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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Hannah McCarthy Mohammad Nawajeh, who already left his land once before in 1948, says: “Our future is here..we will not leave.”

The West Bank 'Settlers have been pointing guns at Palestinians, telling them to stay inside'

Journalist Hannah McCarthy meets one community from Susiya as settler violence uproots Palestinian communities across the West Bank.

FRESH MOUNDS OF earth and rocks block the dirt track leading to the Palestinian village of Susiya which lies in the southern Hebron hills of the occupied West Bank.

The roadblock was recently ordered by the Israeli military and it means that the Bedouin shepherding community living at Susiya now cannot access their homes by car.

Resident Nasser Nawajeh says that an Israeli contractor from a nearby illegal outpost installed the roadblock under the Israeli military’s order, and while he was at Susiya he also destroyed several of the community’s water cisterns and a field growing crops.

palestinians-watch-damage-after-an-israeli-military-raid-in-tulakrem-refugee-camp-in-the-west-bank-on-tuesday-nov-7-2023-ap-photomajdi-mohammed Alamy Stock Photo West Bank violence: Palestinians watch damage after an Israeli military raid in Tulakrem refugee camp in the West Bank, 7 Nov. Alamy Stock Photo

The playground by Nawajeh’s home in Susiya is empty and few people are outside that morning. “Settlers have been pointing guns at Palestinians and telling them to stay inside and not graze,” says Nawajeh, who is also the South Hebron Hills field researcher for Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. On 13 October, an Israeli settler shot Nawajeh’s brother-in-law in the stomach.

Darkness descending

Since 7 October when Hamas launched its brutal surprise attack on Israel, there has been a dramatic escalation in the level of violence being experienced by Palestinian Bedouin communities in the West Bank.

9F6A1510 Hannah McCarthy Mohammad Nawajeh, who already left his land once before in 1948, says: “Our future is here..we will not leave.” Hannah McCarthy

Nearly 1,000 have been forced to leave their homes in the past three weeks, according to the UN. Yehuda Saul, an Israeli human rights activist and former Israeli soldier, says that this is one of the largest displacements of Palestinians from their land in decades.

9F6A1508 Hannah McCarthy Yehuda Saul is an Israeli human rights activist and a former Israeli soldier. Hannah McCarthy

“In the past, we were used to being attacked by settlers in the fields but now they come in uniform in the middle of the night into our homes,” says Nawajeh. “They put guns to our heads, attack the family, and give you an ultimatum that in 24 hours you either leave or we kill you.”

Susiya is just one of 19 Palestinian hamlets in the Hebron hills known as Masafer Yatta. One Palestinian from a neighbouring village in Tuba, who didn’t want to disclose his name for fear of reprisal, described how two days previously five masked settlers entered his house in the middle of the night while his family were sleeping. They searched his home, took his phone and his wife’s and threatened his family including his two daughters aged 7 and 9 with guns.

The masked men then took him from his home and beat him. After the beating, they told him that he had 24 hours to completely leave his house and if not, they’ll come back and they’ll shoot him. “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said, “This is my land and my home.”

9F6A1520 Hannah McCarthy The residents of the nearby village of Zanota who are packing up to leave after increased violence since 7 October. Hannah McCarthy

Since the 7 October, many of the attacks and intrusions into Palestinian homes have been conducted by settlers wearing Israeli military uniforms. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel has total control in Area C of the West Bank including over planning permission and security. This means that Israeli police are responsible for enforcing the law against Israeli settlers; while the Israeli military enforces the law against Palestinians. According to UN data from September, the follow-up rate in four out of five Palestinian communities where residents had filed police complaints about settler violence, was just 6%.

Pushed out

The line between who is a settler and who is a soldier has become increasingly blurred in the West Bank since the start of the war. “You have settlers that, half a year ago, came and beat up Palestinian civilians, and now they are in [military] uniform with guns,” says Shaul. “When we call the police today when we are attacked by a settler in military uniform, the answer of the police is that ‘it’s military operations and we don’t intervene in those,’” says Nawajeh.

Thirty Israeli human rights groups declared in a statement last week that “the Israeli government is supportive of these attacks and does nothing to stop this violence. On the contrary: government ministers and other officials are backing the violence and in many cases, the military is present or even participates in the violence, including in incidents where settlers have killed Palestinians.”

ruins-at-the-susya-or-susiya-archeological-site-which-bears-remains-both-of-a-5th8th-century-ce-synagogue-and-of-a-mosque-that-replaced-it-west-bank Alamy Stock Photo Ruins at Susiya archeological site which bears remains both of a 5th–8th century CE synagogue and of a mosque. Alamy Stock Photo

Nawajeh says: “What’s happening is that the settlers are taking advantage of the fact that all the attention is on Gaza and that the blood is boiling and the tensions are high, to speed up the transferring of Palestinians from the entire of Area C.”

Many of the older residents of Susiya are refugees who were forced to leave their homes in 1948 when it was included in the territory of the newly formed state of Israel. They joined family members living in the long-standing Palestinian village of Susiya.

an-israeli-border-policeman-passes-a-tear-gas-grenade-to-another-as-palestinian-israeli-and-foreign-peace-activists-look-on-during-a-protest-against-the-israeli-intention-to-demolish-the-west-bank-vi Alamy Stock Photo File photo, 2012: Israeli police as Palestinian, Israeli and foreign peace activists protested Israeli intentions to demolish the West Bank village of Susiya, near Hebron. Alamy Stock Photo

“There’s a very long history and years of legal diplomatic political battles to remain in the land,” says Yehuda Saul. “If Susiya falls no where in the West Bank is safe for Palestinians.” Today, Susiya receives support from the West Bank Protection Consortium, a coalition of EU countries including Ireland NGOs which fund projects for communities in Area C of the West Bank at risk of forcible displacement. The Irish Aid logo adorns one of the buildings in Susiya.

The village of Susiya has been demolished and forcibly transferred several times before. In 1986, the original site of Susiya was declared an archaeological site after an ancient Jewish synagogue was found there during excavations. In 2001, the residents were forced out from their new site after an Israeli settler was killed nearby. Then in 2011, there was a series of demolitions of homes in Susiya on the basis that they lacked permits for the structures from the Israeli authorities in Area C.

southern-hebron-mountain-the-ancient-synagogue-of-susya Alamy Stock Photo Southern Hebron Mountain, the ancient Synagogue of Susiya Alamy Stock Photo

Each time though, the community has somehow returned to Susiya, despite the lack of basic infrastructure and permission to build proper houses and community buildings.

Meanwhile, illegal settlements have expanded in Area C, where some 450,000 Israelis live in what is deemed Palestinian territory under international law.

Some of the local settlers living around Susiya come from Afrikaaner communities in South Africa and were originally Christian but converted to Judaism and moved to the occupied West Bank in the 1990s. (According to Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, a spiritual leader of the country’s Small Jewish Communities Association, an average of five Afrikaner families convert to Judaism every year and South Africa’s rabbinical courts actively encourage them to move to Israel once they have completed the conversion process.)

Incidents of settler harassment and violent attacks have been regularly documented by residents of Susiya using video cameras and phones. But since 7 October, settlers and Israelis in military uniform have begun confiscating – and even burning – Palestinian phones and deleting photos. Now, Nawajeh says, “The worst violence is not videoed.”

Supporters from Israel

 Several Israeli activists have been staying at Susiya as a form of so-called “protective presence” for the Palestinians against increasingly violent and armed settlers. However, even they have become targets: on 25 October, a settler fired shots towards Israeli activists helping to protect communities in the South Hebron Hills.

“I started coming here a year ago and then I got very connected with the girls here,” says Az-Oolay, an Israeli clown from Jerusalem while entertaining two children from Susiya. “So now I come down where there are things happening.” The clown’s full character name is “Az-Oolay Yehiye Yoter Tov”, meaning “then maybe things will be better” in Hebrew.

9F6A1503 Hannah McCarthy Az-Oolay's full character name is “Az-Oolay Yehiye Yoter Tov”, meaning “then maybe things will be better” in Hebrew. Hannah McCarthy

Az-Oolay first began making appearances at anti-government protests in Jerusalem, believing the presence of a clown would challenge the heavily militarised security and help people see through hardened divisions in a city which both Israelis and Palestinians see as their capital.

9F6A1485 Hannah McCarthy The Israeli clown Az-Oolay playing with two girls from Suziya. Hannah McCarthy

Three Israeli soldiers arrived at Susiya and Az-Oolay greeted them. The soldiers are unsure how to respond to the clown wearing a helmet adorned with flowers and hearts and armed with a long stick for blowing bubbles.

They video her before leaving, with Az-Oolay following from behind and waving them off. “I want to send them love too,” she says before returning to entertain two young girls from Susiya.

9F6A1500 Hannah McCarthy Az-Oolay greets three Israeli soldiers who arrive at Susiya. She's staying as a form of protective presence. Hannah McCarthy

Perhaps the most important thing protecting the community at Susiya is their “sumud,” a Palestinian term for perseverance and steadfastness. Nasser’s father, Mohammad Nawajeh, who already left his land once before in 1948, says: “Our future is here… we will not leave.”

Hannah McCarthy is a journalist based in Beirut.