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Living under the Threat of Settler Violence in Masafer Yatta

Masafer Yatta – The gentle breeze sweeps over the lush hills of [Location Unspecified], situated south of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, on a crisp spring morning.

Ibrahim, a Palestinian shepherd hailing from Wadi Jheish, guides his flock of sheep out of their enclosure. With a sun-kissed complexion and a distinguished white beard, Ibrahim scans his surroundings with vigilance, aware of the imminent threats looming over him and his animals.

Just the day before, a group of Israeli settlers, clad in military attire, accosted him while he was herding the sheep with his son, accompanied by his wife and daughter. Recounting the harrowing experience, Ibrahim reveals, “They aimed their rifles at us, forced us to lie down on the ground, and struck me in the back with the butt of their rifles,” his voice tinged with evident anguish.

While his sheep peacefully graze on the verdant grass adorned with spring blooms, a military watchtower stands ominously in the backdrop, a mere hundred meters from the hamlet of Wadi Jheish where Ibrahim and his family reside, symbolizing the pervasive [Unspecified Symbolism].

“Prior to the conflict, there were challenges, but we could freely access most of our land. However, immediately after 7 October, the settlers erected this tower and commenced attacking us whenever we grazed our livestock, aiming to seize our grazing territories,” Ibrahim disclosed to The New Arab.

“This situation epitomizes apartheid: the settlers enjoy amenities like water, electricity, security, and full rights, while just a stone’s throw away, we are completely marginalized.”

Safeguarding Against Settler Aggression

Following the Hamas assault and Israel’s aggressive campaign in Gaza, settlers have intensified their hostilities towards farmers in the occupied West Bank, with the tacit approval and sometimes active involvement of the military.

While the 700,000 settlers residing in 300 settlements and outposts benefit from improved infrastructure, civil liberties, and state backing – albeit unlawfully under international statutes but with Israeli state backing – Palestinians find themselves isolated by 700 checkpoints and road obstructions.

Ibrahim now faces restrictions on grazing his livestock to the east, where a settlement sprawls, or to the west, where the watchtower meticulously monitors their movements – leaving them with only a small valley adjacent to a road. “What adds to the complexity is that numerous settlers have integrated into the military, blurring the lines between assailants – rendering the distinction irrelevant,” he lamented.

On certain days, Israeli activists stand in solidarity with Ibrahim and his kin. Miriam (name changed), in her forties, converses with Ibrahim in a blend of Arabic and Hebrew, elucidating, “Our presence here aims to document transgressions and deter settlers from launching attacks.”

Approximately fifty international and Israeli activists, predominantly Jewish, rotate shifts to shield shepherds and Bedouins from incursions by settlers, the Israeli military, and law enforcement. They lodge in the residences of the most vulnerable inhabitants, accompany shepherds, and promptly respond to altercations – a scenario that unfolds multiple times daily.

The settlers often retreat upon spotting journalists and observers, even though they themselves have been subjected to assaults in the past.
A glimpse of part of Umm al-Khair and the neighboring environs in Masafer Yatta. [TNA/Philippe Pernot]

Escalation of Arrests, Violence, and Intimidation

Since 7 October, at least 466 Palestinians have perished and nearly [Unspecified Number] have been injured. The recent surge in violence witnessed a group of around 50 settlers rampaging through towns near Nablus, resulting in the deaths of two Palestinians.

Furthermore, the crackdown on Israeli and foreign Jewish activists has intensified. In the preceding month, a Knesset subcommittee convened to address the surge in violence in the West Bank, with right-wing Israeli politicians attributing blame to “radical, anarchist left-wing activists” who “harass” soldiers and “heroic settlers,” advocating for stringent measures against them.

Subsequently, several activists encountered by The New Arab in Masafer Yatta have been apprehended and even barred from entering the West Bank by Israeli authorities. They have reported heightened harassment and intimidation by the military.

“The hearing has emboldened the aggression of the soldiers and settlers,” a member of the Jewish Center for Nonviolence (JWNV) shared with The New Arab, choosing anonymity.

“The recent wave of repression against volunteers is alarming,” stated the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in a release. The ISM highlighted that the attacks on activists were rationalized by Knesset politicians, portraying “aid workers in the West Bank – Palestinian, Israeli, and international alike,” as a “primary adversary in Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza.”

“Not only are they shielded by the army and police, but they are also funded and armed by the government.”

Settler Shepherds

Live ammunition, physical assaults, verbal abuse, and property demolitions – for the 3,500 Palestinian inhabitants of Masafer Yatta, each day brings fresh perils.

Later that very afternoon, subsequent to The New Arab’s conversation with Ibrahim, a shepherd from Susya, an adjacent hamlet, raised an alarm regarding approaching settlers. Three activists swiftly rushed to their vehicle to document the unfolding events.

“All Palestinians are deemed terrorists; we must seize their land!” vociferated the youngest settler, approximately ten years old, as he encroached upon the Palestinian territory with his livestock, while others stood at a distance, armed and prepared to intervene.

These individuals are affiliated with the ‘Hilltop Youth,’ a group of settlers who venture into the Palestinian hills with their animals, establishing outposts and farms.

“This has become the settlers’ modus operandi over the past couple of years, a cunning strategy: utilizing a single herd, they can intimidate Palestinians across vast distances, all while masquerading as mere shepherds,” elucidated Alma, an Israeli activist.

Although the Palestinian shepherd urged the young settler to depart, he refrained from approaching closer, wary of potential reprisals. Subsequently, he contacted the Israeli military police, who arrived shortly thereafter. The young settler retreated, and the police recorded the shepherd’s statement, offering to pursue legal action.

“Given that the courts routinely exonerate the settlers, everyone acknowledges the futility of such actions,” sighed Alma. “Moreover, they habitually deploy young minors to evade prosecution.”
Samiha Nowaja tending to her flock of sheep in the Susya valley, beneath an outpost of the Israeli settlement sharing the same name. [TNA/Philippe Pernot]

Evictions and Demolitions

On the same day, the Israeli army undertook an operation in a nearby village, precluding The New Arab from inspecting the site. It is probable that an outpost will be established in its place.

Masafer Yatta falls within Zone C, under Israeli military jurisdiction (comprising 61% of the West Bank), with a substantial portion designated as a military training zone. Palestinians are prohibited from erecting any structures in this area – any such constructions are subject to demolition.

Last year, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resolved to displace over 1,000 residents from their residences in Masafer Yatta.

In the neighboring hamlet of Umm al-Khair, the residents have encountered multiple evictions in the past. “We were uprooted from our land in Arad (now situated in Israel) in 1948, subsequently displaced from the hilltop in 1982, our entire village razed on numerous occasions – yet we have always returned,” recounted Awdeh Hathaleen, a young activist and educator from Umm al-Kheir.

“Masafer Yatta holds strategic significance for settlers, facilitating the fragmentation of Palestinian territories from the south and connecting with settlers in the Jordan Valley.”

Since 2007, 109 residences have been demolished and reconstructed. The hamlet, housing 300 individuals, resembles a makeshift settlement, juxtaposed with the red-roofed dwellings of Israel’s Carmel settlement merely ten meters away.

“This glaring discrepancy epitomizes apartheid: the settlers enjoy luxuries like water, electricity, security, and full entitlements, while we are left completely marginalized just a few meters away,” he lamented. Activists recounted how when a young settler fatally shot a young Palestinian earlier this year in Umm al-Kheir, law enforcement merely confiscated his firearm.

“It is imperative to grasp that the settlers represent merely the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive colonial and genocidal framework,” asserted Awdeh. “They not only benefit from the protection of the army and police but are also financially supported and armed by the government.” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, both inhabitants of settlements, co-head settler organizations endorsing the Hilltop Youth.

International and Israeli entities such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty, and B’Tselem have decried Israel’s “apartheid system” in the West Bank. Merely 18% of the West Bank falls under the effective governance of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which itself faces censure from numerous Palestinians for its collaboration with the occupation.

State-Sanctioned Support for Settlers

“On 7 October, the settlers and the military blockaded all routes, prohibiting us from leaving our villages for over three months,” Awdeh recounted. “We are left to fend for ourselves, as the Palestinian Authority is unlikely to extend assistance,” he added. Deprived of the ability to cultivate their lands, tend to their livestock, or procure essential supplies, the denizens of Masafer Yatta have relied on humanitarian aid deliveries from solidarity groups for sustenance.

“Masafer Yatta serves as a pivotal region for settlers, enabling them to fragment Palestinian territories from the south and establish connections with settlers in the Jordan Valley,” asserted Jamal Juma’, the director of Stop the Wall, a Palestinian organization dedicated to monitoring the construction of Israel’s separation barrier and settlements.

“The settler-shepherd strategy is relatively recent and affords the Israeli state a means to evade retribution: it is simpler for the international community to penalize a few individual settlers than to hold the entire state accountable,” he expounded.

The European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on around a dozen “ultra-violent” settlers in December and March. However, “the notion of isolated ultra-violent settlers serves as a diversion, and these sanctions are unlikely to yield substantive change in practice, as they fail to address the systemic and political underpinnings of colonization,” critiqued Jamal Juma’.

Settlements across the West Bank contravene international law in their entirety, which prohibits any occupying power from colonizing or annexing occupied territories. In addition to subsidies on utilities and tax exemptions, the government has distributed over 300 assault rifles to settlers since 7 October.
Ibrahim, a shepherd from Wadi Jheish, posing amidst his flock of sheep and the watchtower manned by Israeli settlers in Masafer Yatta. [TNA/Philippe Pernot]

As the sun dips below the horizon, casting a warm orange glow over the verdant pastures of the Susya valley, Samiha Nowaja, a fifty-year-old shepherdess, guides her sheep back to the village.

“For the first time in a while, everything has been peaceful,” she exhaled, a smile of relief gracing her face. Abruptly, two settlers materialize on the opposite ridge, riding motorbikes. Samiha’s countenance shifts from joy to apprehension.

They linger for a few tense moments before retracing their path. “Who knows what they would have done if you hadn’t been here,” she confided in The New Arab. As the crimson sun fades behind the hilltops, a palpable sense of trepidation permeates the valley.

“Leaving has crossed my mind, of course. Nevertheless, we will persevere despite the intimidations because our land is our only legacy,” she affirmed. Since then, Samiha has been diligently forwarding The New Arab daily recordings of settler provocations and assaults in her vicinity. The incidents are too numerous to enumerate.

Philippe Pernot, a French-German photojournalist based in Beirut, focuses on capturing the essence of anarchist, environmentalist, and queer social movements. Presently serving as the Lebanon correspondent for Frankfurter Rundschau, he also contributes as an editor for various international publications.