‘Unsafe in own home’: Israeli settlers spread terror in South Hebron Hills

Village after village is under attack, with communities forcibly displaced. But some are holding on, refusing to move.

Homes in Khirbet Zanuta dismantled as the community flees from Israeli settler attacks [Al Jazeera]

Khirbet Zanuta, occupied West Bank — Amin Hamed al-Hadhrat took a break from taking down his family’s home in the South Hebron Hills, crying. “I know in a day or two I’m going to live somewhere else, but I still can’t imagine it happening,” the 37-year-old said. “All I know is living here. All my father knew was living here. I don’t know what it is like to live anywhere else.”

This week, al-Hadhrat’s village of shepherds, Khirbet Zanuta, joined the growing swell of Palestinian Bedouin villages forcibly emptied since October 7 due to violent attacks from armed Israeli settlers often wearing Israeli military uniforms.

Khirbet Zanuta is located in the South Hebron Hills region in Area C of the occupied West Bank, which is under full Israeli military control. The founding of Meitarim Farm, an Israeli outpost located 100 metres away on the next hill, in 2021 had made life hard for the community, according to residents. Settler violence prevented the shepherds from allowing their livestock to graze.

Such attacks have escalated dramatically since October 7, say Palestinian villagers, Israeli activists and international organisations. The United Nations has said that the daily rate of settler violence incidents in the West Bank has more than doubled, up from three to an average of seven in this period. And while the Gaza Strip has borne the brunt of Israel’s devastating bombardment since the Hamas attack on southern Israel, with more than 9,000 Palestinians killed in the besieged enclave, attacks by settlers and Israeli forces have also killed more than 130 Palestinians in the West Bank.

Settlers usually come in the night, destroying water tanks, piping and electrical systems; breaking windows and cars. Most alarming to Khirbet Zanuta residents was when armed settlers began entering homes to beat Palestinian shepherds. On October 27, settlers told residents that if they did not leave in 24 hours, they would be killed.

“There’s a difference between feeling unsafe when you go grazing and feeling unsafe even in your own home,” said al-Hadhrat. Worried for the safety of their children and themselves, the community decided they must leave.

So this past week, the dusty village of 150 people took down their hardscrabble homes made of tin or stones, packing their belongings onto pick-up trucks, bit by bit. While the adults were busy packing haystacks and iron rods, sorting through flour and animal feed, a little girl sat on the barren ground, playing with pebbles. A boy attempted to pick up iron bars to pitch in. Another child simply sat on a rock, wiping tears from his eyes.

All the while, drones launched by nearby settlers buzzed above the village, surveilling the dismantlement.

Amin Al-Hadhrat [Steven Davidson/Al Jazeera]
Amin al-Hadhrat at Khirbet Zanuta [Al Jazeera]

‘We can’t sleep’

Sameh, a man in his early 40s, took a break to smoke a cigarette. His little girl, Deema, sat on his lap, swinging her legs back and forth. They were trying to stay in good spirits.

Sameh had decided to bring his family to the edge of a nearby town, he explained. “We will walk [by foot] for one or two hours over the mountains to avoid settler attacks on the road,” he said.

But each moment leading up to their departure grew heavier. “We can’t eat. We can’t sleep. We can’t think right now,” he said.

Without any specific place to go to, the community is splitting up to seek refuge in different places – and, as for recent displacements, their shepherding way of life will likely be impossible to continue.

Al-Hadhrat reminisced of spending long nights with friends on their quiet, windswept hill underneath the stars, drinking coffee and sharing stories. “It’s hard to imagine how we will keep in touch. Maybe we’ll see each other in the market or something,” he mused. His bloodshot eyes grew even glossier. “It’s so difficult to think that the community is breaking apart. I don’t think we will be able to stay in touch in a meaningful way.”

Zanouta packing with outpost in background [Steven Davidson/Al Jazeera]
The community in Zanuta packing, with the Israeli settler outpost in the background [Al Jazeera]

A domino effect

Khirbet Zanuta is only the latest Bedouin village that’s been wiped off the West Bank landscape since October 7 — and it won’t be the last. As al-Hadhrat and his community packed up, the village of A’Nizan down the road decided they would dismantle their homes, too. Though facing attacks while grazing, they had not yet received the kinds of home attacks Amin and others had endured these past few weeks. But A’Nizan’s 35 inhabitants knew that Khirbet Zanuta’s departure meant they were next in the settlers’ crosshairs.

According to the latest figures provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 864 Palestinians, including 333 children, have been forcibly displaced as a result of attacks from Israeli settlers in this period, with 11 communities fully displaced and another 11 communities at least partially forcibly transferred. Almost half  of at least 186 violent settler incidents resulting in casualties or property damage have been in the presence of, or supported by, Israeli forces. Settlers have used weapons in almost a third of these incidents.

This rate of displacement has not been seen since the removal of thousands of Bedouins from areas in the Sinai peninsula in 1972 by Israel. The concentration of forcible displacement that began in the remote area east of Ramallah has now spread to the South Hebron Hills, abutting the border between the southern West Bank and Israel proper.

Unlike the communities displaced in the area east of Ramallah recently, communities of the South Hebron Hills often live on privately owned land. They have tighter local networks, with ties to international organisations and solidarity groups, making it harder for them to be dislodged from their properties.

But settler attacks have only intensified in their bid to remove this rural yet strategically important area — which allows the maintenance of a contiguous Palestinian presence on both sides of the Green Line, which divides Israel from the West Bank.

Since the war started, many of the regular Israeli soldiers patrolling the region have gone to Gaza, replaced by settlers from nearby settlements and outposts in uniform. As Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli military commander and co-founder of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO comprising dissenting army veterans, explained, these settlers come from local regional defence units: typically the first-response teams of settlements.

“You have settlers that, half a year ago, came and beat [Palestinians] up as civilians, and now they are in [military] uniform with guns, and they come to beat you up,” said Shaul. “And you don’t know: is this part of their military assignment? Or are they just doing it in their free time?”

Soldiers enter Susiya [Steven Davidson/Al Jazeera]
Israeli soldiers enter the village of Susiya [Al Jazeera]

‘Closing their eyes’

Whatever the answer, these attacks are bringing the settlers’ longstanding goals to fruition, say activists and affected communities.

“For years, the settlers have been pressuring the state to expel Palestinians from Area C,” said Nasser Nawajeh, the spokesperson of the village of Susiya and the South Hebron Hills field researcher for Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. “Now, they are just doing it themselves. Even if the state doesn’t send them to do that, the army and authorities are closing their eyes and acting like it doesn’t happen.”

In the village of Jinba, settlers were filmed forcefully taking down the speakers of their mosque. In the village of Um al-Khair, a settler in uniform drove through the village aiming his weapon at anyone who dared to be on the street or on their balcony, demanding they go inside the house. On October 27, said Nawajeh, two settlers in military uniforms stopped a car full of Palestinians in Um al-Khair, forced them out of the car, and shot the car’s engine and its windows.

Three days later, settlers returned to the village, collecting all the men at gunpoint, forcing them to stand along a wall and checking their phones. When they saw photos of a Palestinian policeman in uniform and with a gun, they attacked him. After finding a local activist, they forced him at gunpoint to make statements against his will on film. Um al-Khair was also given a 24-hour ultimatum to vacate.

Settlers have come to the village of Tuba on different days to destroy the village’s electrical and water systems and vandalise homes. On October 30, settlers came to the village of Sfai, setting houses on fire.

While some attacks are documented with videos or photos, Bedouins across Area C describe far more incidents that go undocumented. In recent weeks, numerous accounts describe settlers and those in military uniforms confiscating Palestinians’ phones, deleting any photos or videos of settler attacks. In Tuba, settlers even set a Palestinian’s phone on fire.

Israeli activist entertaining Susiya kids [Steven Davidson/Al Jazeera]
An Israeli activist entertaining children in Susiya [Al Jazeera]

Leave In 24 Hours, or be killed

On October 28, the Bedouin village of Susiya, less than a kilometre from the Green Line, was attacked. Settlers told the villagers they must leave in 24 hours, or they would be killed.

“They basically come, they assault, they attack, and when you try to speak to them, they tell you to shut up,” said Nawajeh. “Then, before they leave, they give you the ultimatum.”

Despite the attacks and threats, the villagers of Susiya say they will remain on their land. The village has grown over the years to become a symbol of “sumud”, or steadfastness. They’ve faced physical attacks on themselves, their homes, water sources, livestock and agriculture from settlers. But they have refused to move.

That profile has brought international solidarity visits to Susiya for years, with the European Union Foreign Affairs Council declaring in 2015 that the village’s removal by Israeli authorities would be a red line that must not be crossed.

Since October 7, however, villagers in Susiya report being attacked and threatened multiple times a day — a new level of assault. Like nearly all other Bedouin villages in Area C, the army blocked the entrance to the village, preventing them from going to the nearby city of Yatta to get supplies. The contractor hired by the military to set up these roadblocks — a local settler named Yinon Levy, who runs the Meitarim Farm that violently forced the displacement of villagers from Khirbet Zanuta – decided to also destroy water cisterns and crops, while sealing a cave used by a family, according to Nawajeh. In some cases, he said, settlers in military uniforms have forced his neighbours out of their cars, confiscating their keys.

This week, a letter signed by 30 Israeli human rights and civil society NGOs, including Amnesty International Israel, B’Tselem, Haqel, Ir Amim, Kerem Navot, Rabbis for Human Rights and Yesh Din, declared that “the Israeli government is supportive of these attacks and does nothing to stop this violence”.

“The only way to stop the forcible transfer in the West Bank,” the NGOs concluded, “is a clear, strong and direct intervention by the international community.”

So far, no such intervention seems to be on the horizon. Nonetheless, the 24-hour ultimatum has passed, and Susiya still remains. Several Israeli activists have stayed with the community to offer protection and support, though they are unlikely to be able to physically resist heavily armed settlers.

Meanwhile, the villagers cherish the peaceful moments they still have. One morning this week, an Israeli woman dressed as a clown blew bubbles with a little girl to take her mind off the attacks.

Mohammad Nawajeh, Nasser’s father and village elder, looked on at the little girl playing. “Our future is here,” he declared defiantly. “We will not leave.”

Source: Al Jazeera