Fury in West Bank after surge of killings by settlers

Recent disappearance and death of an Israeli teenager has sparked major reprisals in which Palestinians have died

Settler violence, military raids and an economic crisis are pushing the occupied West Bank to the brink, Palestinians say. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

Maher Bani Fadel, 56, shuffles through a crowd of men and boys, doing his best not to show any emotion as fellow townspeople utter the words no father ever wants to hear.

“May God accept your son’s martyrdom,” repeat the mostly Bedouin residents of Aqraba in the occupied West Bank.

Mr Bani Fadel nods, draws up a chair and explains the events surrounding his son’s death the day before.

With little emotion, he recounts seeing Israeli settlers attack the town. Soon after, he heard that his son Abdurahman was one of two Aqraba residents killed in the attack.

Issa, another of his sons, was severely injured and is in an intensive care unit in Nablus. Two other residents were injured and have been released from hospital.

Mr Bani Fadel's face finally cracks when he explains how he will remember his boy: “Mashallah, he was very kind. He worked in the fields as a shepherd. He loved it and loved taking care of the land.”

The Aqraba killings come after days of intensified violence between Palestinians and settlers.

On Friday, 14-year-old Israeli Binyamin Achimair was reported missing from an illegal shepherding outpost near Ramallah.

Hundreds of armed settlers spent the weekend rampaging through the West Bank in response, attacking Palestinians and vandalising property.

Achimair’s body was found on Saturday, sparking yet more attacks.

Aqraba's mayor, Salahuddin Jaber, was among the first to learn about Monday’s assault, in which residents say about 50 settlers, many of whom were armed, attacked members of the community of Khirbet Al Tawil on the outskirts of the town.

“The settlers behaved savagely,” says Mr Jaber. “They kicked the bodies. I will remember that image until the day I die. What does it mean to kill someone and then kick his body? It means you are treating them worse than animals.”

Neither Mr Jaber nor Mr Bani Fadel have the time to process fully the horrors they saw.

Two days on from the Aqraba killings, they are locked in a complex negotiation to get the bodies of the two men back from Israeli health authorities.

Yousef Direyeh, the paramedic first on scene, said Israeli police and soldiers stopped him from taking the corpses because they wanted to document what happened.

“On my way there I started hearing shooting – loads of shooting. I had to drive even faster. People were waving at me to go faster, saying there were martyrs. But as I got closer others told me to hold back because the settlers were shooting at everyone,” he explains.

The town is now furious because Palestinian officials who co-ordinate with Israeli authorities say the latter will only release the bodies after autopsies are performed, in an Israeli hospital.

Everyone The National spoke to in Aqraba is deeply suspicious of these procedures and would much prefer to have Palestinian doctors perform them.

But by Tuesday, Mr Bani Fadel, along with the father of Mohammad Bani Jame, the other victim, decided to travel to the settlement of Ariel to sign permission for the autopsies to go ahead. It is the only way they believe they can get the bodies back.

Much of the occupied West Bank has felt hopeless and dejected in the months since October 7. Increased Israeli raids, settler violence and catastrophic economic conditions are taking a heavy toll.

But on Tuesday, Aqraba was fraught with activity. Residents were driven by rage that people in the normally quiet town are so at risk of death if they go out into their fields. Small-scale farming is the only vocation that many of the families have ever known.

“We are innocent people under Israeli terrorist attacks,” Mr Jaber says, shuffling papers on his desk as he prepares to receive the governor of the Nablus region.

“The West Bank is going through what happened in America with the cowboys, and how they took land from the Native Americans,” he adds.

“The settlers are cowboys. Any settler has the right to bring his flock anywhere, build his own home and the army has to protect him. What happened on Monday is part of this bigger picture

“Where do we go in the future if this mentality becomes widespread? Could Israelis and Palestinians ever live side by side? I think it will become impossible in a few years.”

Updated: April 17, 2024, 3:40 PM