The killing of a Palestinian farmer by Israeli settlers in a northern West Bank village last month has left his family in mourning while fighting an ongoing legal battle to save their home, which is slated for demolition.
Mahmoud al-Zaal’s eight-member family live in Qusra, a village encircled by illegal settlements and outposts south of the city of Nablus.
An Israeli settler from a nearby outpost shot al-Zaal, 48, while he was ploughing his land. “He saw them approaching, and when they began to pester him, he called out for me,” Awad, al-Zaal’s son, told Al Jazeera.
“I was just 100 metres away, but when I ran back my father continued working and didn’t succumb to their threats,” the 23-year-old said. “Right after, a settler took out his gun and shot my father in the back.”
About 25 years ago, al-Zaal inherited his land that lies in Area C, where Israel maintains full civil and military control over the occupied West Bank.
Approximately half of Qusra’s territory is administered under Area C. The rest is designated as Area B, where the Palestinian Authority is only in charge of civil affairs, but security matters remain under full Israeli control.
Area C includes all of the 125 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which house more than 300,000 settlers. Settlements are considered illegal under international law.
Violence used to evict Palestinians
Al-Zaal’s family received several eviction notices, with the state claiming their two homes – one of which is under construction – lack the necessary building permits.
Residents across the West Bank, who share the same fate as Qusra’s 6,000 residents, say these building permits are impossible to obtain.
Although Area C covers more than 60 percent of Palestinian territory, less than five percent of the Palestinian population live there, facing severe restrictions on planning, construction and access to resources such as water.
“My father was always out in the field. He loved the land even more than us,” said Awad. “The settlers regularly trespass on our land to tear down our trees and crops.”
Settler violence comes in various forms; from blocking roads, vandalising cars and houses, and burning down fields and olive groves, to physical assault and arson attacks.
The perpetrators are rarely held accountable by Israel’s police.
The Israeli settlements of Migdalim and Shilo were built on land belonging to Qusra residents in the 1970s, and have since grown to border the village to the northeast and south.
Over the past two decades, three additional settler outposts were established on the village’s lands, including Esh Kodesh.
Prior to his death, al-Zaal began taking legal steps to counter the Israeli eviction notice in 2015. His death resulted in the delay of a court hearing in which he was a main witness; he had planned to testify in a bid to save his home.
According to the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), which oversees home demolition cases in Qusra and other villages that are under existential threat, the rate of settler attacks in the area is considerably high in comparison to other towns in the West Bank.
Wael al-Kut, the JLAC lawyer representing al-Zaal’s case, told Al Jazeera that he is overseeing six other demolition cases from the same village.
“Much of the village’s land has been expropriated, and this has empowered the settler community in the West Bank to carry out such attacks against Palestinian farmers and landowners,” he said.
Police and army negligence
Gilad Grossman, spokesperson for Israeli human rights NGO Yesh Din, told Al Jazeera that since 2005, only 90 out of 1,122 investigations documented by the organisation led to indictments.
This is only eight percent of the total number of documented cases across the West Bank.
As of December 4, attacks by settlers have killed three Palestinians, injured 50 and damaged property in 108 incidents, according to the United Nations Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Palestinians who are exposed to settler attacks have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of due process.
According to al-Kut, victims who file complaints with Israeli police are often harmed in the process.
“Some get their work permits revoked; others can’t even reach the police stations because they’re outside of their vicinity and they need permits to get to police stations,” he said.
“We’ve taken on settler violence cases, but in my experience, the trend is that the police always takes the side of the settlers,” he said.
“The proof is that the police immediately closed Zaal’s case without launching a proper investigation into his killing…the police showed up at the scene and determined that his death was an act of self-defence.”
Under international law, Israel is obligated to safeguard Palestinians in the occupied West Bank from persecution. But Israeli authorities have routinely breached their duty, enabling settler attacks to develop into a trend while rarely holding perpetrators responsible.
Israeli rights group B’Tselem revealed that Israeli security forces facilitate settler attacks and provide “escort and back-up and in some cases, they even join in on the attack.”
In 2011, Qusra lost another resident to a settler attack.
When a group of settlers raided the village’s farmland to damage the crops, 37-year-old Issam Badran was among the 250 residents who confronted them.
“Issam was shot above the hip and died instantly,” his wife, Samira, told Al Jazeera.
“He was shot by an Israeli soldier who was accompanying the settlers for protection,” she said.
According to Samira, her family was “collectively punished” when they decided to file a lawsuit against the soldier who shot her husband.
Those who worked inside Israel had their work permits revoked, which pressured the family into dropping the case.
‘Stark rise’ in settler attacks
Qusra has seen a stark rise in settler attacks since the early 2000s, when Israeli authorities established the Esh Kodesh settler outpost near the village, Mohammed Awad, chairperson of Qusra’s local council, told Al Jazeera.
He explained that these settlements and outposts had devoured more than 4,000 dunams of the village’s land so far. Moreover, certain areas of leftover land also became inaccessible to Qusra’s residents during harvesting season.
“My family owns land with olive and almond trees, which was confiscated for the Esh Kodesh outpost many years ago,” said Awad.
“For more than a decade, we were prevented from reaching it, and we only managed to visit the land for the first time about two years ago,” he said.
According to him, only 3,000 out of more than 9,000 dunams of land remains, while settlers continue to take over what is left of the territory.
“Settlers raid the village with weapons, while farmers have nothing to defend themselves with other than stones,” said Awad, adding that this is an attempt to seize more land, preventing farmers from reaching 500 dunams located near Migdalim.
In the midst of ongoing attacks, residents of Qusra have taken it upon themselves to protect themselves in the absence of “law enforcement”.
“People in the village do not have an official entity to protect them so the whole village is under existential threat and we regularly see settler violence cases erupt there,” explained al-Kut.
As some settler groups appear to be backed by members of the Israeli Knesset, residents formed popular committees to prevent settlers from trespassing.
However, their efforts to protect their land from settlers is “nothing,” said al-Kut. “These committees are unarmed and can’t actively prevent settler violence,” he said.
“The people of Qusra are the ones who are the most steadfast in their land.”