After a recent increase in violence and ongoing settlement expansion, Palestinians are renewing calls for protection.
Nablus, Occupied West Bank – From a distance, the Urif Boys Secondary School looks like any other school in the occupied West Bank, built of plain cement with a Palestinian flag propped on its roof.
On closer inspection, however, the rocks scattered across the school’s protruding windowsills and the holes pierced in its water pipes reveal the ugly reality of Israeli settler violence in the area.
“Our curriculum reflects that of other Palestinian schools,” science teacher Abdel-Hakim Shihada told Al Jazeera. “But we also teach the students how to handle Israeli settler attacks on the school, including undergoing practice drills.”
In this USAID-funded school, all teachers are certified in first aid, while half of the some 200 students are certified to administer emergency medical aid.
In Abdel-Hakim‘s science class, students learn to manufacture face masks to protect them from tear gas, often shot by Israeli forces to prevent Palestinians from approaching settlers on village lands.
Israel’s Yitzhar settlement was established in the area in 1983, and like the rest of Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank, it is considered illegal under international law. Yitzhar’s approximately 1,300 residents are infamous for their frequent attacks on neighbouring Palestinian villages.
Palestinians residing in the villages of Asira al-Qibliya, Madama, Burin, Huwwara, Einbus and Urif have had hundreds of their olive trees burned by settlers from Yitzhar, while more than 700 hectares of the villages’ lands are inaccessible to Palestinian residents due to the routine settler violence, according to the United Nations.
Fawzi Mahmoud Shihada, the former head of Urif’s village council, told Al Jazeera that the attacks started when Yitzhar expanded towards the eastern part of the village, completely taking over the adjacent Salmen al-Parsi Mountain. “The settlers constantly look down on us from the mountain. It makes it easier for them to come down and attack us,” Fawzi said.
The secondary school was constructed in 2003 in the eastern part of the village. Around 23 percent of the village’s land is in Area C (PDF), which is under full Israeli military control, and Palestinian construction is mostly prohibited. As one of the closest points to Yitzhar, the school became a prime target for settlers aiming to thwart Urif’s expansion.
The school has been attacked dozens of times by settlers, Fawzi said, noting that when settlers are spotted, residents are immediately notified on the village’s WhatsApp group and a warning is blared from the local mosque.
The settlers often pelt rocks at the school, aiming at the windows and water pipes. The school must buy new pipes every few months due to the attacks, residents say.
On the roof, one of the school’s water tanks has been pushed on its side. “They like to target the water sources,” Fawzi said. The USAID-funded water reservoir next to the school has also been attacked by settlers.
“The students will be frightened,” Hakim said. “But we keep them in the classrooms, close all the windows, and lock the doors to prevent settlers from entering the building.” Students have also been trained to hide under their desks when Israeli forces shoot tear gas canisters, sound bombs and rubber-coated steel bullets directly at the school.
The constant threat of attacks has had damaging effects on the students, Hakim said, noting that many suffer from “uncontrollable urination” and have difficulty concentrating. Others are scared to the point of refusing to go to school.
Just downhill from the school, Munir al-Nuri sits on a mattress outside his under-construction house; the roof and walls are crumbling due to damage caused by settlers smashing the house with iron bars.
Nuri and his family had been living in a Red Cross tent while they constructed their home, bit by bit, over the years. Two years ago, they moved into the unfinished house in an effort to protect it from settlers, who they feared would burn it to the ground.
“The settlers want me to leave this land by any means necessary,” Nuri said, as his sons helped to lift him into a wheelchair. Both of his legs were broken during a settler attack in late April, which began after a Yitzhar resident offered Nuri a large sum of money to pack up his belongings and leave the area. He refused.
“They started to come down the mountain in groups,” Nuri recalled. “There would be 20-25 masked settlers, some of them armed, and they would just stand in the distance looking at us for hours.”
Soon after, large groups of settlers began to attack the home. In one incident, dozens of settlers chased Nuri as he fled from his home, pelting rocks and firing live ammunition. A rock struck his leg, breaking it. When he collapsed to the ground, another settler began hitting him with a steel bar, breaking his other leg.
Israeli soldiers quickly arrived on the scene, and Nuri screamed to them: “Look at my legs! Look at what the settlers have done to me!” One of the soldiers pointed his gun at Nuri, he said, and told him: “Shut up or I’ll shoot you!”
A spokesperson for the Israeli army denied this account, telling Al Jazeera in a statement: “On April 26th 2017, a clash abrupted between Palestinians and settlers near the settlement of Itzhar and the village of Urif. [Israeli army] forces reached the point in order to disperse the crowd by using means of crowd control. No weapon was aimed at the Palestinian mentioned.”
Nuri says he spent several days in hospital after the attack. “If there was anyone to charge these settlers with a crime, they would be scared to behave like this,” he said. “But they are never punished for anything they do. We are always panicked. An attack can happen at any moment.”
Any Palestinian in the occupied West Bank who files a complaint with Israeli police has a less than two percent chance of having the incident “effectively investigated, and a suspect identified, prosecuted and convicted”, said Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the Israeli rights group Yesh Din.
“[This] reflects a trend of protracted failure regarding investigations into ideologically motivated offences committed against Palestinians,” Grossman told Al Jazeera. “The fact that so few offenders are indicted, and that even among these most are not convicted, emboldens future assailants.”
Mohammad Shihada is among 50 residents who make up Urif’s neighbourhood watch – a group of volunteers equipped with night vests, flashlights, fire extinguishers and stretchers who patrol the village in search of armed settlers. It is estimated that at least 86 other Palestinian villages have been forced to develop these autonomous units to protect their communities.
“If we find settlers, we warn the rest of the village,” Mohammad told Al Jazeera. “We also treat people who are injured by settlers or soldiers and put out fires that the settlers start around the village.”
Still, residents fear that the attacks will only get worse, as the Israeli government has continued to advance the expansion of illegal settlements throughout the West Bank, and earlier this year passed legislation to legalise unauthorised settler outposts.
“In reality, we are not able to change our situation,” Mohammad said. “But we are forced to defend ourselves. Look at what the settlers are doing. Imagine what they could do to us if we didn’t face them and at least try to stop them? We would all be doomed.”