Turmus Aya, Occupied West Bank – At the entrance of the Palestinian village Turmus Aya, a large sign written in Hebrew, Arabic and English warns visitors that “this road leads to Palestinian areas [sic]. It is dangerous for Israeli citizens to enter”.
Contrary to the sign’s warning, it is the Palestinian residents of this seemingly tranquil area who are more nervous, specifically about the recent encroachment from the Israeli settlements that surround their village.
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Turmus Aya, home to around 4,000 people, lies in the shadow of a string of such settlers’ communities, which are illegal under international law. On a bump in the land directly to the north sits Shilo, a well-developed example, built in 1979 and home to around 3,000 illegal settlers.
Last week, tensions rose in the area, after the Israeli government confirmed that Shilo and other nearby Israeli communities would be joined by the construction of the first official settlement in the occupied West Bank in nearly 20 years. Geulat Zion will be built on a hilltop east of Shilo, to house around 50 settler families removed from Amona, an unauthorised settlement dismantled after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled it had been built on private Palestinian land.
We feel like we live in a big prison. We are under pressure from Israel here. There are no opportunities in work or education and there is no help. There will be more killing, problems and arrests.
The fertile area is known as “Emek Shilo” – Shilo Valley – and is home to dozens of Palestinian villages and towns. “The settlers and the poor economic situation here are the reason why Turmus Aya is empty,” said Rabie, a Chicago-based Palestinian who hails from the village, where many of the elegant villas appear uninhabited. “People are scared of the settlers and the army.”
Now Rabie, who gave only his first name, only visits his Palestinian home for four to six weeks at a time before returning to the United States. “The Israeli army bothers us every day. They come to my house and ask what I’m doing there. ‘What am I doing here? I’m in my house’.”
He said villagers already experienced intimidation from settlers in Shilo, and more moving to the area would make things worse. “The farmers with fields on the edge [of Turmus Aya] don’t want to go to their fields. There is no life here. The occupation tries to take everything away from Palestinians.”
According to the Israeli non-profit organisation Peace Now, Israeli authorities originally proposed the Amona settlers move to a sub-neighbourhood of Shilo, Shvut Rachel East, but they refused.
However, authorities continued to grant permission for the construction of 98 housing units at this site, before agreeing to move the Amona community to neighbouring Geulat Zion.
The Shilo Valley has seen some of the most intense expansion of existing settlements and construction of new outposts in the past 20 years, and more is in evidence. On a visit to the area this week, Al Jazeera saw between 50-100 units under construction on the lower slopes of the existing Shilo settlement on a visit to the area this week.
Human rights monitors believe the area is a key part of plans to split the West Bank into segments horizontally, from the Green Line in the west to the Jordan Valley in the east, cementing Israeli control over the occupied Palestinian Territories.
There is a lot of thought behind this location [of the new Geulat Zion settlement],” Gilad Grossman from the human rights organisation Yesh Din told Al Jazeera. “It’s strategic.”
“There are two settlement policies going on here,” Grossman continued. “There are land grabs that push Palestinians back into their villages, thereby isolating them and limiting their opportunities. And then there is building in strategic blocks that divide the West Bank, which would make the creation of a viable Palestinian state difficult.”
According to Israeli monitoring group B’tselem, there are some 125 Israeli-government sanctioned settlements in the West Bank as a whole, as well as 100 “outposts”, which are built without official approval from Israeli authorities, but are often given retrospective permission.
Under international law, all settlements in the West Bank are illegal. Some 600,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
From the point of view of Palestinians interviewed by Al Jazeera in the Shilo Valley this week, Geulat Zion is nothing new or special, but simply one of dozens of settlements and outposts that continue to creep further down the hilltops on which they perch. Whether or not the communities are officially authorised by Israel makes little difference.
Seventeen-year-old Mohannad has lived in Turmus Aya all his life and has witnessed settlement expansion first hand. “Of course, the number of settlers has grown in my lifetime here,” he said. “There are more checkpoints, more martyrs, more violence. Whenever I see a video of that violence on YouTube, I feel like I have been injured myself.”
“Palestinians have been suffering from outposts and settlements for years,” Grossman said. “Putting in another one will mean more land they can’t reach, as well as surrounding areas they are scared to go to, and more areas they can only reach maybe a couple of times a year with military approval.”
The Shilo Valley is also home to some of the most extreme settlers, according to rights groups. Yesh Din has documented over 200 “ideologically motivated” crimes committed by settlers against Palestinians in this area.
“We have documented many, many cases of crop destruction, and land grabs, and if you go as far as the village of Sinjil, even arson cases,” explained Grossman.
The density of Israeli construction is particularly noticeable around the area’s small Palestinian villages, including Al-Lubban Asharqiya, Qaryut, Sinjil and Al-Sawiya, which are surrounded on all sides by settler communities.
Matters are complicated for these four villages. Human rights monitors believe they lie on the 1,000 dunams (one million square metres) of land that the Israeli cabinet declared as “state land” at the same time as approving the new Geulat Zion settlement. Al Jazeera could not independently confirm this, although UN maps show that the villages currently lie just outside Israeli-administered areas in the West Bank.
Declaring land as state-owned under Israeli law allows authorities to legitimise three previously unofficial outposts north of Ramallah in the West Bank. But for Palestinians, it raises fears about access to farmland and security.
“The people from these four closest villages really fear the worst,” said Ghassan Bani Fadel, who works for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, a monitoring group. “One villager told me that this land was his main income. ‘I don’t have any income elsewhere,’ he said.”
Last week, Israeli army set up a temporary checkpoint at the entrance to Al-Lubban Asharqiya. Residents have not been ordered to leave, but the increasing presence of settlers in the area, as well as restrictions on movement and poor job opportunities, may force future generations out.
“We feel like we live in a big prison,” 21-year-old Mohammed told Al Jazeera, on Al-Lubban Asharqiya’s steep main street. “We are under pressure from Israel here. There are no opportunities in work or education and there is no help.” He added that the situation in the village was increasingly worse. “There will be more killing, problems and arrests,” he believed. “I don’t want to decide about the future. There will be no State of Palestine.”
The fear reaches beyond the immediate vicinity of the new settlement site in the Shilo Valley.
Khadr Ghaith, 46, who works in a quarry near the Palestinian village of Kafr Malik, feared intimidation and violence from settlers emboldened by official backing. “The Shilo Valley is very close to us here and we are afraid that they [settlers] will come down and steal from us or burn us,” he said.
“We are scared of the same fate as Duma,” he added, referring to the arson attack in 2015 that killed a Palestinian baby and his parents. “Sometimes, I stay late at the quarry in our office, maybe until 1am. If they attacked us in the middle of the night, there would be no one to hear our screams.”