Palestinians say the worrying trend will only worsen as right-wing extremists make their home in Israel’s new government.
YUMNA PATEL, MONDOWEISS, DECEMBER 15, 2022
The violence was indescribable. Something they had never witnessed before.
That is what the Palestinian residents of Hebron told Mondoweiss days after what they described as a settler “rampage” through their city in mid-November.
“It was like a sea of settlers, and all of them were filled with hate in their eyes,” Bader al-Tamimi, a local shop owner and municipality worker, told Mondoweiss from the doorway of his souvenir shop in the heart of Hebron’s Old City.
“There were hundreds, thousands of them, with even more soldiers protecting them, and they just started attacking anything Palestinian – people and shops,”al-Tamimi said.
Al-Tamimi was describing the events of Saturday, November 19, when tens of thousands of Israeli settlers from around the occupied West Bank gathered in Hebron for the annual march throughout the city in honor of the Torah reading from the Book of Genesis where Abraham purchases a plot of land in Hebron in which to bury his wife, known as ‘Shabbat Chayei Sarah’.
The annual march typically draws the most fanatic, right-wing, and religious settlers, who use the event to partake in unbridled attacks against the local Palestinians.
This year, however, was different.
“They came out from this gate right here,” al-Tamimi said, pointing to a large steel gate next to an armored military tower covered in Israeli flags. The gate, which sits opposite al-Tamimi’s shop, is one of the entrances to the Israeli-controlled area of the city, where hundreds of extremist Israeli settlers live in the former homes of Palestinians, now Jewish-only settlements.
“They immediately started throwing things at us and attacking our shops. They tried to break everything and tried to assault us,” al-Tamimi said, referring to himself and his neighboring shopkeeper, who defied Israeli army orders that forced Palestinian shops in the area to shut down for the weekend.
“When we tried to defend ourselves, the soldiers who were with them started beating us up,” he said, pointing to a bruise on his arm that he said was left after an Israeli soldier hit him with the butt of his rifle.
“Instead of stopping the settlers, the soldiers attacked us instead and let the settlers continue on their rampage.”
Defiling a mosque, vandalizing shops, assaulting Palestinians
As the hundreds of settlers passed al-Tamimi’s shop, they made their way through the Old City of Hebron, through the clothing and vegetable markets in the heart of the city, before continuing on to the Bab al-Zawiya area of Hebron, which is under control of the Palestinian Authority.
While most Palestinians in the area had closed their doors for the day along the main road of the market following a military order commanding them to do so, some shopkeepers stayed open. Ahmad al-Awawdeh, 52, the owner of a small clothing shop, was one of them.
“At around 1 p.m., the settlers arrived in this area and immediately started attacking me,” al-Awawdeh told Mondoweiss. They started throwing the clothes off the shelves and onto the floor and breaking anything they could.”
At the same time, a group of settlers began throwing rocks at the mosque next to al-Awawdeh’s shop, breaking the glass on the front doors, while other settlers vandalized the nearby vegetable stands.
“They were trying to get into the mosque, but I and some young men who came to defend my shop went to protect the mosque,” he said. “The attack lasted for more than an hour. The soldiers were there the whole time, but they did nothing to stop the settlers.”
At the same time, al-Awawdeh said, the soldiers attacked the Palestinians in the area who were trying to defend the people and shops that were under attack.
After the settlers finished vandalizing al-Awawdeh’s shop and the neighboring vegetable stands, they continued their parade through the rest of the city, wreaking havoc on more businesses and homes.
Al-Awawdeh’s neighbor, Bilal Abu Rmeileh, who owns a butcher shop just across the street, told Mondoweiss that while the Palestinians in Hebron, particularly those who live and work in and around the Old City, are “used to” settler and soldier attacks, the aggression they witnessed on Saturday by both the settlers and soldiers was “on a whole other level.”
“They’re trying to do to this area what they did to Shuhada street,” Abu Rmeileh, 50, said, referring to the Old City’s most infamous street, once the bustling center of life in Hebron, now closed off to all Palestinians and reserved only for use by Jewish settlers.
“It started with the army, then the settlers came and started taking over houses, then the attacks kept increasing, and now there are barely any Palestinians left in the heart of our city,” Abu Rmeileh said.
As Abu Rmeileh and al-Awawdeh continued to air their grievances, another young man who mans a vegetable stand nearby came over to where the men were standing.
“People from other parts of the city are scared to come here now, and it’s affecting our business,” Mohammed al-Aymareh, 27, told Mondoweiss. “Most of the time, we can barely break even. This is what they want,” he said, referring to the Israeli military and settlers who have taken over swaths of Hebron.
“They want to make life impossible here so that eventually we leave, and they take over this area too.”
Record year of settler violence
The violence in Hebron lasted the full weekend, with new attacks and assaults happening every day between Thursday and Sunday. The Palestinians who spoke to Mondoweiss about the attacks compared it to the events in the Nablus-area town of Huwwara a month prior, when gangs of armed settlers attacked Palestinians and their property for four days in a row, in full view of the army.
The incidents in Hebron and Huwwara are not isolated but part of a larger trend of settler violence in the occupied West Bank that is increasing not only in frequency but in brutality as well.
As of November 21, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory had recorded 660 settler attacks against Palestinians since the start of the year.
The attacks consist of everything from throwing rocks at Palestinian vehicles, physically assaulting Palestinians, vandalizing Palestinian vehicles and homes, and destroying Palestinian farmlands and crops.
The 2022 numbers, which do not yet include attacks over the past three weeks, mark a steep increase compared to the previous years recorded by OCHA. In 2021, the agency recorded 496 instances of settler violence for the entire year. The year before that, 358 incidents were recorded.
Some groups have reported the number of attacks in 2022 to be significantly higher than what OCHA reported, with French NGO Première Urgence Internationale reporting 1,049 attacks committed by settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank between January and September 2022.
The group noted that their 2022 numbers marked a 170% increase from 2017, with a weekly average of 27 attacks.
While the number of settler attacks has soared since October, Palestinian rights groups have alerted the international community to the increase in settler violence since April of this year, particularly to the worrying trend of such attacks against Palestinians turning lethal.
Israeli settlers, whose numbers in the West Bank have reached over 680,000 spanning 300 illegal settlements and outposts, have long been encouraged to carry firearms and have frequently turned those arms against Palestinians, sometimes killing them.
In 2022 Mondoweiss recorded at least four incidents of Palestinians who were killed or were suspected of having been killed by Israeli settlers.
Those incidents included two car rammings, one stabbing, and a shooting. The latter case is that of 16-year-old Amjad Abu Alia, who was shot and killed during confrontations in his village of al-Mughayyir, outside of Ramallah, between Israeli settlers, soldiers, and local Palestinian youth.
According to eyewitness testimony told to Mondoweiss, and corroborated by similar testimonies collected by Defense for Children International Palestine (DCIP), Abu Alia was shot in the back while running away from Israeli settlers and soldiers who were firing on protesters.
At the same moment Abu Alia was shot, an Israeli settler around 70 meters (220 feet) away was recorded taking cover behind a stone barrier, kneeling, and shooting live ammunition at Palestinian protesters.
At the time, the Israeli military took no responsibility for his killing, nor did it release any statements in regard to the allegations that the fatal shot could have potentially come from a settler.
Abu Alia’s killing came three years after another Palestinian from al-Mughayyir, Hamdi Na’san, was killed by a mob of settlers from the illegal outpost of Adei Ad – the same outpost where the settlers who attacked the village on the day Abu Ali was killed came from.
“This is something that keeps happening,” local activist Maher Naasan told Mondoweiss the day after Abu Ali was killed. “This is all part of settlers trying to drive us out.”
In a majority of the instances of settler violence documented by Mondoweiss in 2022, Palestinians reported the presence of Israeli forces or authorities at the time of the attack. In most cases, the soldiers either did nothing to prevent the attacks from happening or actively engaged in the attacks with the settlers, turning their weapons on the Palestinian victims rather than on the Israeli aggressors, as was the case in Huwwara, Hebron, and al-Mughayyir.
In late October, in the midst of the annual olive harvest, a time ripe with settler attacks on Palestinian farmers and their crops, Israeli forces were called to the scene after a group of settlers launched an attack on Palestinians harvesting their olives on the outskirts of Jibiya, north of Ramallah.
As the farmers and their families picked their olives, a group of armed settlers down in the valley on the outskirts of the village harassed the farmers and attempted to prevent them from harvesting their olives. The harassment happened in plain view of the Israeli soldiers.
At the same time, a number of masked settlers broke off from the group and went up to another area in the village, where they threw rocks at the cars of several journalists, activists, and local residents, smashing their windshields and windows.
Moments after the attack, Mondowiess spoke to Jihan Abu Zeyada, who was in tears sitting under her olive tree next to her family’s car that had just been smashed.
“This settler set up this outpost a few years ago. Since then he’s made problems for us, bringing other settlers to the area who attack us and harass us any time we go to our land,” she said, referring to Zvi Bar Yosef, an Israeli settler who set up the illegal outpost called “Zvi’s Farm” in 2019, and has been terrorizing Palestinians in the area ever since.
“I was scared they were going to shoot us, they were pointing their weapons at my husband and my son. My legs buckled, and I couldn’t stand anymore from the fear,” Jihan said.
“The settlers are getting more and more violent every day, and there is no one to protect us,” she continued. “The soldiers do nothing to help us. They are working with the settlers to drive us out.”
Abeer al-Khateeb, an activist with the group Faza’a, who accompany farmers during the olive harvest to protect them from settler and military violence, spoke to Mondoweiss outside a local health clinic in the neighboring town of Birzeit, where one of the group’s volunteers was being treated for an injury sustained during the settler attack in Jibiya.
Wiping the sweat off her forehead, al-Khateeb spoke matter-of-factly: “things are getting worse, much worse.”
“I have been doing this work for years. Every year the settlers attack during the olive harvest, but this year was unlike anything we’ve ever seen. They are becoming more aggressive, more emboldened. It’s clear that they feel like they can do anything and get away with it,” she said.
Just a week before the attack in Jibiya, al-Khateeb and other activists from Faza’a accompanied farmers to their olive groves in the Bethlehem-area village of Kisan, where a large group of settlers attacked them, and lynched a 70-year-old Israeli solidarity activist, attacking her with clubs and beating her with rocks, leaving her with broken ribs and a punctured lung.
“The settlers are able to do what they do because they act with total impunity in the West Bank,” al-Khateeb said. “In most cases when we are attacked in these situations, the soldiers are either present or attacking us with the settlers!” she said indignantly.
“The settlers and the Israeli occupation state are one and the same. They work together, hand in hand, to kick Palestinians off the land, it’s as simple as that,” she said. “When there is no one to hold the settlers accountable for their crimes, it’s natural that things will continue to get worse.”
Human rights groups have long documented this policy of “settler-state collusion” in the occupied Palestinian territory, where “instead of taking preventive action, the Israeli authorities aid and abet the settlers in harming Palestinians and using their land,” Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said.
In the rare case that an investigation is opened into settler violence against Palestinians, the vast majority of those investigations are closed. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group that documents incidents of settler violence in the West Bank, reports that 92% of investigations into ideological crimes against Palestinians are closed with no indictment filed.
In more sinister cases, Palestinians who defend themselves in the instance of a settler attack are the ones who are investigated, arrested, and tried in military court, while the settlers who initiated the attack are left to roam free.
In mid-September of this year, Israeli settlers armed with clubs, bats, and guns attacked a Palestinian man, Hafez Huraini, while he was working on his land in the village of at-Tuwani, in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank.
Huraini fought back, injuring one of the settlers. The Israeli army was called to the scene, and despite multiple eye-witnesses and video evidence showing the settlers instigated the attack, Huraini, who had both of his hands broken in the attack, was arrested, and detained for interrogation for several days on charges of attempted murder.
Huraini was later released on bail of close to $3,000 after 10 grueling days of interrogation and multiple court hearings. According to Israeli media, it took the Israeli police over a week to question the Israeli settlers involved in the attack.
None of the settlers, who were previously questioned on suspicion of participating in other attacks on Palestinians in the area, were formally charged, arrested, or fined for the attack on Huraini.
From the settlements to the government
Amid the surge of settler attacks in the fall of this year, a group of Israeli right-wing extremists were positioning themselves to take on the existing Israeli government in the fifth parliamentary elections Israel had seen in just four years.
On November 1, as the polls rolled in, it became clear that the right wing had helped former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu soar back to power, and they did so based largely on a platform of Jewish supremacy and anti-Palestinian racism led by lawmakers who had previously been convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization.
The ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism party, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, emerged as the third largest party in Israel’s new government, granting the two lawmakers, who have a sordid history of being openly fascist and staunchly anti-Palestinian, new levels of power they, and their supporters, had never seen before.
Ben-Gvir is a follower of the late ultra-nationalist and racist Meir Kahane, whose organization was banned in Israel and designated as a terrorist group by the United States. For years Ben-Gvir proudly displayed a photo of Israeli-American mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994.
Both Ben-Gvir, who lives in an illegal settlement in the heart of Hebron, and Goldstein were supporters of Kahane’s Kach party. Ben-Gvir made headlines in October when he was filmed pulling out a gun in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and advocated for all stone-throwers to be shot.
A young Ben-Gvir was denied the mandatory draft into the Israeli army due to his extremist political views.
Ben-Gvir’s political partner Bezalel Smotrich, who also grew up and lives in a West Bank settlement, has been open in his racist, anti-Palestinian sentiments, which he put on full display last year when calling for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians on the floor of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
“You’re here by mistake, it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948,” Smotrich told Palestinian lawmakers while he was speaking during a parliamentary debate.
In the past few weeks, incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been inching closer to forming the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich eyeing positions of major influence like Defense Minister and National Security Minister.
According to a Reuters report on December 13, a bill submitted for preliminary parliamentary review could potentially grant the position of Defense Minister to Smotrich, effectively giving him and the Religious Zionism party full reign over the settlements in the West Bank, while the position of National Security Minister would grant Ben-Gvir cabinet authority over the Israeli police.
The bill seeks to amend police regulations to allow Ben-Gvir, in his capacity as National Security Minister, to consolidate control over the police chief and police investigations, which could hold major implications when it comes to the already lamentable rate of police investigations into settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank.
Ben-Gvir himself has been convicted of incitement against Palestinians and, in the past, has provided legal representation to Jewish extremists accused of committing attacks against Palestinians.
While center-left Israeli politicians have expressed concern over granting Religious Zionism’s leaders control over such positions in the Israeli government, Netanyahu, who has his own well-documented past of anti-Palestinian racism and pro-settlement policies, has pledged “to govern in the interests of all Israelis.”
Netanyahu made no mention of the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the occupied territory, who had no say in the outcome of the Israeli elections. But Palestinians in the West Bank say they don’t need to wait to see the effects of having the likes of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich in power – it’s already being felt.
“We can feel that the military in Hebron is very right-wing, and pro-Ben-Gvir and his party, and pro-Likud,” Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist in Hebron told Mondoweiss, standing outside the heavily militarized checkpoint separating the H1 and H2 areas of Hebron.
“Over the past few months, leading up to and after the elections, we could feel that the soldiers and settlers were becoming more aggressive with us and more arbitrary in their decisions to detain us at checkpoints, close roads, prevent us from documenting their violations, etc.” he said.
Amro has been harassed and assaulted by Ben-Gvir himself in Hebron several times over the years.
“The attacks that we saw over the weekend happened after a rally celebrating the victory of Ben Gvir and his party,” Amro said, referring to the mobs of settlers who attacked the city on the weekend of November 19. “The atmosphere here for the settlers and the soldiers is one of celebration because the leaders of these parties are settlers from Hebron.”
In the midst of the settler parade and attacks that weekend in November, Amro confronted one of the Israeli soldiers who was present while settlers were harassing Palestinian bystanders and throwing rocks at Palestinian homes in the Old City.
The soldier’s answer, caught on film by Amro, told him everything he needed to know about what the future held for Palestinians like himself in Hebron and the rest of the West Bank.
“I asked him ‘Why are you doing this?’ and he responded saying, ‘Shut up. I am the law’,” Amro recounted.
“Ben-Gvir is going to fix this place up, bring it back to order,” the soldier told Amro. When Amro asked the soldier what he meant, he responded saying, “That’s it, you people are done.”
Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss.