Israel’s settlers on the rampage in Masafer Yatta threaten to obliterate Umm al-Khair

The Balfour Project’s Lara Bird-Leakey reports on the latest settler raids in the South Hebron Hills and the imminent erasure of a Palestinian community

The worst day ever in Umm Al-Khair. The Israeli occupation forces are destroying people’s homes. So far, they have destroyed four houses. They are still in the village and continuing destroying, they are leaving the people homeless, pray for the people and spread the word.”

This morning, 26 June, I awoke to messages from the Balfour Project’s friend, Owdeh Hathaleen, describing the demolition of homes in his West Bank village, Umm al-Khair, in the Masafer Yatta area of the South Hebron Hills. The descriptions of their homes being stormed and raided by settlers is one which Owdeh shares almost daily, but on this day they were accompanied by the fear that this is the beginning of the end.

Owdeh is a teacher and journalist in Umm al Khair, a Bedouin village, which, with the rest of Masafer Yatta, is within Area C, and specifically, within firing zone 918 – a vicinity which the Israeli Supreme Court decided in 2022 could be used as an Israeli Army (IDF) military training zone. This means that Palestinian settlements and communities can, under Israeli law, but not of course under international law, be destroyed, and the people displaced and rendered homeless. The demolitions are often accompanied and enforced with severe levels of settler violence, indiscriminately targeting men, women and children.

The previous day, Owdeh and I had spoken on the phone about how the situation in Masafer Yatta had become a lot quieter since October 2023. He was talking to me about his plans for a summer camp for the local children – most of whom have not been able to attend school for the best part of a year, as their school was demolished and travel between villages deemed too unsafe.

Yet what is now clear is that the weeks of relative quiet were in preparation for a more concerted and systematic drive for ethnic cleansing and state sanctioned forced displacement. This morning, 26 June, the Israeli settlers, fully armed and dressed in military uniforms, surrounded the village of Umm Al-Khair and set about demolishing the community tent. They have so far torn down four houses, with an apparent mandate to destroy 25. If or when this happens, more than a third of the village’s inhabitants will be left homeless.

In February 2024, the Balfour Project brought Owdeh to London alongside Nidal Younis, the Mayor of Masafer Yatta. The objective of the week’s tour was to ensure that the voices of Palestinians living under the illegal occupation were at the forefront of policy makers’ minds in the United Kingdom. We met Lord Ahmed, Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and urged the Government to impose further sanctions on Israel’s settlers beyond the three individual sanctions that the UK Government has already enforced – a good start, but not enough to dissuade the Israeli regime.

The latest news we have had from Owdeh this afternoon (July 26) is that tents have been confiscated, cameras taken off residents, and two young men arrested and taken away.

At the beginning of June 10 IDF soldiers raided the village without notice.

Settlers have taken sheep and goats and beaten shepherds.

Settlers with dogs raid homes and attack children in the night.

Men and women are taken and arbitrarily held, often by settlers, beaten and tortured by settler gangs, and then abandoned in the middle of the desert.

Since October 2023, more than 550 Palestinians, including at least 133 children, have been killed by Israeli military or settlers, in the Israel-occupied West Bank.

Last month, and ominously in view of the future of the Occupied Territories, most especially the West Bank in this case, the Israeli army Civil Administration has handed over additional control to the Settlements Administration, led by the far-right Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich. This gives further powers to the settlers to systematically enforce the regime of apartheid and annexation. For the people in the West Bank – for Palestinians like Owdeh and his family –  this means that settler expansion is easier than ever and the threat to their communities and life is constant, detrimental and harrowing.

There are very clear obligations under the Geneva Conventions and international law that occupiers cannot, and must not, move Israel citizens into occupied land. The Israeli Supreme Court confirmed this in 2005, yet it has done nothing to stop the construction of illegal settlements on stolen land. In fact, the number of settlers has grown to over 700,000 in the West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem, an increase of some 34 per cent during the past 14 years. At the time of the Oslo Accords, 30 years ago, the combined settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was about 270,000.

The Israeli occupation has been recognised by the UK Government as prolonged, and therefore illegal, but no consequences have been enforced, or action taken. Rather, in February 2024 the UK Government representatives at the International Court of Justice contested the Court’s jurisdiction in its current case considering the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation in Occupied Palestine. Neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party has made any pledges regarding the West Bank in their manifestos, and the silence on Gaza has been deafening throughout this general election campaign.

The election in the UK right now might feel entirely separate from the daily fear felt by Owdeh and his community. But in reality, the willingness of the international community to roll over and allow Israel to continue to conduct itself with impunity is clearing the way for the slow genocide of Palestinians in the West Bank. Given the weak stance of both major UK parties regarding the ethnic cleansing and collective punishment in Gaza, it is hard to see how they will enforce the changes necessary to prevent the continued apartheid in the West Bank.

After the news from Owdeh this morning, the Balfour Project contacted journalists and representatives from human rights monitoring bodies. Though there was genuine desperation, and with the full knowledge that this action today plays a part in the wider annexation, apartheid and illegal occupation of the Israeli authorities, we were told that this could not be a breaking story as it is merely another day in the life of Palestinians in the West Bank. As parliament is currently not sitting, there is little that UK Government officials could do, even if they wanted to. The best we can do is to ensure that civil society, politicians and the public are aware.

Please share far and wide, the people in Umm al-Khair – Owdeh and his family – feel alone and unseen as their communities and lives are wiped off the map by Israeli settlers in less than a day’s work.

Lara Bird-Leakey sits on the Balfour Project Executive Committee and alongside her work as a Senior Researcher in Foreign Affairs and Defence in Westminster, is completing her PhD at King’s College London. In February 2024 she coordinated the Balfour Project’s advocacy tour to the UK, with the Mayor of Masafer Yatta, Nidal Younis, and Owdeh Hathaneen, and remains regularly in touch with them both.  
This story from Umm al Khair speaks for itself. The elderly are without homes, children without shelter in the summer heat. The Israeli persecution of these West Bankers will continue. Click here to access a fundraiser by Jonah Karsh, a friend of Umm al Khair, who is directing money to the Centre for Jewish Non-Violence, who can get money directly to the community (they have no banking system).


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