‘Nowhere is safe’: Fear and mourning inside the West Bank villages where Israeli settlers went on the rampage

‘Nowhere is safe’: Fear and mourning inside the West Bank villages where Israeli settlers went on the rampage

It’s a decades-old power imbalance: when a teenage Israeli shepherd was killed, Palestinians living nearby paid a terrible price, as settler violence reaches alarming new levels

By Bethan McKernan and Sufian Taha (in al-Mughayyir, West Bank), reposted from The Guardian, April 20, 2024

EDITOR’S NOTE: Not long before the death of the Israeli shepherd, Israeli soldiers  had shot dead a Palestinian shepherd at point-blank range. Media reports largely ignored this fact.]

Early on Friday 12 April, 14-year-old Binyamin Achimair gathered the sheep at Gal Yosef farm, an Israeli outpost in the occupied West Bank, taking them to graze before Shabbat began at sunset. He never came back.

When the flock returned without him, the Israeli army and police launched a massive search. Around 24 hours later, the boy’s body was found by a drone and Israeli officials deemed his death a terrorist attack.

But settlers in the area did not wait to find out Achimair’s fate before seeking revenge. That Friday afternoon, and the day after, the nearby Palestinian villages of Beitin, Duma and al-Mughayyir were attacked by hundreds of armed Israelis in an unprecedented episode of settler violence that left 17-year-old Omar Hamed and 25-year-old Jihad Abu Aliya dead and another 45 people injured. Eighteen were shot with live ammunition, including a 17-year-old girl who was shot in both legs.

On Monday, around 50 settlers attacked Aqraba near Nablus, killing Mohammed Bani Jame, 21, and Abdulrahman Bani Fadel, 30. During the rampages, roads were blocked, 60 homes and businesses and more than 100 cars were torched, and hundreds of sheep were killed or stolen, according to first responders and rights groups.

In al-Mughayyir, a fire engine that came to extinguish the blazes on Saturday was also attacked, causing the firefighters to flee. The fire engine was later set alight. Video taken by journalist Mohammed Turkman in al-Mughayyir shows Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers on foot, as well as armoured patrol vehicles, doing nothing to stop the attacks. The IDF did not respond to the Observer’s requests for comment.

West Bank villages under attack
West Bank villages under attack (The Guardian Interactive Map)

During a visit to al-Mughayyir and Beitin on Thursday, villagers were still reeling from the weekend’s events, scrubbing soot and smoke from ruined homes and using a forklift truck to remove burned-out vehicles.

Several men who tried to repel the settlers by throwing stones were bandaged or limping from gunshot wounds, and traumatised children, now living in the overcrowded homes of relatives, were unusually quiet.

Mohammed and Rania Abu Aliya, a young couple from al-Mughayyir expecting their first child, were stoical, joking about their narrow escape.

When settlers began streaming down the hills surrounding the village, Rania fled to her parents’ house, while Mohammed stayed to defend their home and the family’s mechanic business downstairs.

Five armed men, all masked, tried but failed to force entry to the flat upstairs, then set fire to the auto shop instead.

One approached Mohammed after he succeeded in putting out the blaze, put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger: it either malfunctioned or was not loaded.

They returned on Saturday, this time successfully burning down the repair shop and throwing molotov cocktails through the second floor windows.

Mohammed Abu Aliya, 25, looks out from his torched home at al-Mughayyir.
Mohammed Abu Aliya, 25, looks out from his torched home at al-Mughayyir. (Photo)

“If you don’t laugh, you will cry,” said Rania, 24. Her hands and sandalled feet were black with ash and soot after days of cleaning up the fire damage upstairs. “An engineer came to look at the house and said it is not safe, but we have nowhere else to go. Where would we go? Nowhere is safe from the settlers.”

Settler violence is not a new phenomenon across area C, the 60% of the West Bank under Israeli civil and military control. Many of the 700,000 or so Israelis who have moved to the territory and East Jerusalem since the occupation began in 1967 are motivated by what they see as a religious mission to restore the historical land of Israel to the Jewish people.

Settlement communities are viewed as illegal under international law, and one of the biggest obstacles to a two-state solution to the 76-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Outposts such as the farm Achimair was working at are settlements considered illegal under Israeli law as well.

Because of the calcifying peace process, and a steady shift to the right in Israel politics, land seizures and violent attacks in area C aimed at forcing Palestinians to abandon their homes have worsened over the past few years. The election of leading far-right figures from the settlement movement to Israeli government and cabinet positions at the end of 2022 marked a turning point that was quickly manifested in an unprecedented attack on the town of Huwara in February last year.

Since 7 October, settler violence across the West Bank has intensified, displacing entire villages for the first time, and the IDF conducts raids on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad cells as well as local brigades in Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarem on a near-nightly basis. Some 466 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in the past six months, among them armed fighters, as well as 13 Israelis, including two members of Israel’s security forces.

The fresh grave of 17-year-old Omar Hamed, shot dead by settlers at Beitin.
The fresh grave of 17-year-old Omar Hamed, shot dead by settlers at Beitin. (Photo)

The rapidly deteriorating situation in the West Bank has largely been overshadowed by the devastating human toll of the war in Gaza; the import of even last week’s eye-watering violence was blunted by the simultaneous outbreak of the first direct hostilities between Israel and Iran.

But Israeli settlers in the West Bank are better organized, better armed, and operating in greater numbers than ever before, to the point where they now resemble de facto militias operating with near impunity. Only 3% of police files opened regarding settler violence since 2005 have ever ended in conviction; many of these same perpetrators are now wielding automatic M16 rifles following a decision by Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to loosen restrictions on weapons permits for Jews in the aftermath of 7 October.

In the past six months, the US and EU have sanctioned individuals implicated in settler violence and pro-settlement sources of funding and support, a rebuke to government figures such as Ben-Gvir who are fanning the flames. Until the Hamas attack last year and ensuing war in Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was so low down the international agenda that such a move was unthinkable. But so far, the violence in the West Bank is only getting worse.

At the Hamed home in Beitin, the parents and four brothers of Omar, the 17-year-old who was shot in the head by settlers on Friday, were mourning the loss of the youngest member of the family. His last school assignment, an unfinished carpentry project, sat by the front door.

Ahmed Hamed, with a picture of 17-year-old son Omar, killed by Israeli settlers.
Ahmed Hamed, with a picture of 17-year-old son Omar, killed by Israeli settlers. (Photo)

Omar was playing video games at his aunt’s house when settlers began to surround the entrances to the village on Friday evening, and went to the main road leading to Beitin with about 20 other teenagers and men in an attempt to stop about 50 settlers from entering. One of the Israelis fired a single shot into the crowd, said Ala Hamed, 43, a cousin who was there. In the darkness and chaos, no one realized immediately that the boy had been hit.

“They send scouts first now, sometimes they wear army uniforms and they use cars with Palestinian license plates. It is clear that they are getting more organized. Every time is worse than the time before,” said Omar’s father, Ahmed, 53.

“I am optimistic that the more aggressive the Israelis get, the more the world will turn against them. What I worry about is what will happen before then.”


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