'They injured us, no matter our age': West Bank settlers target remote Bedouin communities

Hundreds have had to flee their historic homeland this week, as violent settlers exploit international distraction of the Gaza war

Palestinians pray in the Bedouin town of Rahat in Israel's southern Negev desert. AFP
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Only 90 kilometres from Gaza and its border with Israel, on which the world's attention is now fixed, Abu Bashar, a 48-year-old Bedouin, is explaining how events of the last week have affected his previously quiet rural existence.

“The settlers and the Israeli army attacked us, fired at us, beat us, arrested and expelled us,” says Abu Bashar, who has spent the past five decades tending sheep on the vast rocky plains around Wadi Al Sik in the occupied West Bank.

“We ran away some 10 kilometres, under the olive trees. Since then we’ve been out, unable to go back to get our clothes, our possessions, our food or our vehicles – they took our cars. They took everything. We only managed to take some of the animals,” he says.

“The settlers are sitting in our homes, they’ve closed the roads and sat inside. They took the kids’ clothes and their food.

“Since Thursday we’ve been talking to [Israeli authorities] to try to go back just to get our food but they refuse to help us.”

Until last Thursday, Abu Bashar and his community tended their flock over a vast area with views of some of the Middle East’s most impressive valleys stretching as far as the eye can see. But now he suddenly finds himself confined to a tiny, fenced-in plot of land in the shadow of an Israeli watchtower, after violent settlers forced him to flee on Thursday.

His people, the Bedouin, are mostly indigenous to the Negev Desert, from where many were displaced after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. They are semi-nomadic and earn a living largely from agriculture and animal herding. There are about 40,000 in the occupied West Bank.

The English word “Bedouin” comes from the Arabic “badawi” a desert dweller.

Away from the gaze of the world's media, Abu Bashar says illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank have been taking the opportunity in recent days to accelerate the process of displacing people such as him, a practice that has been going on for years.

The Bedouin elder, wearing a dark fedora, still has a commanding presence in the barren and unlit room that is now home. It is filled with members of his community who sleep on uncovered mattresses that line the edges of their refuge.

When we arrive, men and boys shuffle plastic chairs into a circle and hastily pour coffee without the elder even having to ask.

Their eyes are trained intently on the newcomers but their leader looks only towards the door, vacant and dejected.

“The children are homeless. Their hands are bruised,” Abu Bashar says.

“They injured us, no matter our age. Three people are still in hospital.”

Bedouin shepherds such as Abu Bashar, known for their fierce independence and self-reliance, have been fleeing their land at an accelerating rate in recent years.

UN monitors say settler violence is the primary reason. Three incidents of this kind have happened daily against Palestinian herders so far this year, compared to an average of two per day in 2022 and one the year before.

Now, with the usual observers preoccupied, the Bedouin are suffering even more.

Even the centuries-old Bedouin commitment to autonomy, mobility and independence is no match for the current Israeli threat.

Abu Bashar is helpless but still determined that international observers and journalists see the remains of his former home, a patchwork of pens for animals and tents for herders. However, now it is too dangerous for him to accompany them.

Instead, he referred us to a nearby Bedouin camp that has so far been spared displacement. “From there you can take pictures of where we used to live,” he says.

The Bedouin of this second community are protected by a deep valley, dotted with caves in which Abu Bashar’s predecessors sought shelter from the cold and rain with their flocks.

From the vantage point, the elder’s friend, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, gestured across the chasm to where his neighbour used to live.

What remains of Abu Bashar’s old encampment is now an eerie scene. The settlers did not even bother to cover up their crime. It was a swift operation, so efficient that the tents of its displaced victims are still standing, flapping in the wind.

It was an attack most likely organised by illegal settlers on social media. Since Saturday’s war began, members of these increasingly aggressive groups appear to be seizing a perfect opportunity.

The world is distracted: diplomats cannot leave Jerusalem or Ramallah for fear of their own safety in the mounting chaos, and journalists are preoccupied by the war in the south.

On Friday, one post in a settler WhatsApp Group instructed members to: “Keep your eyes open … Liquidate every Arab that comes in the direction of a settlement!”

“Are you ready for war?” the author asked.

Allegra Pacheco of the West Bank Protection Consortium, an NGO that supports Palestinians, told The National that in the past few days about 400 Palestinians have been forced to leave their homes to flee to safer areas.

This recent wave of dispossessed Palestinians are primarily in Abu Bashar’s situation. They are unlike the Palestinians of Jerusalem or Hebron, who try to resist the settlement project inch by inch in densely packed urban areas.

They are a rural kind, who wish to cling to their property and land not only for nationalist symbolism but most of all to keep the ancient Bedouin way of life in the Palestinian Territories.

Now, in his small lot, over which the concrete Israeli watchtower looms, Abu Bashar could not have clearer proof that his community is losing the fight. And apart from Israelis, no one else is watching.

Updated: October 31, 2023, 1:38 PM