The menace lurking in Palestine’s beautiful green spaces

Settlers are violently blocking Palestinians from accessing the green spaces of the occupied West Bank.

An armed settler is seen in Jibiya's forest
Settlers who reside in so-called 'farm outposts' and try to push Palestinians out do not act alone, writes Abukhater, their actions are fully supported by the Israeli state and its armed forces [Sharon Aronowicz]

To the northwest of Ramallah, near the village of Jibiya, there is a large, green space that has long provided Palestinians living in the area a rare escape from the hustle and bustle of the dense population centres of the occupied West Bank.

In recent years, however, Palestinian families visiting this forested space for picnics and nature walks started to be harassed and pushed out by armed settlers backed by Israeli soldiers.

According to locals, the harassment began some four years ago, after settlers established an illegal “farm outpost” in the area. The outpost, called Havat Zvi, is supposedly for cattle herding but, in practice, serves to keep Palestinian locals and visitors from freely accessing the green spaces of Jibiya.

Over the past few years, a few incidents of settler violence in Jibiya’s forest made it into Israeli newspapers. In February 2021, Haaretz reported on a Palestinian family with Israeli citizenship being ejected from the area by soldiers after facing harassment from settlers. A few weeks later, a similar incident was reported where settlers harassed another Palestinian family, demanded to see their ID cards despite having no authority to do so, and pressured them to leave.

In October of the same year, my friend Noor was targeted by settlers as she tried to enjoy a Friday picnic with three others in the forest. She told me that, just as they started eating, a settler emerged from the bushes, pointed an assault rifle at them, and demanded they “leave immediately”. She said the settler followed them for six whole minutes, with his rifle pointed at them, as they rushed out of the forest.

And last year, after reading and hearing stories like these for months, I got to experience the menace lurking in Jibiya’s beautiful green spaces myself.

In late November, I travelled to Jibiya with a group of journalists and volunteers to assist and document a Palestinian farmer’s olive harvest. Less than half an hour after the olive picking began, eight armed settlers, backed up by four Israeli soldiers, surrounded us. The settlers accused us of “causing trouble” by attending the harvest and demanded that we leave. As they failed to make us move from the land officially owned by the farmer accompanying us, the masked settlers went up a hill and started throwing stones at us. They also smashed parked vehicles belonging to farmers, journalists and volunteers who came there for the harvest.

As I sought cover from the stones thrown by settlers, I fell off a ledge and impaled my leg on a metal rod. Thankfully, I managed to reach my car and escape the scene without sustaining more serious injuries. I later learned that a total of 11 vehicles were seriously damaged by settlers that day.

It is important to note that Israeli soldiers were present throughout the masked settlers’ attack on us. They chose not to intervene because they were clearly there not to keep the peace, but to provide cover for the violent, immoral and illegal actions of the settlers.

Indeed, settlers who reside in so-called “farm outposts” like Havat Zvi and try to push Palestinians out do not act alone. Their actions are fully supported by the Israeli state and its armed forces.

B’Tselem detailed how Israel allows settlers to live on farmland stolen from Palestinians to legitimise and expand its illegal settlement enterprise in a 2021 report titled State Business: Israel’s misappropriation of land in the West Bank through settler violence. The report explains how these farm outposts, despite being unauthorised under Israeli law, thrive with the help of Israeli authorities.

“Israel has ordered the military to defend the outposts or paid for their security, paved roads, and laid down water and electricity infrastructure for most of them,” the report states. “It has provided support through various government ministries, the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization and regional councils in the West Bank.”

Since 2010, at least 65 illegal “farm outposts” have been set up in various locations across the West Bank. And, according to the B’Tselem report, just four of these outposts took more than 20,866 dunams (2,086 hectares) of Palestinian land between 2016 and 2021, by “employing systemic violence and terror”, aided and protected by the Israeli military.

In February 2021, in an incident that is emblematic of settler and state behaviour, residents of the illegally constructed Sde Ephraim farm outpost in the occupied West Bank shot and killed an unarmed Palestinian man local to the area. Settlers claimed the man they killed, named Khaled Nofal, trespassed onto their (illegally occupied) land and tried to break into their home. Despite there not being any evidence of an attack beyond the testimonies of the settlers, the military quickly accepted the break-in story and branded Nofal, a tax clerk for the Palestinian Authority and father of a four-year-old girl, a “terrorist”. There has not been any further investigation into the incident and the settlers who shot Nofal in cold blood remain free to this day.

Last Friday, Israel’s parliament swore in Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, inaugurating the country’s most far-right, religiously conservative government to date. Under this new extremist government, settlers are expected to speed up their continuous theft of Palestinian lands and attacks on Palestinian locals.

Indeed, to convince Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power Party to take part in his coalition, Netanyahu promised the new government would legalise (under Israeli law) dozens of illegally established outposts within its first 60 days in power. Furthermore, he agreed to hand over Israel’s administration of the West Bank to another far-right partner, Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, which seeks not only to legalise all outposts but also to stop all Palestinian construction in Area C of the occupied West Bank. All this means that under the new government, we will likely witness not only the formation of many new “farm outposts” but also an unprecedented increase in the demolition of new and old Palestinian properties in the occupied West Bank.

The beautiful forests and fields of Jibiya are symbolic of what Israel has stolen and continues to steal from us, Palestinians. Violent settlers, who feel entitled not only to our lands and properties but also to our lives, are constantly growing in number and power thanks to the support they receive from Israel’s occupation forces. They are hell-bent on taking everything that is ours and confining us to dense, suffocating population centres that serve as prisons.

But they will not win. The fields, forests, rivers and lands of Palestine are our home and we are not going anywhere – no matter how menacing the settlers, or the state that feeds them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.