'If you don't leave you will be killed': West Bank Palestinians flee Israeli settlers

Violence against Palestinians from Israeli settlers is not new, but since October 7 it has only increased

Residents pack up their belongings as they leave the Palestinian village of Khirbet Zanuta in the occupied West Bank. Photo: The National
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

Normally used for farming, the tractors in Khirbet Zanuta are piled high with furniture, straw and cables as the long-time inhabitants of the village prepare to leave.

Most residents of the village in the south Hebron Hills in the occupied West Bank have already gone. Of the 27 families and 250 people, it is largely only a handful of men who remain as they finalise their departure.

On a nearby hill, perhaps only a couple of kilometres away, is a compound of sorts, with an adjoining solar farm. It is one of the many settlements and outposts set up by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law, as the Palestinian people see their homeland fragmented even more.

“The settlers came. One of them, after beating up our family, pointed a gun at the head of my father and told him 'If you don't leave you will be killed'," said Abdel Halim Al Til, 26, as he explained why they were leaving the place they have for generations called home.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not new. But Palestinian residents say the threats and pressure from settlers, emboldened by the most far-right government in Israel's history, have grown worse since the deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7.

Since then, the UN has recorded more than 170 settler-related attacks on Palestinians, hundreds of whom have been forced from their homes. Typically this happens in the so-called Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli control.

Residents of Khirbet Zanuta, which is almost entirely reliant on farming, say the past month has been the worst since the nearby settler outpost was established about two years ago.

Whereas past confrontations with settlers were largely restricted to farming and agricultural areas, now they are directly entering the village to make their threats, the villagers said.

The water system has been tampered with, farming has been affected, and pregnant sheep have become so stressed that some have delivered stillborn lambs.

"All of them come with rifles and if people try to go out of their homes, the soldiers shut the doors and beat them up," said Abdel Hadi Al Til, 40.

"Even when the guys in the village start to gather and try to protect the community, the settlers bring the soldiers and start to hit the guys on their knees and backs with rifles. They tell us: 'you move from here, or you will die here'. We tried to stay strong, but it’s impossible.”

Abdel Halim says that they are now seeing settlers dressed in military attire instead of civilian clothes like before.

"Instead of taking the land, they empty the land," says Basel Adra, a prominent Palestinian activist in the West Bank. "The most important thing [for them] is they don't see Palestinians here."

Yehuda Shaul is a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli veterans who raise awareness of abuses committed against Palestinians. He was a commander in the Israeli military for three years during the Second Intifada, including a two-year stint in the West Bank, which set him on the course he follows to this day.

"The story is not just settlers who are violent, the story is an entire Israeli system that does almost nothing to enforce the law on settlers, basically granting them complete impunity," Mr Shaul said.

He said the situation was getting worse. Whereas during his time in the military, the discourse was about soldiers standing idly by as settlers caused havoc, in the past few years it has become a case of soldiers joining in. In the past few months, especially since October 7, Palestinians cannot even tell if it is settlers or soldiers attacking them, he said.

"We are today in a reality where it's not clear any more where starts the civilian, ends the civilian, starts the military, ends the military. The military relationship is so symbiotic that it's very, very difficult to distinguish. The line is getting blurred more and more every day."

Israel has paid no heed to international calls for a halt to settlement expansion, considered a means of covert annexation of the West Bank.

"The formal annexation de jure is not happening, but what we do see is de jure annexation by a thousand cuts. It's not only de facto, de facto is already done," Mr Shaul said.

A police car pulls up to Khirbet Zanuta. Fayez Al Til, the head of the village, says that he requested a meeting with the police to ensure that the small school in the village would not be vandalised after the residents leave.

"It's a goal for the occupation government to ethnic cleanse us out of here," he said, referring to Area C.

The mayor said that almost everything new that the village has sought to build, with the exception of the school, has either not received building permission or has been demolished.

The settler attacks increased after October 7, he said.

"The settlers come with rifles, in the day, in the night, attacking people, beating them up, smashing properties, threatening them to leave or they would shoot them.

"This village has existed for hundreds of years. We are very, very sad leaving it, we don't want to. But the result of these violations, the impact on the children – they became very scared – the people here thought their safety comes first."

Mr Adra says fear is spreading across the region, that people feel alone and that life is impossible to live.

Israel "wants a small Gaza, each city, crowded with a gate. They open it, they close it", he said.

"This is the future of the West Bank."

Updated: November 02, 2023, 7:06 PM