What I Saw May Be a Sign of What’s to Come
Mourners march with the body of Abdel Fatah Hussein Khroushah, a 49-year-old Palestinian who was killed and was accused of killing two Israeli settlers in the Palestinian town of Huwara on Feb. 26. The funeral was held the Askar camp for Palestinian refugees east of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on March 8. (Zain Jaafar/AFP—Getty Images)
Rula Salameh, Time, March 18, 2023
Israeli settlers thronged my car as I drove slowly ahead, hands shaking. I tried to reassure my colleague Eman, who lay on the back seat floor. She began muttering a prayer for protection. Heart racing, I hoped that Eman was well-hidden, and that my Israeli license plates would hide our identity. If the settlers realized we’re Palestinian, we might be their first victims.
On Feb. 26, 2023 at approximately 9:00 am, I parked my car in the northern West Bank village of Huwara, close to Nablus, then headed with Eman to organize a film screening in a village further north, as part of my work as Just Vision’s Palestine Education and Outreach Director. At 2:00 pm, I learned that a Palestinian man killed two Israeli settlers, brothers, in a shooting ambush in Huwara. This shooting took place against a backdrop of increasing violence in recent weeks, including Israeli military raids in Nablus and Jenin in which 21 Palestinians were killed.
Once I heard the news, I told Eman that we needed to immediately head back to my car and drive home to Jerusalem. If tensions escalated and the area was locked down, I didn’t want to be trapped in Nablus, unable to return to our families.
The first three taxi drivers flat-out refused to take us. The Israeli army had closed the roads to and from Huwara, and Israeli settlers were calling for a large demonstration that evening in retaliation. It was too dangerous, they explained. The fourth finally agreed, winding through villages to avoid the main road. As we neared Huwara, the driver pointed out Israeli settlers climbing the distant hills, wisps of smoke visible. Shouts in Arabic rose up. Perhaps they were calls for help? I couldn’t hear clearly.
I was witnessing the beginning of one of the most shocking attacks on Palestinian civilians from Israeli settlers in recent years—one in which a 37-year-old Palestinian man was murdered, 350 more injured, and dozens of homes and cars smashed and torched. This pogrom on Huwara was far from isolated. Settlers, backed by the Israeli military, have attacked Palestinians communities for years, violence which has been rapidly spiraling. But the assault on Huwara may prove to be a terrifying harbinger of new levels of violence yet to come. Indeed, on March 1, 2023, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for the entire town of Huwara to be wiped out and three days later, a group of settlers pledged to do just that.
Daylight was fading by 5:55 pm as we reached my car—the news reporting that Israeli settlers were already gathering on the road ahead. Eman is easily identifiable as Muslim in her headscarf; I told her to lie down on the backseat floor of my car and began to drive, managing to convince an Israeli soldier at the temporary checkpoint erected at Huwara’s entrance to let me pass. All around me, Israeli settlers parked cars and mini-buses in the middle of the road and then proceeded on foot, swelling in volume, and shouting angrily as they streamed past me.
I knew I couldn’t rely on the handful of Israeli soldiers that I saw for protection; they were standing around, or, for reasons I could not ascertain, taking photographs of the settlers. The Palestinian homes I could see from the road were dark and silent. I wished I could do something to protect the families inside, who I imagined huddled in fear, awaiting attack.
By 6:20 pm, Huwara was behind me. Eman and I were headed south toward Ramallah. But even once out of the fray, the smell of burning cars filled my nostrils and rage-filled Hebrew shouts lingered in the air. The street lights were dark. The settlers casually strewing their vehicles across the road came to mind. The settlers controlled these roads.
My hands still shook the next morning, and for nights afterward, I had trouble sleeping. What haunted me most was that my community was under attack, and all I could do was drive away. Though settlers can and do assault my people with near impunity, if I had attempted to defend them, I would have likely been arrested or killed.
I couldn’t intercede in Huwara—but what I can do is call on people of conscience in the international community, particularly U.S. citizens, whose government consistently shields Israel and funds them an annual 3.8 billion dollars, to pressure their representatives to stop supporting Israel until it ends its military occupation. At the very least, the U.S. must pressure Israel to halt settlement expansion in compliance with international law. The U.S. State Department called the pogrom “completely unacceptable” and condemned Smotrich’s comment as “repugnant.” Palestinians have listened despairingly to empty rhetoric from successive U.S. administrations for years. Until words are followed by meaningful action, the U.S. holds some measure of accountability for each home and car engulfed in flames.
Responsibility for this unhinged violence also lies with the wider Israeli community. The current government, the most racist and extreme in Israel’s history, were voted into power by over two million Israelis. Thousands of Israelis are demonstrating against that government, true, but the vast majority of them are protesting the erosion of Israeli democracy, not the escalating violence directed towards Palestinians.
What unfolded in Huwara may point to levels of horrors yet to come. And yet, I found a sliver of hope in the torched cars. The rampage was intended to destroy lives and property, to crush our spirit and resistance. Instead, it kindled a unity among all Palestinians that I have not felt in decades. Politicians and civil society actors alike put aside political rifts and came together in the aftermath of the devastation. Families all over the West Bank provided shelter to people whose homes were destroyed. Palestinians of every political stripe are calling for freedom, dignity, and basic rights.
What I experienced that day was a fraction of what the residents of Huwara went through, and of what Palestinian families undergo daily living under brutal military occupation. It will take time to repair the damage and to heal. But our determination to be free and unified in our homeland has only been strengthened.