On the Ground

Beatings, threats at gunpoint and fleeing in terror: Inside the most aggressive West Bank land grab in 50 years

Bel Trew visits villages in the occupied West Bank and hears harrowing tales of settler violence in which Palestinian families describe being forced from their homes – in what human rights groups say is the single biggest land grab since Israel captured the region in 1967

Friday 10 November 2023 15:58 GMT
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<p>The six-year-old son of Ali Arrara, who has not stopped crying since the family were forced from their land at gunpoint</p>

The six-year-old son of Ali Arrara, who has not stopped crying since the family were forced from their land at gunpoint

The man in Israeli military uniform sliced off Mohamed’s clothes with a knife, urinated on him, and then, after relentlessly beating him, tried to rape him with a stick. He details the assault that took place in the village of Wadi al-Siq, about 20 miles northeast of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

Mohamed Mattar, 46, a Palestinian activist and humanitarian, had come to this Bedouin community to assist 30 Palestinian families that lived there. They appealed for help as attacks by Israeli settlers across the occupied West Bank had surged and become dangerously violent in the aftermath of Hamas’s brutal attack in southern Israel on 7 October.

There were reports that armed settlers were planning a “cleansing day” in retaliation for the attack by Hamas that killed 1,400 people. And so on that day – 12 October – panicked families in Wadi al-Siq, who had already been subjected to multiple terrifying armed raids, decided to evacuate. With Mohamed’s help, they began loading the cars up, but before they could successfully leave, two pickup trucks arrived, packed with armed settlers and men in military uniforms.

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Mohamed says the men – he identifies them as a mixed group of Israeli police, soldiers, and settlers in military uniforms – forced those gathered to empty their bags at gunpoint, and found kitchen knives among their belongings. Mohamed says they accused him of planning to stab one of them.

“They took me and two other men deep into the village so that no one could hear our voices. And then they took turns to hit us one by one for two hours,” Mohamed tells The Independent while showing photos of his injuries immediately after the attack, and of the scars that still crisscross his body. He was blindfolded, and his hands were bound by metal wire, which has left permanent gouge marks on his wrists.

He says one of his assailants – who he believes to have been an Israeli settler in military uniform – then cut off his clothes with a knife, sprayed him with water, urinated on him, and started beating him savagely with sticks and a rifle.

Mohamed Mattar, 46, shows the injuries he sustained in the assault

“My attacker lost his mind – he started jumping on my back to break my spine, like he wanted to disable me. He kept shouting, “All Arabs should die. All who don’t die should go to Jordan,” Mohamed says.

Then the man tried to insert a stick into Mohamed’s anus, he says. “I fought him hard to get him off my back to stop him from assaulting me like this. He broke the stick into three pieces by beating me.”

In the end, after multiple calls were made to the Israeli military, a commander intervened. Mohamed was released and remains wounded weeks later.

But the 30 families, comprising 180 people including 25 children, were forced to flee their homes despite having lived in Wadi al-Siq for more than three decades.

“They told us at gunpoint we had to leave,” says Ali Arrara, 35, a father of five, speaking from a tent in an olive grove in a nearby town where he is now camping with the other displaced families.

“I wanted to take the medicine for my immunocompromised three-year-old daughter from the fridge, but they wouldn’t even allow me to do that.

“They destroyed the fridge and the medicines in front of me,” he adds.

The children now live in fear, and cannot stop crying. Behind Ali, one of his sons, a six-year-old boy, is in floods of tears.

“My older daughter, who is four years old, was so scared. Now, whenever she sees a car or pickup truck, she screams ‘They are coming,’” says Ali.

The story of Wadi al-Siq is not an isolated one. The occupied West Bank is fast “boiling over”, according to the UN, whose top officials have repeatedly raised the alarm. They fear a spillover risk from Gaza, which could open another front in this already devastating war.

Ali Arrara, 35, by a tent in an olive grove where his family is now camping

Around 450,000 Jewish settlers now live in the occupied West Bank, which is home to around 3 million Palestinians. The settlements – which range in size from hilltop caravans to sprawling commuter towns – are built on land captured by Israel in a 1967 war, and have been steadily expanding. They are illegal under international law, and are often cited as the main obstacle to peace, and to a two-state solution involving Palestine.

International and local rights groups say that “state-sponsored settler violence” has long been on the rise, and is used, alongside building restrictions and the strangling of access to amenities, to force Palestinians off their land. Most of this action is concentrated in Area C (where Wadi al-Siq is located), which makes up two-thirds of the West Bank. As laid out in the second Oslo Accord of 1995, it is under Israeli civilian control.

But these attacks, and land grabs, have accelerated in the month since Hamas’s brutal massacre, which Israel has responded to by ferociously bombing Gaza.

The United Nations says that since 7 October there has been a sevenfold increase in settler attacks on West Bank Palestinians in comparison to two years ago. “In nearly half of all incidents, Israeli forces were either accompanying or actively supporting the attacks,” says the UN’s humanitarian office, OCHA.

This year was already shaping up to be the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank in 20 years. That is now more true than ever. According to OCHA, in the last month, Israeli forces and settlers have killed 158 Palestinians, including 45 children. Three Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians. Fifteen people have been killed by Israeli forces in the last 24 hours alone in Jenin city and the refugee camp located there.

Against the backdrop of violence, the UN says that almost 1,000 Palestinians – like the inhabitants of Wadi al-Siq – have been displaced from their lands in the last month alone. (An additional 162 people, half of them children, are displaced because Israel has demolished their homes.)

Israeli human rights groups say this is the single biggest land grab since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, and likely amounts to the war crime of forcible transfer.

“This government is using the fact that all eyes are on Gaza right now to promote its agenda of taking over more Palestinian land,” says Roy Yellin of Btselem, an Israeli rights group that has documented the forced displacement of 15 Palestinian communities across the West Bank since 7 October.

“State-backed settler violence is one of the tools in this forced displacement. The threats are concrete: armed individuals threaten them with weapons and tell them they have 24 hours to leave. The inhabitants of Wadi al-Siq left without their belongings.”

The Independent has asked the military about these incidents, along with several others that have been caught on camera. The Independent spoke to one man who appeared in a video that showed eight Palestinian men blindfolded, bound on the ground, and partially stripped in Yatta, around 35 miles (55km) south of Wadi al-Siq. The man confirmed that the incident had taken place, but said he was too upset to talk about it.

Another disturbing video that surfaced online last week, also reported to have been filmed in Yatta, shows several men in Israeli uniform dragging a group of naked Palestinian workers on top of each other. One of the men in uniform kicks one of the Palestinian men in the face. The Independent has been unable to verify the video.

The Israeli military said: “The conduct of the force that emerges from the footage is deplorable and does not comply with the army’s orders. The circumstances of the incident are being examined.”

The military added that the conduct of the individuals who appeared in other videos “is not in line with the IDF’s orders”.

They did not comment on the actions of the individuals wearing military uniforms who attacked Wadi al-Siq on 12 October or the other communities whose members spoke to The Independent.

A man points towards Wadi al-Siq from the location where families have now been forced to stay

The military said that the main body responsible for handling claims for law violations by Israelis is the Israel Police, and that the Palestinians should file a complaint with them.

“When IDF soldiers encounter incidents of violations of the law by Israelis, and especially violent incidents or incidents directed at Palestinians and their property, they are required to act to stop the violation and, if necessary, to delay or detain the suspects until the police arrive at the scene. IDF soldiers are instructed to act as follows,” the military added.

But the levels of violence have even worried Israel’s closest allies. US president Joe Biden has unsuccessfully lobbied Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to rein in the violence from settlers. US secretary of state Antony Blinken said this week that Washington had repeatedly “made very clear our concerns about extremist violence in the West Bank”.

“We’ve heard the Israeli government make commitments on dealing more effectively with that, and we’re watching very closely to make sure that that happens,” he said recently.

In a letter to Britain’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, has also raised his concerns about the “sharp increase in violence and displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank”.

Since the Hamas attack in October, he said, “there has been an increase in recordings of instances of settler violence, threats, and intimidation against Palestinian communities – with homes vandalised, water supplies cut, livestock stolen and civilians threatened at gunpoint”. He added: “As the occupying power, Israel has obligations under international law that it must uphold.”

Rights groups say the biggest concern right now is the fact that settlers feel emboldened, with hate against Palestinians having surged since 7 October. It comes as the Israeli government is trying to sign settlers up to the military, and to new civilian rapid-response teams in the occupied West Bank, in the wake of the Hamas attack.

Abu Mohamed Suleiman, 52, who was forcibly displaced from Ein Rashash

The national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir – a far-right pro-settler politician – has gone as far as to announce that his ministry is purchasing thousands of rifles to arm these new militias.

Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli daily newspaper, has reported that the military intends to recruit settlers aged between 27 and 50 who have not undergone military service.

“The recruits are expected to undergo accelerated basic training for three weeks, after which they will be armed and stationed in the settlements,” the paper wrote, adding that since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, the IDF has handed out some 8,000 weapons to regional defence battalions in the West Bank.

Concerns over the mass arming of settlers have prompted the US into action. On Tuesday, state department spokesperson Vedant Patel said that Washington had sought assurances from Israel that a new shipment of US rifles, including M-16s, would only go to government agencies and not to civilian rapid-response teams.

“We have heard from the Israeli government that they are going to make a commitment on dealing with extremist violence more effectively,” Patel said.

For the Palestinians, it is extremely frightening. Rania Zuwahara, 43, who has 10 children, is among 85 villagers who were recently forced out of their home village of Ein Rashash, close to Wadi al-Siq. She says that residents have long dealt with attacks from settlers, but their “fear is 10 times worse after the war”.

She says her community was threatened with armoured bulldozers and men with rifles multiple times before the final attack took place a few weeks ago. The villagers are now scattered across a number of locations, and they have no idea where they will live in the long term.

“This was our land for 33 years and we were evicted from it at gunpoint. It is a hellish feeling you can’t explain. We lived in fear every day,” says Rania. “It is so obvious what they [settlers] are doing – they have been trying to do this long before the war, but they are pushing forward 10 times as hard.”

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