West Bank Palestinians return to rubble after Israeli settlers ravaged their homes

After the body of 14-year-old Binyamin Ahimeir was found, an army of settlers descended upon a nearby village and set fire to cars, homes and other property. Residents are now trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, expressing a lack of trust in the authorities meant to protect them: 'We don't even have protection from the Palestinian Authority'

Mohammed Rashid Dawabsheh’s home in Duma after the attack, April 2024

Hagar Shezaf reports in Haaretz on 16 April 2024:

The road that passes by the Malachei Hashalom settlement, close to where the body of Binyamin Ahimeir was found, looked like the set of a war movie on Saturday. The ad hoc war room that security forces set up to search for the 14-year-old boy was still on the side of the road, and in the background, thick black smoke rose from the nearby villages of Duma and Al-Mughayyir.

Settlers had rioted through the villages after receiving news that the boy’s body had been found. Defense officials assess he was murdered in a terrorist attack, given that his body had signs of violence and a knife and stone were found nearby.

On Sunday morning, the area still showed signs of the settlers’ rampage, which had taken place for many hours on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath. A stone barrier still standing, which according to residents was made by settlers during the attack on Duma in an attempt to prevent Palestinians from entering the area and helping the victims. More stones were placed at the village entrance, which residents had put there in order to prevent the entry of soldiers or settlers.

Ibrahim Dawabsheh, a local resident, said he saw dozens of settlers entering Duma on Saturday, some among them dressed in IDF uniform. The village council counted five homes that had completely burned down, while another seven suffered partial damage from arson.

Additionally, 15 vehicles, a chicken coop, agricultural implements and structures were destroyed, and around 40 sheep and countless chickens were killed, according to the council. The council head, Hussein Dawabsheh, estimated the damage to be around 3.5 million shekels ($950,000).

Ibrahim said that he and his family hid in their home for about two hours, while the settlers rampaged in the streets. After they saw that the settlers had left, the parents took their four children and fled toward the village center, where the women and children slept while the men defended their homes. “They tried to do what they did to Sa’ad and Riham Dawabsheh, but not just to one family,” he noted, referring to the triple murder that Amiram Ben Uliel committed in Duma in 2015.

One of their neighbors, Murad Dawabsheh, expressed great sorrow over his book collection, which was destroyed when his home burned down. “There were religious, poetry, and history books here,” he said. “Everything is gone.”

Murad Dawabsheh’s burned books in his home in Duma, April 2024

Murad said that rioters put clothes and other items at the entrance of his home and set them on fire. “Smoke started getting in the house, so I waited until I heard them go and went out to extinguish it,” he recalled. “They also set alight another building that had clothing closets inside. They burned everything, even the shoes.

Abir Dawabsheh, 39, said that she fled in her car with her children when she saw settlers heading in her direction. “My husband called his brother and told him: ‘Come get them, come get them’,” she recalled.  “We saw them from every direction. They were armed, and one of them fired at the car. I crouched down with my children while we were sitting inside. We live on the second floor for safety’s sake, and we have double-pane windows, but we have no security. I saw the homes in the area starting to go up in flames. It was very scary.”

Her husband, Mohammed Rashid Dawabsheh, said that he stayed at home and tried to block the entrance gate with a big wooden beam. Afterward, he said, he went up to the second floor and hid there, moving between rooms to avoid being noticed. He asserted that a number of military vehicles were parked near the entrance to his home the entire time, but the security forces didn’t prevent the rioters from carrying out the attack. Instead, they served as a blockade to prevent residents from trying to leave their homes and defend themselves.

“Many locals don’t intend to sleep here in the coming days,” the council head said. He stressed that, like many other villagers, he sees the Israeli government as responsible for these criminal acts. One of the Abir and Mohammed’s neighbors even decided to leave their home, located near the village entrance, and permanently move closer to the village center.

In the case of Mahmoud and Anwar Salawdeh, both their homes were completely burned down during the attack. On Sunday, 27-year-old Anwar stood in the middle of his torched home holding his cellphone, showing pictures he had taken of his home, which had been renovated just before the riots. “I built this home alone,” he recalled. “I started it in 2020 and began saving money even earlier than that.”

“When I saw the situation here, I was in shock that it happened,” he said, adding that he was working in the central West Bank town of Anata when the arson attack happened. He only managed to return home that Sunday morning.

Mahmoud, a relative who lives in a building together with his brothers and parents, said that they had just enough time to flee the house before settlers arrived and burned it down. “They brought straw and wood to set it afire,” he said while showing the remains of the incendiary material.

“I finished renovating that house two months ago,” he said, adding that he went 100,000 shekels into debt to fix it up. “Now I’ll have more debts,” he said, stressing that he and his brother haven’t worked for over six months since the war began. Until the start of the war, he worked in Israel, as well as in a workshop below his apartment, which also burned down in the arson attack.

“They want to destroy the Palestinian village, and the Palestinian Authority doesn’t protect us,” he added. When asked whether the Israel Police came to investigate the damage, he responded with a mixture of laughter and demonstrable disdain. His lack of faith in the Israeli authorities and his tendency to believe conspiracy theories lead him to claim that the murder of Ahimeir was staged. “It’s all propaganda to expel us,” he said.

Duma is considered a relatively quiet village, but like other villages in the area, its residents are embroiled in conflict with nearby settlers. When the war began, Bedouins from the adjacent shepherding community of Ein Rashash moved into Duma.

The Bedouins said they decided to move after October 7 out of fear of increasing violence by the settlers, who constantly harassed them until this point. According to them, the settlers came from the Malachei Hashalom settlement, where the murdered Israeli youth Ahimeir had lived.

Like many other agricultural outposts established in the West Bank in recent years, young Israeli boys come to live in Malachei Hashalom to work and volunteer, sometimes to shepherd. The proximity of Duma to the settlement aroused suspicion both within Malachei Hashalom and the security establishment that residents of Duma may be connected to his murder.

A burnt tractor in Duma, April 2024

On Friday, a search for Ahimeir was conducted in the village. The army commandeered two homes overnight on Sunday, according to the council head, and interrogated residents for several hours. He said that no one was arrested in the end, and the entrance to the village was reopened Sunday morning.

During a visit by Haaretz on Saturday afternoon, as the riots were still going on, a number of settlers could be seen leaving the village toward the main road where soldiers and Border Police officers were stationed.  The settlers then got in their cars and drove off. No law enforcement officer present tried to detain or ask them if they’d been involved in the riots.

In contrast to Duma, riots in the neighboring village of Al-Mughayyir had started on Friday, before Ahimeir’s body was even found. A local resident was shot to death, and the council head, Amin Abu Aliyaa, asserted that a settler had killed him.  The army initially took responsibility for the shooting, but a military source later told Haaretz that they were investigating whether the shooter was a soldier or a settler.

On Saturday, riots broke out again in the Al-Mughayyir, after settlers were seen descending on the village from the direction of a hill that cuts between it and a number of illegal outposts in the area of Shilo.  Al-Mughayyir council officials estimate that around 15 homes were torched, as well as many vehicles.

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