Israeli activists seek to help Palestinians harmed by extremist settlers as attacks rise

With authorities failing to prevent many assaults, some campaigners are acting as a ‘last shield’ for locals

Mohammad Bader, 27, inspects his house, which was torched by settler extremists in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, April 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Mohammad Bader, 27, inspects his house, which was torched by settler extremists in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, April 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

In a desert region of the West Bank, Israeli activist Eyal Shani has fitted a tiny camera on his T-shirt to collect evidence of settler violence against Palestinian sheep farmers.

Campaigners like Shani have been trying to protect Palestinians from extremist Jewish settlers in the rugged Masafer Yatta area south of Hebron, in the southern West Bank, but they say it has become increasingly difficult with attacks soaring following the outbreak of war in Gaza.

“If we’re not here, the settlers take all the power into their hands, they don’t see the Palestinians as humans,” the 56-year-old told AFP. “We are the last shield.”

Israel has controlled areas of the West Bank, home to three million Palestinians, since 1967, and around 490,000 Israeli settlers live there in communities considered illegal under international law.

Rising settler attacks since the war in Gaza have sparked widespread alarm and condemnation, including from the United Nations. Israeli leaders have insisted those carrying out such attacks are an unrepresentative extremist minority, but have been seemingly unable to stop the phenomenon.

Several times a week, Shani visits Masafer Yatta and checks up on Palestinian shepherds like Shihada Salameh Makhamreh, 60, who lives with his family in a hamlet carved into a rock face.

Israeli activist Eyal Shani speaks during an interview with AFP inside a cave in Maghaier al-Abeed, south of Yatta, near Hebron, in the West Bank on April 25, 2024. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

Their cool cave dwelling keeps out the heat, but it doesn’t protect them from Israeli settlers who have moved in nearby.

Makhamreh said that in mid-January, a group of young settlers attacked their home in the middle of the night and beat his 75-year-old mother. Since then, he said the family has been living in terror, unable to understand why they were targeted in such a remote area.

“We are peaceful people,” Makhamreh said. “We don’t play politics.”

‘A free hand’

Settler attacks in the West Bank have been on the rise for some time, but have increased even faster since the October 7 Hamas attack, in which terrorists murdered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 253, which triggered Israel’s war in Gaza.

The UN’s humanitarian office OCHA recorded 1,096 settler attacks between October 7 and March 31, an average of six a day, up from three a day before October 7 and two a day in 2022.

Some attacks, such as a settler rampage through the village of al-Mughayyir earlier this month, have come following deadly terror attacks. Others have seemed to be part of a general pattern of abuse.

Recently, the United States began enacting sanctions for the first time against some extremist settlers accused of violent attacks.

Palestinians inspect the damage to a home in the village of al-Mughayyir near Ramallah in the West Bank on April 13, 2024, after an attack by Israeli settlers on the village. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

Israeli activists say they have been struggling to keep emboldened extremist settlers at bay.

Anti-settler activist Ehud Krinis, 57, claimed West Bank settlers have been able to count on the support of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

Two leading Israeli ministers live in settlements — National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — and Krinis said settlers now feel they have “a free hand to do almost everything they want.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli activists visiting Masafer Yatta say they have felt increasingly isolated since October 7.

“Some people see me as a traitor, that I betrayed the Zionist idea of having a free Jewish state,” said Shani.

Irene Bleier Lewenhoff, 73, a retired nurse who came with Krinis to bring food for the Makhamreh family, said she had felt “very, very lonely” in Israeli society since the war, even though she has been campaigning against Israel’s activity in the West Bank for over 50 years.

Mourners carry the body of one of two Palestinian men, days after they were killed during an Israeli settlers’ attack on the village of Aqraba in the West Bank, during their funeral procession on April 20, 2024. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

The problems in Masafer Yatta are long-standing, with the Israeli army declaring the area a restricted military zone in the 1980s.

In May 2022, following a lengthy legal battle, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the military and helped pave the way for the eviction of Palestinian residents, who said their ancestors had lived there for generations.

Krinis claimed the army was allowing settlers to move into the Masafer Yatta hills to push the Palestinian population out.

“The army doesn’t want to evacuate them directly, so they’re trying to do it in an indirect manner,” he said. The idea was to “let the settlers be the ones who put pressure there,” he argued.

If the settlers make life difficult enough, Krinis said, the Palestinians will eventually “decide by themselves to move away.”

AFP did not offer an Israeli response to Krinis’s allegations. It was not immediately clear whether it sought one.

A man points at the word ‘revenge’ in Hebrew and a graffiti of a Star of David on the wall of a Palestinian house after a reported attack by Israeli settlers in the village of Al-Lubban ash-Sharqiya, south of Nablus in the West Bank, on April 11, 2024. (Zain Jaafar/AFP)

‘Difficult and dangerous’

Elsewhere in Masafer Yatta, the Israeli activists have been helping another Palestinian family in the aftermath of a settler attack.

Zakaria al-Adra said that on October 13, a settler shot him at point-blank range in the village of Al-Tuwani, south of Hebron.

Footage shared by the Israeli rights group B’Tselem appeared to show soldiers standing alongside the armed man who fired.

The 29-year-old said that, despite undergoing more than 10 medical operations, he was no longer able to work or support his wife and four children, including 10-month-old twins.

Smoke rises from the village of Duma in the West Bank, after settlers entered the village and set cars and houses on fire following the murder of 14-year-old Benjamin Achimeir, April 13, 2024. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

Ehud and Irene visit weekly, bringing supplies, including diapers for the babies.

Adra’s wife Shouq, 24, told AFP life had become more “difficult and dangerous” since October 7.

“The whole settlement has guns,” she said, adding that even Israeli and foreign volunteers were no longer safe.

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