Settlers push Bedouins off West Bank territory
Herders report violence driving them from their homes in accelerating, aggressive and highly effective campaign
Sliman al-Zawahri, 52, prays in the empty village of Ein Rashash in Area C of the West Bank. (Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum/The Guardian)
The tiny settlement overlooking the Bedouin village of Ein Rashash is named “Angels of Peace”, but, says Sliman al-Zawahri, its residents have visited only violence, fear and despair on his family.
This week the Bedouin community packed up most of their belongings and drove all the women, children and elderly people from the West Bank ridge they had called home for nearly four decades, perched above a spring and beside an archaeological site.
“They didn’t leave us air to breathe,” said Zawahri, 52, describing a months-long campaign of violence and intimidation that intensified in the last two weeks. First villagers were barred from grazing lands, and the spring, then violence reached their homes.
“They came into the village and destroyed houses and sheep pens, beat an 85-year-old man, scared our children. Slowly our lives became unlivable.”
A few men are trying to stay on amid the shells of homes, empty animal pens, smashed solar panels and broken windows, staking a fragile claim to their own village.
This was not an individual tragedy. Men from Angels of Peace are part of a broad, violent and very successful political project to expand Israeli control of the West Bank that has accelerated, say activists, since the 7 October attacks by Hamas launched a war with Israel.
The unlikely agents of this land grab are sheep and goats, herded by radical settlers on small outposts.
Taking land by building homes and communities on it is slow and expensive. Taking control of large swathes of dry hills needed to feed a herd of animals, by intimidating and isolating Palestinian shepherds and bringing in another herd, is much more efficient.
“This has been the most successful land-grab strategy since 1967,” said Yehuda Shaul, a prominent activist who is director of the Israeli Center for Public Affairs thinktank, and a founder of Breaking the Silence, an NGO that exposes military abuses in occupied areas.
Over the last year alone, 110,000 dunams, or 110 sq km (42 sq miles), was effectively annexed by settlers on herding outposts, he said. All the built-up settlement areas constructed since 1967 cover only 80 sq km.
It was also the biggest displacement of Palestinian Bedouins since 1972, when at least 5,000 – and perhaps as many as 20,000 – people were moved from the northern Sinai to make way for settlements, Shaul added.
Settlers and their political allies have celebrated this relatively new approach.
“One action that we’ve expanded over the years is the shepherding farms,” Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever, the secretary general of the settler organisation Amana, told a 2021 conference.
“Today they cover close to twice the land that the built-up communities cover … we understand the significance of the matter: see, it is a lot.”
About 450,000 Israelis have settled in what is now Area C of the West Bank – the area under full Israeli military and political control – since the occupation of the Palestinian territories began in 1967, some motivated by religious or nationalistic reasons, and others by the cheaper cost of living.
Their presence is viewed by most of the international community as a major obstacle to lasting peace, but until recently most focus has been on communities of houses rather than herder outposts.
In September, the UN warned about rising settler violence targeting Palestinian herders and driving them from their homes and land.
“A total of 1,105 people from 28 communities – about 12% of their population – have been displaced from their places of residence since 2022, citing settler violence and the prevention of access to grazing land by settlers as the primary reason,” the United Nations office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) said.
Now with the Israeli military preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza, diplomats concerned about rescuing hostages in Gaza and averting regional war, and a national mood of fury after the massacre of 1,400 people on 7 October, there is little focus on the West Bank.
In a climate of fear for Palestinians – the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said soldiers and settlers have killed 62 Palestinians over 10 days – the displacement of herders has sped up, say activists.
The Guardian visited two villages abandoned in less than a week, Ein Rashash and Wadi a-Seeq, and a third where some families were discussing leaving.
“This was already the most significant displacement we’ve seen since the 1970s. Now you have seen two villages abandoned in one week,” Shaul said. “This is on steroids.”
Herder settlers living near the village of al-Mu’arrajat had begun stopping Palestinians, asking for their IDs and telling them they had 24 hours to leave their homes, said Alia Mlehat, 27.
They had blocked people from leaving the village, pulled people out of their cars, and driven between homes, she said. They all had assault rifles and sometimes shot into the air.
“Since the beginning of the war, no one can go anywhere,” she said. “It is a slow process of deepening fear … there is no way out, as the war has restricted our lives.”
The only journeys out of her community now were one-way trips. “One man left already with his wife and children. Five other families are considering leaving,” she said.
Israeli herder settlers had taken control of 10% of Area C and 6% of the entire West Bank in about five years, Shaul said, citing figures compiled by Kerem Navot, an NGO that tracks settler activity.
The denial of grazing access adds economic warfare to physical violence. Cutting off land for grazing and growing fodder forces herders to sell off some animals, and with smaller flocks, they make less money and are more vulnerable to sickness, injury or other loss.
“Palestinian herders should be self-reliant based on their established livelihoods. Instead they need humanitarian assistance because of settler violence and the failure of Israeli authorities to hold perpetrators accountable,” the UN OCHA report said.
The impact was so serious, it may amount to a war crime, the statement added. Along with demolitions, evictions and restrictions on movement and construction, the attacks on herders created “a coercive environment that contributes to displacement that may amount to forcible transfer, a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva convention”.
The enclosure of herding lands has also left some villages virtually besieged, with people forced to take long circuitous routes to land that is near home but on the other side of a section claimed by settlers.
In the most extreme cases, villagers are so frightened of travelling on roads controlled by settlers that Israeli activists from groups that try to protect Bedouin communities – living with them, walking with them as they herd flocks and documenting abuses – are bringing them food and water.
They too sometimes become targets. Hagar Gefen, 71, was beaten so violently last year that she ended up in hospital with broken ribs and a punctured lung.
“Nothing could make me stop,” said Gefen, an anthropologist whose sense of humour matches her courage. “Unless maybe they cut off my legs – you have to be able to walk to be with the shepherds.”
No one has been prosecuted for that attack, and activists and Palestinians say they have little faith in Israeli authorities in the West Bank. The UN said that in four out of five communities, residents had filed complaints about settler violence, but only 6% knew of any follow-up.
For many communities the displacement is a second upheaval driven by the Israeli state and its citizens. Al-Zawahri’s family were forced out of the Negev area in 1948, and wandered for several years before settling in their current homes.
They hope that when the war is over, the Israeli state – or international pressure – will ensure this new exile is not permanent.
“We are eager for the war to finish, to try to come back home,” said Ayoub al-Zawahri, 50. “We are living in places that don’t belong to us.”
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