Since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, extremist settlers in the West Bank have been emboldened, displacing more than 1,000 Palestinians, according to the United Nations.
“Since 7th of October, the soldier came and sit down under this tree. And they put the Israeli flag here. And right now, if we try to cross 10 meters, the soldier will start to run, chasing us to go back here. And if we say, ‘This is my land,’ they start to shoot live.”
Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has intensified. Extremist Israeli settlers have been emboldened in what Palestinians say is an increased effort to seize their land with support from the Israeli Army.
On Oct. 13, Sami Hourani’s cousin Zacharia al-Adara was shot and wounded by an Israeli settler in the Palestinian village of at-Tuwani. It happened just a hundred meters from Hourani’s home.
“The settler was holding a gun and he was clearly with civilian dress coming towards my village, he was attacking a house. The settler started to walk towards Zacharia and just shot him. Zacharia is since the 13th of October in the I.C.U. in the hospital. And the most scary part now is that if this will be the new reality that they want to do after the war.”
Since Oct. 7, the U.N. has recorded more than 280 attacks by settlers in the occupied West Bank, opening fire on Palestinian villagers, destroying their farmland and setting fire to their businesses and homes. Observers say the attacks are part of the campaign for settlement expansion.
“The closed house is here in front of us. Here is the village of Tuba, and that up there, there is the settlement of Ma’on.”
Across the West Bank, there are more than 700,000 Israelis living in settlements that most of the world considers illegal. The Israeli Army says that it takes the violence very seriously and that it’s taken action to apprehend those responsible. However, human rights groups say arrests are rare, and soldiers have been seen accompanying settlers during some attacks, including the man who shot al-Adara on Oct. 13.
Zvi Sukkot is a member of Israel’s Parliament representing the far-right religious Zionist party. He’s become a prominent voice in the movement to expand Israeli settlements. Sukkot first started making headlines more than a decade ago as a member of the hilltop youth, young Israelis who would squat areas of the West Bank with the hope of claiming the land for eventual new settlements.
In 2012, Israel’s Security Agency accused him of leading covert and violent activity against Palestinians, and he was temporarily banned from entering the West Bank. But after Oct. 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed him to lead a committee handling security issues in the territory.
Reporter: “What changed for you after the Hamas attacks of October 7?”
Reporter: “Do you condemn the acts of violence being committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians?”
But for Palestinians that claim to the land means displacement. In the past seven weeks alone, the U.N. says more than 1,000 villagers have been forced to leave their homes due to settler violence across the West Bank.
Dalal al-Awad and her family are farmers from a village called Tuba. They’ve survived multiple attacks by settlers who told them to leave. For now, the family has little choice but to pack up and move to the hills every night, sleeping outside, away from their home.
Mr. Awad is a Palestinian writer living in the West Bank.
I was born in February 1998 in Tuba, a rural shepherding community of 80 Palestinian residents in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank, where my family has lived for generations. Over the years we have suffered repeated attacks by Israeli settlers, part of an ongoing campaign to remove us from our land. Still, nothing prepared me for what our life has become since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. In the last six weeks, the raids and harassment by settlers have become so intense that I do not know how much longer I and the other members of my community will be able to live here.
Under the cover of war, settlers have been storming villages in the West Bank, threatening Palestinians and destroying their homes and their livelihoods. International attention has been mostly focused on the atrocities in Israel and in Gaza, including the internal displacement of more than half of the population of the Gaza Strip.
In the West Bank, increasingly violent assaults on villages have forced at least 16 Palestinian communities — more than 1,000 people — to flee their homes since Oct. 7. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, settlers have attacked Palestinians in more than 250 incidents in the West Bank. So far, 200 Palestinians have been killed, eight by settlers and the others during clashes with Israeli forces.
In my village and in other villages around us, settlers have been raiding homes and harassing us relentlessly, sometimes multiple times a day. Less than a week into the war, according to a video published by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, an armed settler came into At-Tuwani village in the South Hebron Hills, approached a group of unarmed Palestinians walking after Friday Prayers and shot one of them in the abdomen from point-blank range. Ten minutes down the road, in Susiya, villagers said that settlers threatened to shoot residents if they did not evacuate their homes within 24 hours. On Oct. 30, settlers set fire to several homes in Khirbet a-Safai, a village less than a mile east of Tuba. And residents in the neighboring village to the west, Umm al-Khair, told human rights activists that armed settlers in uniform held people there at gunpoint and forced them to condemn Hamas and promise to raise Israeli flags in the village or they would be murdered.
For those of us in Tuba, this wave of attacks is part of a long string of attempts to force us to leave our homes. And it’s not only the settlers who want us out: Successive Israeli governments have also tried to get rid of us over the last decades.
In the early 1980s, our village, along with a group of others in an area called Masafer Yatta, was designated by the military as Firing Zone 918, land that Israel decided it wanted for training its forces (A government document indicates that there was an intention to displace residents living in the area). We have been fighting for the right to remain on our land ever since. We live in Area C of the West Bank, which means the Israeli military has complete civil and security control over our lives. Israel has tried various tactics to get us to leave, including enacting policies that prevent us from building homes in our own village and not allowing us to be connected to the main electrical grid or water infrastructure.
Sometimes it’s been much less subtle: In November 1999, when I was a year old, the Israeli military loaded all of Tuba’s residents and livestock onto trucks and dumped us on the side of the road several miles away. We spent the following months crowded in makeshift tents, fighting to shelter ourselves and our livestock from the cold winter rain. We were eventually allowed to return to our village “temporarily,” pending a final court decision.
Settlers from the illegal outpost of Havat Ma’on — built near Tuba and partly on private Palestinian land not long after we returned — have done their share as well. In 2002, they cut off the main road that connected Tuba to the surrounding villages, including the children’s closest school and the city of Yatta, where we buy all of our food and medical supplies.
Throughout it all, we had been awaiting the final ruling from the Israeli high court about whether the Israeli military could force us to evacuate. Then, last year, the court ruled in favor of the state, allowing Israel to evict about 1,200 Palestinians, including those in my village. We have remained steadfast in the face of this pressure and refuse to abandon our land and our traditional way of life. But in recent weeks, attacks by settlers have rattled our resolve.
We have always felt that the work of the military, which demolishes our houses and prevents our ability to move freely, was intimately intertwined with and reinforced by harassment from settlers. However, since the war started more than a month ago, the settlers and soldiers in the region seemed to have fused into one entity, ending whatever semblance of distance existed between these two violent systems. Settlers whom we recognize from years of harassment in our villages have suddenly become soldiers, as reservists or as part of Itamar Ben-Gvir’s civilian security teams. Army reservists who are new to the area are apparently now taking their orders from local settler-soldiers or security teams. Together they patrol our communities with their M16s and threaten anyone who tries to bring his flock to graze or leave the village for work or errands.
In Tuba, as in nearby villages, settlers have also targeted the water systems and solar panels we have built and are entirely dependent on, as if to remind us of our vulnerability. They are clearly taking advantage of this moment to make our lives unlivable, and we have no reason to believe that, especially during a state of war, any of the violence we are experiencing in our communities will slow or stop soon. Local Israeli authorities say they are investigating some of the more violent attacks, including the killings, but they are showing no signs of being able to control them, and in fact, government ministers are fanning the flames.
In the last five weeks alone, residents from five other villages in the South Hebron Hills have been forced to pack up and flee from their homes. If the situation doesn’t change, I worry that Tuba will be next. As a letter signed by 30 Israeli human rights NGOs recently stated: “The only way to stop this forcible transfer in the West Bank is a clear, strong and direct intervention by the international community.”
Since I can remember, life in Tuba has been difficult, but it has also always been full of beauty and calm. It is the life my family has known for generations, and the traditional lifestyle we live is deeply connected to the land around us and the animals we care for. The hillsides are stamped with our footsteps and those of our flocks, the rocks on the top of the hill neatly arranged so we can watch the sunset over the desert. But the fear we feel, in Tuba and across Area C, now hangs heavy over this landscape. I don’t know if we will be able to stand it.
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Ali Awad is a community organizer and journalist living in Tuba, in the Masafer Yatta region of the West Bank.