Violent Israeli settler purges of Palestinians in South Hebron Hills under Gaza war cover

‘It is hard to describe it as anything but ethnic cleansing’

By Donald Macintyre

If you wanted someone to illustrate the Palestinian concept of sumud you could have done a lot worse than Halima Jaber Nawaja sitting  in front of her house three weeks after Israeli settlers came and told her family to leave it or be killed. Sumud,  the Arabic word for steadfastness, is often used to describe the mere act of standing firm in the face of oppression. And it is a quality that radiated from this 39-year-old mother on a sunny  afternoon last November in the village of Susiya, in the south Hebron Hills, as she calmly described the night the armed men arrived to try to scare her, her husband and two daughters into leaving their home and land for good.  

The raiders had entered the house and forcibly marched  Halima’s farmer husband Ahmad and his brother Muhammed out of it before beating them and saying they had 24 hours to leave or be shot. Panicked, one of her young daughters had a nosebleed while this was going on, while the other vomited. Halima explained that while the settlers had often roamed on to their land before, this was something new.   “We can’t tend our crops; we have to keep the sheep indoors and they don’t even let us pick our olives,” she said. “But we never expected this.”  This time, at least, the threats were not carried out and the intimidation didn’t work—though a neighbouring family did leave Susiya after the raid.  Yes, said Halima, she expected more attacks. But “God willing” they would stay put.

Just one incident—and very far from the worst—in a spate of settler violence which Masafer Yatta’s mayor, Nidal Younis, explained on a recent trip to the UK, sponsored by the Balfour Project, had seriously intensified since 7 Oct. Masafer Yatta’s 19  hamlets in the South Hebron hills are deep in the West Bank, where Palestinians have herded sheep and goats for generations.  Many fall within a “firing zone” designated in the early 1980s–in theory for military training but with the real purpose, made explicit at the time by Ariel Sharon, then a minister in Menachem Begin’s government, of excluding the Palestinian population. In May 2022, Israel’s Supreme Court finally removed legal obstacles preventing the expulsion of 1000 residents and the destruction of their homes and farm buildings. 

The insecurity instilled by both the state and aggressive settlers extends across most of the South Hebron hills and their 4,000 Palestinians residents. Already denied access to the water and electricity grids available to settlers, they face regular demolitions of homes, outbuildings, water cisterns, solar panels, roads and the repeated failures of the military to prevent settler attacks.  You have to pinch yourself to remember that these relatively remote and rocky grazing grounds and arable plots are in in the heart of the  territory the world says it wants for a Palestinian state. Specifically, they are part of  the Oslo Accords-designated Area C which geographically comprises around 60 per cent of the West Bank, is under direct Israeli military control and is where at least 465,000 Israelis live in settlements that are illegal in international law and in outposts (and increasingly herding farms)  many of which are illegal even in Israeli law.  Palestinian homes are often demolished on the pretext that they do not have planning permits—hardly surprising when, in sharp contrast with those of Israeli settlers, more than 95 per cent of Area C Palestinian planning applications are rejected.

When the Israeli military arrived they focused not on the settlers but on the Palestinians

Younis pointed out on his trip  that attempts to drive Palestinians from their ancestral lands here long pre-date 7 Oct. Indeed, you only had to visit the  village of Al Mufakara after Israeli settlers had rampaged through it in October 2021 to see how. They left a trail of smashed windows, an overturned car, shattered windscreens, punctured water tanks, slashed tyres, vandalised solar panels – and six injured Palestinians, including three-year-old Mohammed Hamamda, who was rendered unconscious for 11 hours by a stone thrown through a window by a settler, which hit him in the head. The boy’s grandfather, Mahmoud Hamamda, told me that when the Israeli military arrived in force they focused not on the settlers but on the Palestinians trying to defend the village. Of the settlers shooting teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at the Palestinians, he said: “If Israel went by the law, none of these settlers would be here … and yet Israeli soldiers come with M16s and confront people like this who have no weapons.”

 The Mufakara “pogrom”, as it was described by the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz at the time, was merely a high profile part of a much wider trend which has now rapidly accelerated during  the Gaza war. Revenge for Hamas’s atrocities may have been a pretext for such attacks (on unarmed Palestinians who of course had nothing to do with them) but the purpose was the same: as ever, to drive as many Palestinians from their homes as possible, whether to the city of Yatta or elsewhere. And the Gaza war has provided a kind of cover as the world has looked away from the West Bank.

 According to the Israeli human rights agency B’tselem, 1,009 West Bank Palestinians were “forcibly transferred” between 7 Oct and 15 Feb, 2024. One such community in the South Hebron Hills was Zanuta, where all 28 families finally decided after a series of settler raids to leave en masse.  Fares Samamri, a 57-year-old shepherd, told me that their troubles had begun in earnest around two years ago with the establishment of an Israeli farming  outpost named Metarim, from which the settlers had started grazing sheep on land that had been used by Palestinians for generations. But after 7 Oct they started coming to the residents’ homes.   “They stabbed the water tanks and destroyed solar panels and threatened what they would do to us if we stayed here. The children were very scared.”

A few days after we spoke, settlers arrived with a bulldozer and destroyed much of the school, which had been attended by the community’s 40 children. A large sign on the wall of one of the classrooms had proclaimed that the school had been funded by “EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid” and listed the many countries—including the UK—which had contributed. Across the top of the plaque was emblazoned the now poignantly unfulfilled legend: “Humanitarian Support to Palestinians at risk of Forcible Transfer.”

The  Zanuta villagers had left on 28 Oct, the very date of the night-time attack on Halima Nawaja’s family in nearby Susiya— which she is convinced was no coincidence.  “After the people left Zanuta,” she said, “ the settlers wanted to do it to others, in other places.” In Susiya, as in Zanuta, a measure of international protection—and funding of essential infrastructure like solar panels—had been the residents’ only lifeline. Indeed, in Susiya it was largely lobbying—including by the US—and backing for the many legal actions brought on behalf of the residents to protect their homes against the state demolition orders hanging over many of them that were the sole line of protection. That was at least possible while the State of  Israel was the main actor; it becomes much harder now that the settlers—invariably with impunity from the state and its forces—have become the agents of what it is hard to describe as anything but ethnic cleansing. As Yehuda Shaul, co-director of the pro-two state solution think-tank Ofek-The Israel Centre for Public Affairs, put it: “Settler violence has become the driving force for forcible transfer of Palestinians in Area C”

And the attacks are on property—communal and personal—as  well as people. At Susiya, Shaul pointed to just one example:  a ruined cistern of the kind vitally important for providing water for the residents and their sheep, After 7 Oct a prominent settler from a nearby farming outpost was contracted by the military to erect a security roadblock to limit movement for Palestinians in the area. But, said  Shaul,  the settler then also took the opportunity with his bulldozer to remove the protective covers of three cisterns and fill them with earth and rubble, rendering the water supplied by them useless for anything other  than irrigation.  

The goal is to seize the territory for settlements for 3m Jews

For more than 20 years, the growth of settlements, outposts and restrictions on Palestinian movement have shrunk the grazing lands of Palestinian herders, but  “now the herding outposts are starting to choke them,” said Shaul. Backed by the use of force, the Israeli residents of such outposts are increasingly seeking to occupy the pastures with their own livestock. The farming outposts are now the front line in the settlers’ struggle for Area C.  This has been made explicit by Ze’ev Hever, of the settlement  construction co-operative Amana: “The goal is to seize the territory so that we can build Jewish settlements,” he has said, …”not only for 1m Jews but for 2, 2.5, or 3m, and that we have where to build for the future generations. Our main mission is to protect the open areas. The main method we use is the farms.”

That’s the context of the Biden administration’s sanctions on a handful of seven settler ringleaders and two farming outposts. The entry visa bans on settlers suspected of violence may not trouble them, but the targeting of the farming outposts, one in the Jordan valley and another in the northern West Bank just might—but only if systematically expanded to  the rest of the West Bank.

Because sanctions on the two farming outposts prohibit “the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of” those targeted, banks through which for the outposts pass or legitimate Israeli businesses serving them would also be exposed to US sanctions. Which means such farming outposts might struggle to be viable.

Aggressive settlers will do everything they can to reduce the impact—including resort to the Israeli courts to reverse decisions by companies freezing their business with the outposts. Moreover, the US sanctions fall well short of calling Israel’s government to account for its undoubted legal and moral  responsibility for the  relentless expansion of settlements and the violence  increasingly used to further it. 

But at least the  limited sanctions underline that there are steps that foreign governments—including but not only the US– can and must take to stop the deliberate, and often violent de facto annexation of occupied Palestinian territory. Nidal Younis’s visit to the UK to explain what’s happening to the beleaguered communities of Masafer Yatta was important for just that reason. For only international action can stop this ethnic cleansing now.  

Donald Macintyre was The Independent’s Jerusalem Correspondent from 2004-20012. He is the author of Gaza: Preparing for Dawn (OneWorld 2018). “The State of Netanyahu”, a three-part podcast which he has just made with Chloe Hadjimatheou for Tortoise Media, is currently available

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