'Settlers used to beat us - now they have uniforms': West Bank at boiling point

Palestinians in the occupied region face settler violence and displacement

West Bank Palestinians say it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between soldiers and settlers. EPA
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The occupied West Bank, long a fulcrum of Israel-Palestine tensions, is at boiling point.

It could soon become another front in the war that began on October 7, when Hamas stormed the south of Israel, killing about 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240.

In the chaos and violent crackdown that has followed, 135 Palestinians, including 42 children, have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank, the UN has said.

Their deaths have been overshadowed by the devastation, in Gaza where about 9,500 Palestinians have died, but the sharp increase in West Bank violence could portend more widespread bloodshed.

Israeli settlers in the region have also seized the best chance they have had for years to dispossess Palestinians of their land violently. They have killed eight Palestinians, including a child.

Forced displacement

As he loaded his village's modest possessions, much of it donated by the international community, Abdel Halim Al Til, 26, had little to tell the world other than the event that finally convinced him to leave the plains on which his family had been herding animals for decades.

“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.’”

Advocacy group B’Tselem says that 858 West Bank Palestinians have been forcibly transferred since the war began.

They come from 32 different communities. Thirteen of them have been entirely wiped out. The numbers do not include displacement that has taken place in recent days.

Tall order

The US, Israel’s most important ally, is pleading with the government to get a grip on the rising number of incidents, a tall order given many of its far-right ministers are themselves hardline settlers.

The director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency warned last week that settler violence could open up a second front in the West Bank.

“People often miss the point with settler violence,” Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli soldier turned peace activist, told a group of foreign journalists.

“They think it’s a few hundred or thousand mad settlers who do whatever they want to do. That’s not a deep enough understanding.

"The true story is an entire Israeli system that does almost nothing to enforce the law on settlers.”

Mr Shaul knows the people committing the crimes better than most in Israel’s beleaguered left, which for so long has struggled to convince Israelis of their contention that Palestinian rights in the West Bank are crucial to Israeli security.

Mr Shaul came from a settlement. Much of his close family still live in them and embrace their expansionist, often fanatically religious ideology.

“When I was in the military, the argument of peace activists was that settlers are violent, and the Israeli army stands idly by,” he adds.

“What we’ve started seeing in the past couple of years is settlers attacking Palestinians and that the military joins them.”

As regular troops are diverted to fight Hamas and Hezbollah, the state is now outsourcing the defence of settlements to the deeply ideological settlers.

Teenage boys, many of them young offenders, who used to beat Palestinians with sticks dressed in dusty farmers’ garb, are now turning up in military fatigues holding guns.

“What we’ve started to see in the past few months, and even more so since October 7, is yet worse. Palestinians on the ground now say it’s not clear who is attacking them: military or settlers?” Mr Shaul says.

“Half a year ago, these guys were beating Palestinians up in civilian clothes – now they come in uniform to beat them up.

“It is no longer that the army is supporting them. They are the army.”

Israeli settler violence driving Palestinians from their homes

Israeli settler violence driving Palestinians from their homes

Mr Shaul believes that the regular army who remain are deployed in a manner that makes it impossible for them to approach the situation fairly.

“If you’re a soldier on the ground, it’s us against the Palestinians,” he says.

“The settlers speak Hebrew. If you deploy to an area for months, the settlers have been there before you, so they will tell you their version of events. They will look after you and invite you for schnitzel on the Friday Shabbat meal.

“Under international law, soldiers are supposed to protect Palestinians. The order they actually receive from the command is to protect settlers.”

Palestinians are not surprised by the onslaught.

“Instead of taking the land, they empty the land,” says Basel Adra, a Palestinian activist in the West Bank who documents displacement in Area C, the part of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel.

“The most important thing [for them] is that they don't see Palestinians here.”

Activists say settler violence is just one more injustice designed to make life untenable for Palestinians.

Open front

Even in Area A, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, residents are seething at the cost imposed on them by Israel.

Ammar Abu Baker, the head of the Jenin Chamber of Commerce, told The National last week that the West Bank is already an open front of the October 7 war.

His city is arguably the centre of Palestinian resistance in the West Bank – but Mr Abu Baker is simply a mainstream local official and owner of a series of successful toy shops, who says Israel is shooting itself in the foot by depriving the people of Jenin and the West Bank an income.

“We haven’t recovered from Covid-19,” he says in a top-floor office just minutes from the entrance to the city’s refugee camp, one of the most violent areas between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We had only just left the ICU, let’s say – now, we’re back in it.”

Jenin relies on people travelling to it to shop, particularly the affluent Arab-Israeli community who typically cross into the West Bank at weekends. Those Israeli-controlled borders are now shut.

Mr Abu Baker says 6,000 Arab Israelis arrive on an average Saturday. "If each spends 1,000 shekels, that’s six million for the economy – now they’re gone,” he says.

“The front has never stopped. This Israeli government is not seeing things clearly. It is taking its people to catastrophe."

Mr Shaul hopes that the situation in the West Bank will soon register with Israel’s centre-left, but he is far from certain it will.

“The dust is still in the air,” he says. “We’ll have to wait and see whether people understand there isn’t enough army to take every hilltop in the West Bank while managing the southern and northern front.”

What is so frustrating for him about this emerging crisis is the fact Israel can take direct ownership of solving it.

Such an eventuality could require painful soul-searching about the injustices that led to today’s tensions, but that is uncertain and could depend on the postwar fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Mr Netanyahu and his hardline allies.

Updated: November 06, 2023, 7:09 AM