Life in Zanuta, a Palestinian village atop a windy ridge in the desolate south Hebron hills, deep in the occupied West Bank, has never been easy. The community are mostly herders who raise goats and sheep through the barren landscape’s scorching summers and freezing winters, and who have steadfastly refused to leave their homes despite the mounting difficulties posed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers on one hand and radical Israeli settlers on the other.
But after weeks of intense settler violence in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, Zanuta’s 150 residents have made a collective decision to leave. Armed settlers – some in reservist army uniforms, some covering their faces – have begun breaking into their homes at night, beating up adults, destroying and stealing belongings, and terrifying the children.
After decades of a desperate fight to cling on to their land, the community has decided they have lost.
On Monday, men and women cried as they dismantled their homes and haphazardly packed solar panels, animal feed and personal belongings on to pickup trucks. The noise of the demolition drowned out the bleating from the animal pens and threw up dust and debris that tore at the eyes and throat.
“It is a new Nakba,” said Issa Ahmad Baghdad, 71, referring to the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 after the creation of Israel. “My family are going to Rafat. But we don’t know anyone there. We don’t know what to tell the children.”
Palestinians forced out of West Bank villages by settler violence – video
Masafer Yatta, a collection of shepherding hamlets including Zanuta, is in area C, the sparsely populated 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control and under threat of annexation. Palestinian water cisterns, solar panels, roads and buildings here are frequently demolished on the grounds that they do not have building permits, which are nearly impossible to obtain, while surrounding illegal Israeli settlements flourish.
In the Gaza Strip, where Israel has launched a campaign to destroy Hamas, the militant group that killed 1,400 people on its rampage through southern Israel, trapped civilians cannot leave; in the West Bank, they are being forced from their homes.
Israeli settlers herding sheep had in effect taken control of 10% of area C in about five years, according to research by Kerem Navot, an NGO monitoring settler activity, but in the last year alone, about 110,000 dunams, or 110 sq km (42 sq miles), of the West Bank has been annexed by settlers on herding outposts. By way of comparison, the entirety of the built-up Israeli settlement areas constructed since the occupation began in 1967 cover only 80 sq km.
“We have had hard times in the village since the settlers started the Mitarim farm across the valley three years ago. It has been harder to take the sheep out, and the settler young men destroy things like crops, or steal sheep, or call the army to come and harass us. But now they are coming into our homes. My daughters are terrified,” said Amin Hamed al-Hudarat, 41, as he began to cry.
“I had thought we might need to leave before, but we did not expect it to happen like this. I can’t believe that by tomorrow I am going to leave my home. We are going to camp on the outskirts of Deira, but I don’t know what will happen next, what I will do for work, what we will do with the sheep. My whole life is in Zanuta.
“The community is breaking up. I don’t know when I will see my neighbours to chat and tell stories and drink coffee again.”
After years of legal battles, Israel’s supreme court ruled last May in favour of the IDF that a 3,000-hectare (7,410-acre) area of Masafer Yatta would remain a military training zone, known as Firing Zone 918, a ruling illegal under international law and one of the single biggest expulsion decisions since the occupation began. Since then, the army and Israeli settlers have steadily increased the pressure to try to force the Palestinian community in the Firing Zone, as well as those living in dozens of nearby villages, to leave.
Demolitions of Palestinian houses, roads and infrastructure have increased since the court’s ruling, while shepherds say they are regularly told by the army to leave grazing land, which is then taken over by settlers, or settlers chase them away. Water and animal-feed deliveries, as well as visitors from charities and leftwing Israeli activists who used to help deter settler violence, have been turned back by the army. Since 7 October, settlers have begun beating and using live fire against the activists, as well as Palestinians.
New checkpoints have completely isolated villages such as Jimba, making it difficult for residents to leave. Palestinians are held up and questioned by soldiers sometimes for hours at a time, and dozens of unlicensed cars have been confiscated, forcing residents to use donkeys instead.
Under this campaign of attrition, some families had already made the difficult decision to leave, most of them for the nearby town of Yatta. During the Guardian’s visit to the area a month ago, two families in Khirbet ar-Ratheem, near the Asael settlement, insisted they would not leave, despite the pressure; today, they have gone.
Now that entire villages such as Zanuta have decided to leave, it is feared there will be a domino effect in the area, said Nasser Nawadja, a field researcher from the village of Susiya for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. He has been beaten and arrested many times during his work.
“Settler violence is now worse than ever. Sometimes, they are wearing reservist uniforms, and we don’t know who is the army and who is a settler any more,” he said.
“The people in Tuba were given a 24-hour ultimatum to leave, or the settlers said they would come back and kill them. That was on Saturday. We don’t know what will happen next.”
According to B’Tselem, in the last three weeks 858 Palestinians from 32 different communities, and 13 entire communities in total, have been forcibly displaced. The numbers increase every day.
The international community, including the US, has issued strong statements to the Israeli government that it must “take measures to protect Palestinians from attacks by Israeli extremist settlers”. “These attacks are unacceptable, those responsible need to be stopped and held accountable,” a communique from the state department in Washington said on Monday.
However, Palestinians and Israeli activists say they have little faith in the Israeli authorities. According to UN data from September, in four out of five communities where residents had filed police complaints about settler violence, only 6% knew of any follow-up.
For some, it is too little, too late. In Zanuta on Monday, pickup trucks trundled down the dirt track to the main road, full to the brim; they came back empty a few hours later to collect more belongings from the destroyed community. Three Israeli soldiers stood next to an armoured patrol vehicle at the turnoff to the main road, silently watching.
“I don’t know when I will be able to come back again,” said Hudarat. “I think I am saying goodbye to my home for ever.”
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