‘We’re on the edge’: Palestinians terrified by Israeli settler violence

Mobs of Israeli settlers attacked West Bank Palestinian villages recently, raising people’s fears for their safety.

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are living in fear as armed Israeli settlers attack them, their families and homes in vengeful acts of violence which could uproot hundreds of Palestinians from their lands, residents said.

The latest round of settler violence began shortly after a 14-year-old Israeli boy was found dead in the illegal settlement outpost of Malachei HaShalom, an area Palestinians are prohibited from entering.

The Israeli army said the boy was killed in a “terrorist attack” but has not provided evidence. Since then, the army has supported Israeli settlers as they attack Palestinian villages, injuring and expelling many.

“We’re terrified… Most people are trying to leave the town or to [go to] other countries if they have other citizenships,” said Hind*, a 25-year-old living in Deir Dibwan, east of Ramallah.

Widespread violence

The recent settler attacks are part of a broader wave of violence which has heightened since Israel’s devastating war on Gaza. The war, which began in response to Hamas’s surprise attack on Israeli military outposts and communities on October 7, has killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians.

Armed settlers and the Israeli army have also killed 460 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since October 7, while uprooting hundreds of people from their lands.

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“They’re attacking civilians and displacing Palestinians from the river to the sea. They are trying to terrorise us and kick us out any way they can,” said Hind.

On April 13, Israeli settlers spearheaded a large-scale attack on the village of al-Mughayyir where they killed one Palestinian man and injured 25 others.

Since then, settlers have attacked more towns and villages near Ramallah including Bukra, Deir Dibwan and Kfar Malik, all in proximity to the illegal outpost the 14-year-old settler was from.

Abbas Milhem, the executive director of the Palestinian Farmers Union, told Al Jazeera that farmers are trying to resist by simply staying on their land.

A farmer was abducted from Kfar Malik on April 14, he continued, and settlers also entered the town of Ayn el-Helwa to destroy tents, steal goats and expel families.

“Farmers are just resisting with their naked chests in front of settlers who are acting as criminals because they are shooting to kill.”

The violence risks mass unrest that could lead to even more deadly violence against Palestinians, experts and residents told Al Jazeera.

Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, said settler attacks against Palestinians are a form of state-sanctioned violence.

He added that while some Western countries have imposed sanctions on some occupied West Bank settlers, more needs to be done to hold Israeli officials accountable.

“It’s important not to just focus on individuals who have carried out the violence but also on the officials that have created the culture of impunity for settlers and, in some, cases facilitated armed settler violence,” he told Al Jazeera.

Israel’s National Security Minister Ben Gvir, a settler and Jewish supremacist, has played a significant role in encouraging attacks on Palestinians. Shortly after October 7, he distributed semi-automatic rifles and other weapons to settlers and far-right Israelis.

These weapons, Milhem said, are now being used to gun down Palestinians.

“The plan is to empty the lands of Palestinian farmers by increasing their attacks. The attacks have jumped from two a day before October 7 to about 12 to 13 attacks per day,” he said.

Going unnoticed?

The uptick in settler violence is flying under the radar due to the ongoing war in Gaza and the recent standoff between Israel and Iran, according to Omar Raman, an expert on Israel-Palestine with the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a think tank in Doha, Qatar.

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“We shouldn’t diminish what is happening there, it’s just been overshadowed by the sheer devastation in Gaza. But Israeli settlers and soldiers are acting with reckless abandon, attacking people and property,” he told Al Jazeera.

“There is also a genuine concern [among Palestinians] in the West Bank that what is happening in the Gaza Strip could extend to them if [Israel] has a pretext to do it.”

Hind from Deir Dibwan said she has not left her home for days and lives in terror for herself and her family. Palestinians, she feels, have nothing to protect them.

In fact, Palestinians are frequently criminalised for defending themselves from state-sanctioned settler attacks.

They fear arrest by the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority, which cooperates with Israel on security matters and has resulted in a crackdown on activists and political opponents deemed threatening.

Since October 7, Israel has arrested more than 7,350 Palestinians from across the occupied West Bank, many without charge, taken captive for writing innocuous posts on social media that express sympathy with Palestinians in Gaza or for raising Palestinian flags.

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While the sweeping arrests have terrorised Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Hind said people are more scared of encountering settlers.

“Every day [Palestinians] leave their houses, they think, ‘Maybe it’s my turn [to be attacked]’,” she told Al Jazeera.

Boiling Point

Hind believes a Palestinian uprising could explode if settler violence persists.

“It could happen at any time,” she said.

The Palestinian uprising was the Intifada in September 2000 following the collapse of an internationally backed peace process, derailed in large part due to Israel’s ongoing illegal settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

Nearly 5,000 Palestinians were killed in the Intifada, in protests or clashes with the army, and some 5,000 homes were demolished.

Despite fear of repression, Milhem, who heads the Palestinian Farmers Union, expects the impunity for the attacks by Israeli settlers to eventually lead to new Palestinian resistance.

“If things continue as they are, then Palestinians will have no choice but to fight back,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We are on the edge of an explosion.”

Source: Al Jazeera