Settlers have a very effective system for forcing Palestinians out of their homes

Herding sheep into others' fields, preventing access to water, blocking roads, killing animals and breaking into homes in the middle of the night – these and other tactics are part of the daily terror perpetrated by settlers in Palestinian villages

Settlers prevent farmers from the village of Dalia from reaching their lands

Avishay Mohar writes in Haaretz on 1 September 2023:

About six weeks ago, all the inhabitants of Ein Samia, a Bedouin village adjacent to the ostensibly politically “moderate” settlement of Kochav Hashahar in the West Bank, left their homes. After loading all their possessions on trucks, they scattered across the territory of the Binyamin Regional Council. Last week, the residents of Qaboun, a small Bedouin village just to the north of Ein Samia, decided that they could also no longer cope with the settlers attacking them and encroaching on their land, and they too packed up and left. Another community erased.

At present, three more locales in the same area face the concrete danger of forced exile. The violence that forced villagers of Ein Samia and Qaboun to flee the place where they were born and lived their entire lives was not reported in the news. The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff did not castigate the soldiers and police officers who stood by (in the best case), or those who joined in the abuse of the Palestinians (in the usual case).

For the past two years, I have been actively standing in solidarity against the occupation, documenting the day-to-day reality of Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley, along the hilly ridges and in the South Hebron Hills. One of the most serious problems they face is the settlers’ gradual takeover of their land and resources. On the ground, it becomes apparent that the seizure of land by residents of settlements and illegal outposts, and the depopulation of the villages as a result, is being carried out by means of a recurring and extremely effective method, with the backing of the security forces. And it’s happening under the public’s radar.

Fields of trespass

Examples abound of the pasturing of sheep as a means of expulsion. A case in point is Wad as-Seeq. Almost every day, and sometimes twice a day, residents of the area near the settlement of Rimonim show up at the hamlet with their herds and let the animals graze between the inhabitants’ houses or in their fields. After a few months of this, the fields become a wasteland. Crops such as barley are decimated by the settlers’ herds, and the Palestinians, fearful of the settlers, no longer take their own sheep out to pasture, and are compelled to buy feed for them instead.

After destroying the harvest, the settlers set about fertilizing and plowing the fields, which until a few months earlier had been the source of the villagers’ income. A local resident told me about one occasion when he was away from home and his children called to say that a settler was grazing his herd in front of their house. The father told his children to leave home at once, go to the neighbors and do nothing until the settler left. On another occasion, a settler opened the door of the house and photographed the girls who were inside.

Settlers at the new outpost they created between the villages of Dalia and Qaboun

The people in these rural locales are unprotected and totally helpless in the face of the settlers. As is the case with many other communities, the police barely ever make it to Wad as-Seeq. Over the past year, other activists and I have called the police dozens if not hundreds of times to report harassment and damage wrought by settlers, and to request help, but to no avail. In most cases, the call to the 100 hotline ends with a suggestion to submit a formal complaint, and in some cases also a reprimand because the Israeli caller is visiting a Palestinian village.

If the authorities nevertheless decide to dispatch a district police officer to the site, in almost every case he will come only if the landowner himself is present and can display documentation that proves the land belongs to him. Imagine that thieves break into your rented place, but the police refuse to come until the landlord shows up with a document proving his ownership. Solidarity activists and local residents keep documenting the settlers’ incursions and the destruction of the Bedouin’s fields, call the police repeatedly and also file complaints to the Binyamin District police station. But nothing helps – the settlers continue to pasture their flocks in the fields without interruption, day after day.

If the Palestinians try to stand up for their rights by defending their land or even calling for help, they risk being targeted in revenge attacks by settlers, or being taken into custody by the police or the Israel Defense Forces.

For example, on July 20 in Kafr Malik (north of Kochav Hashahar), an elderly farmer was harvesting his barley crop when a settler brought his herd into the same field. When the farmer tried to drive the flock off his field, the settler summoned reinforcements, in the form of some 15 youths armed with clubs, who attacked the man and other Palestinian farmers who arrived on the scene. They broke a finger of the elderly farmer, stabbed him with a key and stole his ID card and the keys to his house and car. Another elderly farmer had his arm broken in the melee. Soldiers who were at the site before the altercation started did not intervene, and the police, as usual, refused to send a vehicle and directed the farmers to submit a complaint.

In the days that followed, the settlers returned to the same fields to pasture their flocks.

Scattering flocks

One of the favorite pastimes of settlers in the area in question is driving away and scattering the Palestinians’ flocks. Whether with the aid of an all-terrain vehicle, a drone or even by charging into a field with an infant on their shoulders – they prevent the Palestinians’ sheep and goats from grazing. The settlers decide arbitrarily on an area that they say is off-limits to Palestinians, and drive off anyone who enters the now-restricted zone. Even though in many cases the settlers themselves live in outposts that are illegal under Israeli law, and don’t have a single document to prove ownership of the land, the army generally backs their decisions. Soldiers themselves have been known to chase away Palestinians’ flocks in areas where they have no legal justification for doing so.

Almost every day in the northern part of the Jordan Valley, near the outpost of Havat Emek Tirzah, Palestinian communities confront settlers who try to scare their sheep away. They do this by driving all-terrain vehicles wildly into the animals – in some cases ramming and killing them. As a result, the Palestinian shepherds have resorted to pasturing their animals ever closer to their home, thereby significantly reducing their grazing area. By now some of the shepherds have become so traumatized that even the noise of an all-terrain vehicle in the distance is enough to prompt them to move their animals.

In one case an activist who tried to protect a herd in just such an instance was himself rammed and injured – and in the wake of that incident, the police arrested the activist. In another case, near the village of Auja, north of Jericho, two Palestinian children managed to down a drone that was being used to scatter their flock. Activists say the two were arrested and jailed for several months on a charge of causing property damage; they also were forced to compensate the owner of the drone. Not only do the police refrain from protecting Palestinians who are assaulted, they also apparently prevent them from defending themselves and punish those who try to do so.

Preventing Palestinians from pasturing their sheep in this way compounds their plight and interferes with an entire cycle of life: Normally, shepherds move their flocks from place to place on a seasonal basis, to let the pastures become replenished. Proper grazing actually enhances this regrowth, because the animals “prune” the vegetation in a way that encourages renewal. However, because the settlers often force the Palestinians’ animals into small areas, overgrazing ensues. The sheep end up eating the roots of the plants, preventing their regeneration. Gradually, the area in which the Palestinians are “forbidden” to take their animals start to thrive, whereas the places where they are “allowed” to pasture their animals becomes arid – and the shepherds are forced to buy additional feed.

A resident of the deserted village of Qaboun dismantles his home

Cutting off water

In Wad as-Seeq, residents depend on multiple cisterns dug long ago, for themselves and for their animals. But as in the case of the fields, the settlers have also seized control of these water sources. Since creating an outpost nearby about eight months ago, the settlers have denied the locals access to the cisterns, and they have no recourse but to purchase water. The result is that the villagers are compelled to buy water from the nearest town. Every day they mount a container on a trailer and travel by a roundabout route – the shortest way passes next to the outpost and is therefore effectively blocked to the Palestinians – to buy water at a cost of 120 shekels ($31) per single tank. Yet just a few dozen meters from their homes, on land that is their own, is a cistern full of water.

Last winter, just to the east, in the Bedouin village of Muarrajat, settlers threw sheep carcasses into the few water holes that were created by rains, poisoning the water. In a separate incident, in the village of Maghayir al-Abeed in the South Hebron Hills, shepherds watered their flocks from a cistern on their land, which abuts the outpost of Havat Maon. Before long a group of club-wielding settlers, some of them masked, attacked the shepherds and drove them away. The following night, soldiers entered the village and arrested two youths; the person on whose land the cistern was located was also taken into custody.

Incidents like these make it patently clear to Palestinians that there is no way for them to effectively resist the settlers who are embittering their life. They also realize that no one in the Israeli security forces will protect them from the marauders – perhaps they will even help them.

In addition to the constant fear of these threatening and sometimes violent neighbors, the combination of ruined crops, reduced grazing areas and lack of access to sources of water has precipitated an economic crisis among these Palestinian communities. The shepherds are being compelled for the first time to sell off many of their animals in order to pay for water and feed for the remaining ones. The cost of feed for a relatively small number of animals can be as much as 300 shekels a day. A shepherd from the South Hebron Hills told me that he estimates the damage caused by settlers this year to his fields to be 20,000 shekels.

These communities, whose economic state was never good, to say the least, have been forced into a vicious circle: increasing costs of water and food for their animals; cultivation of crops most of whose harvest ends up serving the settlers; and ever-diminishing flocks.

Blocked roads

Another method by which settlers and the IDF inflict harm on Palestinians is by blocking the roads to their villages. About a month ago, a new settler outpost was established between the communities of Qaboun and Dalia, east of Mughayir. Shortly afterward, we accompanied farmers as they attempted to make their way to their land to work it. Some 20 armed settlers blocked the road and refused to let us pass. After a while some soldiers showed up, but they claimed that their duty was to protect Jews. They said they would allow Jewish activists to continue on their way – but not the Palestinians. The soldiers added that if the villagers were to come with us, they would not protect us from the settlers.

One of the landowners who was not able to reach his land that day told me that a shepherding community used to live in the area, which was bustling and lively. Today there isn’t a soul around, only the cows belonging to the residents of the new outpost, grazing on Palestinian-owned land.

It’s the same story in the hamlet of Bir al-Idd, near the outpost of Havat Talia in the South Hebron Hills. Settlers have regularly blocked the road to the tiny village, by means of earth spilled from trucks, rocks they hauled by tractor or simply by terrorizing Palestinians they see along the way. Activists from Ta’ayush Arab-Jewish Partnership tried many times to clear away the barriers erected by the settlers, but in vain. The road was blocked anew very time. Finally, unable to cope with the acts perpetrated by the settlers, the inhabitants of Bir al-Idd left their homes. Today, as in Dalia, Qaboun and Samia, their village is deserted.

The access road into Wad as-Seeq is also blocked today, and residents are forced to enter by a roundabout route. Not long after the outpost next to it was established, a group of Palestinians, traveling in a small convoy, tried to use the road but were quickly blocked by two vehicles belonging to the settlers. One of the settlers fired shots at the Palestinian drivers, who fled for their lives. Since then the road has been for Jews only.

Terror by other means

Residents of West Bank outposts and settlements see to it that their Palestinian neighbors live in constant fear, in some cases by resorting to what seem to be pathological acts, cognizant of how weak and fearful the harassed communities are, cowed and unable to lift a finger against them.

In the past months, almost every Shabbat, settlers from the Malakhei Hashalom (“Angels of Peace”) outpost entered the village of Qaboun to terrorize the inhabitants. On many occasions they broke into homes armed with rifles and wearing military attire, to carry out “searches.” They opened drawers, broke dishes, ransacked closets and stole the mobile phones that might have been used to film the invasion. One night the settlers sent up a drone that sounded a strident alarm above the village; another time they placed carcasses of sheep at the entrance to the village school.

Settlers have perpetrated similar acts in Wad as-Seeq as well. They entered Muarrajat in the middle of the night and scattered poisoned sausages between the homes of the village. In the morning, five dogs belonging to local residents were found dead. One villager told me he just managed to stop his toddler son from eating one of the sausages. On another occasion a settler from a nearby outpost showed up on a tractor and stuck a carton containing a dead puppy near one of the houses.

The peril of resisting

Perhaps the reader will now be wondering how abuse at such levels passes without a response. The answer is quite simple: In most cases, a Palestinian who tries to stand up for his rights will only suffer more.

When Qosai Jammal Mi’tan tried to defend his home in the village of Buqa against an incursion by settlers last month, they shot him dead. The first time residents of Umm Safa went out to their land after an illegal outpost was erected on it, settlers arrived at the entrance to the village, opened fire at houses, torched one house and a few cars, and attacked the villagers. When Hamudi Fuad Albaid burned tires in protest against the outpost, he was shot to death.

When residents of Burin arrived on their land to plant olive trees, they were attacked with clubs and stones, and their cars were torched. When Ali Harb went out to a field in which settlers wanted to establish an outpost, he was stabbed to death. When Saleh and his brother tried to remove a flock of sheep from their field in the South Hebron Hills, Saleh was attacked with a club and pepper spray and evacuated in an ambulance, and his brother was arrested. When Harun Abu Haram tried to hold on to a generator that soldiers wanted to confiscate, he was shot in the neck and totally paralyzed; he passed away two years later. When Bassem and his brother were herding sheep on their land below an outpost in the South Hebron Hills, they were attacked by settlers, after which soldiers arrived and fired teargas at them before arresting them.

Unable to expect justice or protection, the Palestinians do the simple calculation whose results can be seen on the ground. Community after community is fleeing in terror of the settlers and making their way to a place where they hope they will not be targeted. The population transfer and ethnic cleansing of Area C in the West Bank proceeds apace.

The author is an anti-occupation activist in the West Bank.

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