new strategy.”
Since the war started, there have been more and more daily attacks by settlers against the people living in Masafer Yatta [a region of rural hamlets in the south of the occupied West Bank]. We are just farmers, many of us living in caves and tents. I am eighteen years old, and I have lived here all my life. We have no way to defend ourselves from the settlers, who are fully armed thanks to [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir. They feel that now is their chance. The war is happening, and they have the green light to kill any Palestinian they see. They feel that no one is going to care about these people in Masafer Yatta.
They come with the army’s protection from the settlement of Havat Ma’on, just five minutes from my village of Tuwani. They attack people’s sheep and demolish their tents and raid their homes. They attacked my family in our house: they came in and shot at my dad. Luckily he survived, but they broke his hand by hitting him with the butt of a gun. On Friday [October 13], they shot my cousin, who is still in the hospital. The settlers come wearing soldiers’ clothes, which is a new strategy; my dad only recognized them as settlers because they were the same people who attacked him last year.
The settlers and the army are now controlling all the land around Tuwani. They planted an Israeli flag in the high mountains nearby, and they have blocked all the routes in and out of the area. They don’t even allow us to access our donkeys or to give them food or water. They’re saying this is state land and it’s a war.
It’s dangerous to leave the town. Some people are trying to travel through the mountains, because they need to reach hospitals, or to reach markets to get food and water. But the way through the mountains is bumpy, and they get shot at. No one can sleep at night; we are afraid that the settlers will come and burn down our homes.
— Luna (pseudonym), as told to Amos; Tuwani; October 17
“[The settler] took a step back and fired one bullet into [my husband’s] stomach.”
When the war began on Saturday, October 7, the soldiers set up a checkpoint and closed almost all of the roads out of my village of Tuwani. They shut down the roads leading to the fields and to the nearby city of Yatta, but at first, they didn’t close the small, agricultural road to the neighboring village of Jawaya, where my parents and siblings live. For the next few days, the people of Tuwani used this road to get to Yatta for their shopping and other essential needs.
On Wednesday, I took my four children to visit my family in Jawaya, intending to return that evening. But before we could get back home to Tuwani, where my husband, Zakariyah, was waiting for us, settlers and soldiers used a bulldozer to close off this road as well. They parked by the road and attacked any cars that tried to pass, shooting at them with live bullets. We could hear the sounds of gunshots from my family’s home on the main street. So we stayed in Jawaya for the next few days, unable to return to Tuwani.
On Friday afternoon, I received a panicked call from one of Zakariyah’s sisters: he had been shot by a settler, she said. My fear set in immediately.
With an injury like this, every minute, every second, is critical. I learned later that young men from Tuwani immediately loaded Zakariyah into a car and set off in search of a road that wasn’t blocked so that they could race him to Yatta. It took them ten minutes to find a bumpy agricultural entrance to the city. It was another twenty minutes before they arrived at the hospital, where a doctor immediately ordered that Zakariyah be transferred to the larger hospital in Hebron because his condition was critical. But soldiers stopped the ambulance on the way out of Yatta, shooting bullets into the air. The ambulance turned around and returned to the Yatta hospital.
Meanwhile, I rushed to the hospital with my father. I was getting information bit by bit. Zakariyah had been taken to the operating room. The doctors had started asking people to donate blood, because he had lost a lot of blood in transport. The injury was to his abdomen.
I sat there, in the hospital waiting room, trying to take in what I was learning. He was in critical condition. The concern for his life was increasing.
Only later did I learn that one of my husband’s cousins had taken a video of the shooting. I’ll never be able to wipe the image from my mind. As my husband was leaving the mosque after Friday prayers, an armed settler approached him on the main street of Tuwani. He pushed his rifle into Zakariyah’s chest. Then he took a step back and fired one bullet into his stomach.
For the next two days, Zakariyah was kept in a medically induced coma, his life hanging in the balance. He is still in the hospital a week later. It is still impossible to transfer him to the hospital in Hebron for further care.
My children and I pray for his safe recovery and return to us.
— Mariam (pseudonym), as told to Shira Wolkenfeld; Tuwani; October 18
“We never know if we will come home safely from harvesting olives or if we will die on our land.”
The olive harvest in Burin [a village south of Nablus] usually starts around October 10. It is the most important harvest. Most people in Burin rely on this harvest to make the money they need to live. The days of the olive harvest are holy days for the Palestinian farmer. Usually, the people come together, have breakfast and cook and pick olives together. But this year, they are not letting us pick olives, even between the houses inside the village.
I am the director of the land and farming cooperative in Burin, and I document settler attacks in the Nablus area. The last attack on farmers trying to pick olives was just half an hour ago. Settlers and soldiers came into the village and tried to make the people leave their land. When they refused to go, a soldier made a phone call, and just ten minutes later, around fifteen settlers came with guns. They started shooting live bullets while the soldiers stood there.
Last night, around a hundred settlers and soldiers came and attacked the village together. We don’t have guns; we don’t have anything with which to protect ourselves. In the village of Madama, just a five-minute walk from Burin, the settlers tried to kill a thirteen-year-old girl. They broke down the door of her house and came inside and attacked her. Now the girl is in the hospital.
Burin is surrounded by three settlements: Yitzhar, Givat Ronen, and Har Bracha. Since the war started, you never know who you are fighting — whether they are settlers or soldiers. The soldiers work with the settlers; the soldiers are settlers. Most of the soldiers from this area were sent to Gaza, so now the settlers have been given soldiers’ uniforms.
Before the war, when we went to pick olives, the settlers would often attack us. Then the soldiers would come, and even though they would side with the settlers, sometimes they would try to divide the area between us and them. The army would coordinate with farmers to have soldiers present on the land at certain times, to try to avoid problems with the settlers. But now there is no coordination, no permission. Now the soldiers and the settlers attack us together.
Yesterday, when my cousin went to the hills to try to pick olives, seven soldiers came to him and said, “You’re not allowed to come here because there is a war” — even though he was far away from the settlement. They told him: “After the war ends, we will decide if you can come here or not.”
But they will not succeed in kicking us off our land. The plan now is to go to our land every day. Even if we don’t need to pick olives, we will go to drink tea. When we go, the settlers and soldiers attack us with live bullets, rubber bullets, sound bombs, tear gas. We never know if we will come home safely from harvesting olives or if we will die on our land. But we still go every day. Because if we don’t, the land will become a military area, and after that, the settlers will come and take it.
We are under attack every day, every minute, every hour. And yet no one cares about us. All the journalists, all the international people, all the media are focusing on the war in Gaza. They don’t see how the war in Gaza is also being used as a cover for the soldiers and settlers to attack freely in the West Bank. It’s a chance for them to do what they want.
Anyone who believes in freedom needs to stand with the Palestinian people. Because today it is Palestine, but tomorrow it will be another country. This is not just about Zionism or about Palestine. This is about capitalism and colonialism. That is why we have to stay on our land and fight until our last breath. We have two choices: to give up and leave the land, or save our dignity. We choose to die standing upright.
— Ghassan Najjar, as told to Maya Rosen; Burin; October 19
“I used to want peace. I don’t want peace anymore.”
My community arrived here in 1990. I was born here, in Ein Rashash, a village of eighty-five people from eighteen families. There have always been problems, but things got worse in 2018, when settlers established the “Angels of Peace” outpost. They began to drive away the sheep. Once we had three thousand goats, but now we have only six hundred left because the settlers and the army forbade us from reaching all the grazing areas. There was intimidation from the army and the police.
Since the current government was formed [in December 2022], things have very seriously deteriorated. And four months ago, there was another escalation. The settlers started attacking us near our houses. My eighty-five-year-old grandfather got a stone to the head. They beat him with sticks and pepper-sprayed his eyes. The settlers tried to burn down a house; luckily only a small part burned.
They scare us so we will leave. The army never protects us. They help the settlers, firing tear gas at us and into the air. The police are almost as bad as the army — maybe 3 percent better. They never arrest the settlers, but they arrest us if we try to defend ourselves.
Nothing has actually happened here since the beginning of the war, but we have heard about what is happening in several places nearby. In Wadi Siq [a Bedouin community east of Ramallah], for example, settlers came and scared the Palestinians. The settlers stole all their vehicles. We could not sleep; we could barely even breathe.
We saw the settlers up there [at the army base] all the time, firing bullets [at shooting ranges], and we heard the gunshots. All the settlers have weapons. Because of the war in Gaza, the settlers think they are allowed to kill every Palestinian. We were afraid that they would come and kill a whole family, and we would have no means to protect ourselves. We have called the army and the police many times, but every time they say “we are at war” and hang up the phone. We cannot protect ourselves and our children, and no one will protect us. So we decided to move our families elsewhere. But we are maintaining a presence here. We hope to return soon.
Many Palestinian communities are leaving. In Nassiriyah [north of Ein Rashash], settlers came and threatened the residents and told them that if they did not leave the next day they would come and kill them. People in Ein Samya and Kabun [both south of Ein Rashash] are also leaving. They don’t want Palestinians east of Allon Road. It is another Nakba, seventy-five years after the first.
I used to want peace. I don’t want peace anymore. Even in twenty years I will not want peace — the anger will remain. I used to like the Israelis. Whenever anyone was passing through, I would give him Bedouin tea; I would milk my goats and give him milk. But if someone came today and asked me for milk, I would not give him milk.
Israel just closes in on us more and more. And it is the same in the [occupied Palestinian] territories as it is in Gaza. You close in on the people more and more and more, and in the end it will explode.
— Sabri (pseudonym), as told to Amos; Ein Rashash; October 17Original post