Duma, occupied West Bank - During the darkest hours of the night in the village of Duma, east of Nablus, Palestinian men stood guard at the edge of their village. They were waiting and watching for potential intruders.

After an attack on a family home in Duma on July 31 that killed two members of the Dawabsheh family, including an 18-month-old infant, men and boys from the village formed a neighbourhood watch group. They were wary of the presence of Israeli settlers whose land surrounds them, accusing them of "terrorist" attacks.

"The groups are following the village council, so anything that happens, they have to call, and I will handle everything," village leader Abdul Salam Dawabsha told Al Jazeera, noting that he communicates directly to Palestinian authorities on behalf of Duma.

Burned pages of the Quran lie on the floor of the Dawabsheh home, which was targeted in an arson attack by Israeli settlers [Ash Gallagher/Al Jazeera]

There is no police station in Duma, and the closest one is nearly six kilometres away. But if intruders make it into the village, Dawabsha said, he can call government officials for assistance.


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Al Jazeera patrolled with the watchmen on a recent night and agreed not to use the men's family names in order to shield their identity, as they expressed fears that they could be targeted by Israeli authorities.

At the entrance to Duma, nearly two dozen young men gathered on the road with heavy tree branches, which they were prepared to wield as weapons, and flashlights. Their work begins at 10pm and ends at 4am, before the first calls to prayer.

The night is split into two shifts to help those who have work the next morning. But most participants come out all night, every night.

"We are all brothers; we can face the [Israelis]," said Mohammed, 27, the leader of the patrol group. "If we are forced to fight, we will do it. We will not stay and sleep in our houses."

He admitted his frustration with the Palestinian Authority, saying he wished they would send a police force to assist them. The men on watch are all volunteers, and most have jobs or university studies during the day.

At another location along Duma's borders, only two young men stood on the road. Scarves covered their faces, and each held a wooden stick. Ahmed, 24, told Al Jazeera that he could not say where the other watchmen were. They were hiding, ready for an ambush.

We advise them [Israelis] not to enter our village, but if they do, they will find something they won't expect.

Ahmed, night watchman

"They have to change their places from time to time. Sometimes we see lights coming through this valley. We advise them [Israelis] not to enter our village, but if they do, they will find something they won't expect," Ahmed said.

Meanwhile, another group of watchmen sat in the village, waiting for a call from the outer groups. They were older men, but still ready for any emergency. While they waited, they drank coffee to stay awake and sat near their shops.

One of this group's leaders, 44-year-old Habib, was among the first people to enter the Dawabsheh family's home after last month's attack, and he saw the baby who had been burned to death. He told Al Jazeera that if an Israeli came to their village again, he would "break their legs. The Israelis are afraid of us, even with their weapons... If we kill them, [other settlers may] flee Palestine."

Habib walked to the western edge of the village, from where he believes the Israeli settler who burned the Dawabsheh house might have come. A steep slope from a valley up to the main road to Duma offers plenty of trees and brush to hide potential attackers. Watchmen sat out on ancient Roman ruins in complete darkness, sharing a bottle of Coca-Cola and watching for suspicious lights.

Mohammed, 55, said he did not think that killing Israelis was necessarily the answer. "We do not have any weapons; we have to use our arms and sticks," he said. "We have to capture them, not hit them. Our numbers are the most important thing. We must be stronger than the [settlers]."


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He believes the Israeli authorities hide evidence when the settlers commit crimes. "Settlers have weapons. They [the Israeli military] support them with everything."

The Israeli military spokesperson's office told Al Jazeera in a statement that "the [Israeli military] does not provide weapons to anyone living in the area". However, the statement added, there are "a limited number of [settler] citizens in the area who help maintain security for various communities. These individuals are civilian volunteers who undergo basic safety workshops". The spokesperson did not specify what types of training the workshops entailed.

In tribute to the 18-month-old child who died in the Duma arson attack, a wrapped baby bundle still sits inside the home [Ash Gallagher/Al Jazeera]

On August 10, the United Nations issued a statement noting that the "root cause of the escalating violence [in the West Bank] is the continuing policy of settlement expansion and the climate of impunity".

But Micky Rosenfeld, the Israeli police's foreign press spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that the investigation into the Dawabsheh attack is ongoing. Police "are trying to find suspects behind the incident", he said. "It's considered a high priority."

The Israeli police, according to Rosenfeld, are aware of the night-watch groups, but because they are considered local security within the village, there is no need for Israeli police to be concerned. If Israeli investigators needed to access Duma, they would coordinate with the Palestinian Authority, he added.

Meanwhile, the burned home of the Dawabsheh family has become a memorial. Graffiti adorns the baby's room, and a bundle wrapped in a Palestinian flag sits in a stroller, representative of the child who died.

Duma's watchmen say they want Israeli settlers to know that they are out and waiting to impose justice if their village is attacked again.

Follow Ash Gallagher on Twitter: @beatnik journo

Source: Al Jazeera