The abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank. Zanuta was abandoned by its residents following a series of alleged attacks and incidents of harassment by extremist setters from the region. (Jeremy Sharon / Times of Israel)
The abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank. Zanuta was abandoned by its residents following a series of alleged attacks and incidents of harassment by extremist setters from the region. (Jeremy Sharon / Times of Israel)

Facing violence and harassment, hundreds of Palestinians flee West Bank villages

A focus on the Gaza war and blurred lines between the military and settler activists have led to increased aggression against Palestinians and depopulation of several villages

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

The savage attack by Hamas against Israel on October 7 and the atrocities the terror group committed on that day plunged Israel into war and brought about the greatest security threat to the Jewish state in half a century.

At the same time, the October 7 assault has unleashed severe backlash in the West Bank against Palestinian civilians, who have been violently attacked and harassed by extremist settlers and specially formed IDF reserve units established to provide extra security to Israeli settlements.

According to activist groups such as B’tselem and Peace Now, which oppose Israeli rule in the West Bank, as well as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), this wave of harassment has led hundreds of Palestinians in vulnerable rural communities to abandon their homes and villages.

According to B’tselem, some 963 Palestinians have been displaced from 16 communities in the West Bank as a result of the attacks since October 7.

OCHA has recorded even higher figures for displaced Palestinians, and says 1,149 people from 15 herding communities have been displaced due to settler violence and land access restrictions.

In a recent visit to the South Hebron Hills, The Times of Israel spoke with several Palestinian residents about the attacks and visited one of the now-forsaken villages.

An armed and masked reserve IDF soldier from one of the newly created “regional defense battalions” harasses Palestinians in the village of A-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills region of the West Bank, November 12, 2023. (Screenshot, courtesy Yesh Din)

Incidents of harassment abound. On Sunday, two masked and armed IDF reservists arrived at the village of A-Tuwani in the southern Hebron Hills in a vehicle without license plates, and attempted to remove a Palestinian flag from the premises of a school.

After video footage of the incident was made public on social media, the two reservists were expelled from the IDF.

Numerous other reported incidents have taken place this week alone, including the vandalism of farming vehicles in the village of Wadi Tiran and the destruction of a wind turbine in Wadi Jheish.

As many as seven Palestinians have been killed by extremist settlers, although the circumstances of some of those incidents are not clear and an exact determination as to whether these individuals were killed by gunfire from settlers or Israeli security forces has not been possible.

According to the Yesh Din organization, another group opposing Israeli control of the West Bank, there have been more than 185 settler attacks against Palestinians in over 84 towns and villages around the territory since October 7.

One such incident took place in the Palestinian village of Susya in the South Hebron Hills on October 28.

Speaking to The Times of Israel in Susya, Ahmad Jabra Nawaja, a shepherd and resident of the village, related how he was beaten by armed, masked men in IDF uniforms who threatened to kill him if he did not leave his land.

Susya resident Ahmad Jabra Nawaja, who alleges that he was assaulted by masked, armed men dressed in IDF uniforms on October 28, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

Nawaja said he was sleeping in an agricultural wagon on his property with his wife and two daughters because they were worried about settler violence and the possibility their homes might be set ablaze with them inside.

“We were woken up by loud shouts, and saw guns aimed at us,” Nawaja told The Times of Israel through a translator.

He said the men were armed with M-16 assault rifles and that he believed them to be settlers dressed in IDF uniforms.

These men called IDF reserve soldiers to the scene, who checked Nawaja’s ID and then told the first group of men to leave.

But later that night, at approximately 4 a.m., the men who Nawaja believes were settlers from a newly established reserve regional defense battalion came back, dragged him out of the wagon, kicked and beat him, and threatened that they would kill him if he did not raze all the structures on his property and leave the site.

“When he put the gun to my neck I was terrified. I thought he was going to shoot me, I thought it was over. My heart was beating like crazy,” Nawaja said.

He said his daughter Sara threw up and his other daughter, Siwar, got a nosebleed due to their stress and fear during the incident.

Nawaja said that such violent and threatening attacks were a new development since October 7 and that he was concerned about further such incidents.

Halima Nawaja whose husband Ahmad Jabra Nawaja was allegedly assaulted by armed, masked men in IDF uniforms, sits with her two daughters Sara and Siwar outside their home in the Palestinian village of Susya, in the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank, November 9, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon/Times of Israel)

“We have nowhere else to go. We don’t have any alternative,” he said.

A lawyer for Susya’s residents filed a complaint to the police via an online complaint system, but has yet to hear from the police.

The Police Spokesperson’s Division did not respond to requests for comment.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Division said it was unaware of this incident and could not comment.

In an earlier incident on October 16, three water cisterns used by Susya’s residents as a means of storing water were deliberately damaged by a man, believed to be a resident of a nearby illegal outpost, operating a tractor, accompanied by armed men in IDF uniforms, some of whom masked their faces with black balaclavas.

According to Nasser Nawaja, another Susya resident, the cisterns have been badly damaged and are currently unusable due to the amount of rubble the tractor pushed inside them.

Dr. Quamar Mishirqi-Assad, an attorney for Susya’s residents and co-director of the Haqel: In Defense of Human Rights organization, says she called the offices of the local District Coordination Office of the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration department during the incident to try and get the demolition halted, but to no avail.

Susya, located in Area C of the West Bank where Israel has full security and civilian control, is not connected to the main Israeli water supply system and residents are required to find other ways to source water.

The Civil Administration said in response to a query about the incident that there were no demolition orders against the cisterns, but could not comment on the actions of the men involved.

Following a request for comment, the IDF Spokespersons Unit acknowledged that there had been no legal order to destroy the cisterns.

“IDF forces that came to Susya to carry out an engineering operation in the ‘Susya’ dwelling on October 16 exceeded the boundaries of the actions that had been defined due to lack of coordination,” said the IDF.

“The claims about damage to property are known to us,” the statement continued, adding, “The incident will be investigated and lessons applied to prevent similar incidents.”

The Police Spokesperson’s Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Susya is largely located on private Palestinian land, but its residents have never received building permits for the various structures built at the site. The Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration almost never grants such permits to Palestinians in Area C, so illegal construction in the Palestinian sector is very common.

Nasser Nawaja, a Susya resident and activist for the Palestinian village, stands next to one of three water cisterns deliberately damaged by IDF personnel during an incident on October 16, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon)

Susya, home to some 35 families comprising around 350 residents, has a troubled history along with numerous other Palestinian communities in the region.

Several iterations of Susya have been demolished by enforcement personnel of the Civil Administration since 1985, and demolition orders have been in place against the current structures in the village since at least 2015, orders which were upheld by the High Court of Justice.

The demolitions have not been carried out, however, due to strong international pressure against Israel, including from the EU and the US.

Pro-settlement organizations such as Regavim describe the residents of Susya as “squatters” and have argued that historically there were never permanent Palestinian settlements in the region.

Regavim claims that the establishment of Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills is part of a broader plan adopted by the Palestinian Authority to take control of Area C, which is some 60 percent of the West Bank.

Squads on duty

One of the principal concerns pointed to by organizations such as B’tselem, Peace Now, and others regarding violence against Palestinians since October 7 is the IDF’s formation of six volunteer regional defensive battalions to help protect West Bank settlements.

Following the Hamas massacres in southern Israel, numerous members of the civilian security squads that provide protection for the settlements were called up by the army for operations in Gaza or on the northern border with Lebanon.

To compensate for this loss of security manpower, new reserve regional defensive battalions were created by the IDF comprising eligible volunteers from the settlements themselves as well as men from inside sovereign Israel who have previously undergone IDF training.

Activists have said that this situation has blurred the line between settlers and the military, and enabled extremist settlers to use their military status to harass and attack Palestinians.

“There are violent settlers who, two or three months ago, were beating, attacking and harassing Palestinian communities in order to push them off their land. Now they’re recruited into the IDF, they’re in uniform with guns, and have full authority as soldiers, and they’re doing the same thing,” says Yehuda Shaul, co-director of the dovish think tank Ofek.

“That’s how we get to the reality today, where Palestinians have basically no buffer between them and violent settlers, and the settlers are operating with more impunity than usual.”

Ahmad Nawaja said specifically that he believed it was personnel from the newly formed regional defensive battalion in the Judea district of the West Bank, which covers the South Hebron Hills region, who attacked him on the night of October 28.

The individuals responsible for Sunday’s unlawful incursion into A-Tuwani, just up the road from Susya, were also from the Judea battalion.

The South Hebron Hills has long been a hotbed of extremist settler activity, and local Palestinian herding communities have long been subject to harassment.

Salah Abu Awad, a Palestinian shepherd, who has been forced to uproot his place of residence on several occasions since July 2023 due to what he says is violence and harassment by extremist settlers in the South Hebron Hills region of the West Bank, November 9, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon / Times of Israel)

Salah Abu Awad, 28, used to live in the tiny hamlet of Widady not far from Susya. But following a series of violent attacks and harassment, apparently by local settlers, the 20 residents of Widady decided to abandon the village on July 16 this year.

Abu Awad said he took his flock to nearby Shima, but after suffering harassment there moved on to another nearby hamlet, Radhem.

According to B’tselem, extremist settlers vandalized property at Radhem and harassed its 20 residents on five occasions from October 9 to October 19, resulting in the two families who together were the entire population of the village abandoning the site by October 21.

“We had been in Widady for generations… I have no words about how I feel. It’s not a very great feeling to [keep] having to move,” said Abu Awad stoically.  He is now living in Sheheb Tariq, another small hamlet in the area.

Zanutah is another such village that has been depopulated since October 7. The village was home to some 27 families and had a population of around 250 people, but like Radhem, Susya, and others, it faced continued attacks and harassment by extremist settlers.

Between October 12 and 27, B’tselem says several incidents of assault and destruction of property, including of solar panels and water tanks critical for the village’s survival, were carried out against its residents, including one incident in which a stun grenade was allegedly thrown at residents.

Threats of violence against the residents if they did not leave the village were also allegedly made in this period, similar to the threats issued to Ahmad Nawaja in Susya.

The community in Zanutah ultimately decided to leave the village as a result, and packed up and removed all the property they could take with them by October 28.

The Times of Israel visited the depopulated village and saw the entire site abandoned. The corrugated metal sheets used to roof buildings in such villages due to the lack of building permits had been removed by the former residents, along with everything else that could be taken.

A school in Zanutah built by the European Union’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department had been vandalized, with trash and debris strewn across its small campus.

A classroom in an abandoned school in the depopulated Palestinian village of Zanutah, built by the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department, November 9, 2023. (Jeremy Sharon)

A quadcopter drone buzzed overhead during the visit and descended to just a few meters above this reporter’s head as he was touring the site.

Activists say that drones are increasingly used to harass Palestinians and their herds in the area, although it was impossible to determine who was operating this particular device.

“The war in Gaza has created a new reality where the security system in the West Bank increasingly relies on settlers within the framework of operational activities, becoming more dependent on them,” Peace Now said in a report issued on November 10.

“Ideological and violent settlers leverage the war to coerce the military for their own goals of expulsion and harm to Palestinians, even interfering with IDF activities,” in order to “strengthen their hold over Area C.”

Andrea De Domenico, head of the OCHA Occupied Palestinian Territories office, said in response that the increase in violence against Palestinians, and limits on their freedom of movement, was “more than concerning.”

Said Domenico, “It results in displacement of families and whole communities, and generates humanitarian needs. The humanitarian community is supporting them, but our assistance would be unnecessary if their fundamental rights were respected. Settlements are illegal, Palestinians have to be protected and those violating human rights must be held to account.”

The office of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the office of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also serves as an additional minister in the Defense Ministry with responsibility for civilian affairs in the West Bank, did not respond to requests for comment.

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