Three Palestinian villages emptied out in West Bank as residents blame Israeli settler attacks

Settlement expansion has been promoted by successive Israeli governments over nearly six decades, but Netanyahu's far-right government has made it a top priority.
A Palestinian shepherd stands in the ruins of the West Bank Bedouin village of al-Baqa where residents fled in July after settlers established an outpost near the village,  Aug. 9, 2023. (Photo | AP)
A Palestinian shepherd stands in the ruins of the West Bank Bedouin village of al-Baqa where residents fled in July after settlers established an outpost near the village,  Aug. 9, 2023. (Photo | AP)

AL-QABUN: The Palestinian hamlet of al-Qabun in the central occupied West Bank was silent this week — the grazing fields for sheep deserted, the empty schoolhouse locked, the makeshift homes left as steel carcasses.

The last families living there packed up two weeks ago, driven from their homes of nearly three decades by what they said was a year of intensified attacks and harassment by armed Jewish settlers living in unauthorized outposts on neighbouring hilltops.

"I feel like I'm a refugee here, and settlers are the owners of our land," said Ali Abu Kbash, a shepherd who fled al-Qabun with his four children and 60 sheep for the rocky slopes of a neighbouring village. He said life had become unbearable as settlers tried to take over his fields with their sheep, tampered with the village's water supply, and routinely burst into his village to harass residents.

The exodus from al-Qabun, a small Bedouin village northeast of the city of Ramallah that numbered 89 people before the evacuation, represents the third case over four months in which a Palestinian community emptied out, according to data from UN monitors. Residents blame mounting settler violence.

For Palestinians, the recent wave of departures from Area C — the 60% of the West Bank that has remained under Israeli military control since interim peace accords from the 1990s — is emblematic of a new stage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Jewish settlers double down on shepherding as a tool to seize land. United Nations officials warn the trend is changing the map of the West Bank, entrenching unauthorized outposts.

Some 500,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank — specifically in Area C — since Israel captured the territory, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. Their presence is viewed by most of the international community as a major obstacle to peace.

Settlement expansion has been promoted by successive Israeli governments over nearly six decades, but Netanyahu's far-right government has made it a top priority.

Settler firebrand and powerful Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich plans to ask the government to allocate $180 million for West Bank projects that could advance his goal of eliminating any differences between life in the settlements and life within Israel's internationally recognized borders.

"The displacement of Palestinians amid increasing settler violence is of a magnitude that we have not previously documented," said Andrea De Domenico, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory. Settler attacks have displaced nearly 500 Palestinians, including 261 children, in the past year and a half, the office estimates.

A spokesperson for settlers in the region denied accusations of violence or aggression against Palestinian communities. "No one forced them out," said Eliana Passentin. "They chose to leave."

While Bedouin are traditionally nomadic, the recent departures are not voluntary seasonal migrations, residents and researchers said. Instead of moving to nearby hamlets before returning, Bedouin are fleeing the open areas of the West Bank for populous towns under Palestinian Authority administrative control. Most of the displaced villagers said they would like to go home one day but would not unless the outposts disappeared.

Out of 36 people who fled the Palestinian hamlet of al-Baqa, east of Ramallah, in early July, just one six-person family has returned after settlers from a newly established outpost wreaked havoc on the village, setting their sheep loose on Palestinian grazing fields and torching a home with people inside. "The rest of my village is too scared to return," said Mustafa Arara, a 24-year-old resident who recently went back.

Palestinian rights groups describe the uptick in settler incursions as part of a state-backed strategy. For decades, the settler movement has sought to clear sections of the West Bank around the Israeli-built Route 90 road that runs through the Jordan Valley. If Israel were to develop the areas, it would bolster the contiguity of settlements and further weaken the already faint possibility of a partition deal leading to Palestinian statehood.

Many Bedouin communities in Area C have been slated for expulsion because they could not secure permission to build. According to anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, over 95% of Palestinian building permits are rejected. The military routinely issues demolition orders for homes of corrugated tin and scrap wood.

Last week, authorities levelled a European Union-funded schoolhouse in the Bedouin hamlet of Ein Samiya, which 150 residents recently fled — virtually guaranteeing they would not return soon.

But the government hasn't carried out mass evictions for decades. In some cases, Israel's Supreme Court delays the expulsion of Bedouin communities by questioning whether authorities have suitable relocation plans.

Now, rights groups say radical Jewish settlers and their sheep are doing what Israeli authorities have not — driving scores of Bedouin from land that they've inhabited for decades. Most settled in the area after fleeing or being forced from the Negev desert in the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.

"I don't think there was a meeting in a smoky room between the army and government and settlers," said Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli lawyer who often represents Palestinians. "But in a more general way, Israel is directly pushing the Palestinian community away from open lanes of Area C and into more populous enclaves."

Amana, a group that supports and funds unauthorized settlements, described the shepherd outposts as a way for Israelis to take over the most land with the least effort at a conference in 2021.

"Construction takes up little ground and is expensive, and it doesn't allow you to bring in large amounts of people in a short period of time," Amana's secretary-general, Ze'ev Hever, said at the conference.

Israeli shepherd settlers now control some 60,000 acres — just under 7% of Area C, said Dror Etkes, an Israeli anti-settlement researcher. A quarter of that land was seized after Palestinian residents evacuated. When al-Qabun emptied, some 3,000 additional acres fell under Israeli control, Etkes said.

Violence from both Israelis and Palestinians has long been routine in the territory. But under Netanyahu's new government, the number of attacks against Palestinians has skyrocketed, according to UN monitors.

In the governorate of Ramallah — where four small Palestinian villages have emptied out since last July — the UN has recorded 150 Palestinians injured and four killed by either Israeli settlers or Israeli forces in settler-related incidents between January and early August this year. That's nearly double the number of injuries recorded in all of 2022.

Israel's military said it does not allow or support acts of settler violence. It said the security forces deal with "cases in which a report of violence in the area" is received.

After evacuating earlier this month, some residents from al-Qabun returned — to set fire to what remained of their homes. They'd rather burn down the place themselves than let Israeli settlers do it, they said. The violent settlers who drove them to leave, they said, came from a nearby outpost known as Malachei Hashalom — Hebrew for "Angels of Peace."

Founded in 2015, Malachei Hashalom describes itself as a "special shepherding farm ... where Jewish presence is critical to the security and integrity of the country."

Earlier this year, Netanyahu's government pledged to legalize the outpost.

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