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October 7 brought settler violence to a head in the West Bank: 18 Palestinian herding communities have since been uprooted from their homes, with the residents now living in makeshift dwellings on the outskirts of other villages, impoverished and anxious for the future

Hagar Shezaf. Haaretz. Originally published on Onedemocraticstateca.wordpress.com.

Ibrahim Mohammed Malihat looks toward the Jordan Valley. From the area where he lives, about a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, you can see wide expanses where the people of his village used to graze their livestock, but which are now off-limits.

Today, everything is empty from here to Jericho. We don’t go down or south. Everything is left only for the settlers; there’s no area where the flocks can graze,” he says.

Inside the village of Maghayyir A-Dir, a flock of sheep walks around and eats straw that is scattered on the ground. “We only take them between the houses,” notes Malihat. “There are cameras here,” he adds, pointing to an area near the village, “and if the sheep go out, the settlers see it and send masked men. They tell us: ‘We’re the police and we’re the army.’”

Since the Gaza war began on October 7, four pastoral communities have been displaced from their places of residence in the area due to threats and violence from settlers. Four other nearby communities were displaced in the two preceding years, between the village of Duma and Malihat’s village.

Another community further south was also uprooted. This had a dramatic effect on both the lives of the communities that remained in place and those that fled. Their residents describe a process of impoverishment and huge fear over the future.

‘There’s no one in the government to tell them to stop. Go to any village in the area and you’ll see that they’ve destroyed everything there.’

According to estimates by researcher Dror Etkes from the Kerem Navot nongovernmental organization that monitors the Israeli settlement and land management policy in the West Bank, there are currently some 125,000 dunams (31,000 acres) in the area that Palestinians are de facto prevented from entering due to fear of violence, and due to the restrictions imposed by the settlers and the army.

The lands to the east of the Allon Road (Route 458), which runs between Maghayyir A-Dir and Duma, have been emptied of the communities who lived there. Mostly, just Jewish outposts and settlements remain. “A few years ago, settlers from the Nablus and Duma area came here, the ones with the long sidelocks,” says Ibrahim, indicating their length with his hand. “Gradually, they moved south until they reached here. There’s no one in the government to tell them to stop. Go to any village in the area and you’ll see that they’ve destroyed everything there.”

Advised to evacuate

One of the largest communities expelled in the months since the war began was from the village of Wadi al-Siq, which is separated from Maghayyir A-Dir only by a beautiful green wadi. Next to the ruins of the village, which are still visible, cows from the nearby outpost that was established only about a year ago are grazing today. The road that used to lead to the village is now blocked with stones.

According to Ibrahim, on the day the residents of Wadi al-Siq were expelled, a group of settlers he knew – and with whom he previously had a good relationship – entered his village. He says they recommended that the villagers evacuate for 10 days because the settlers were “angry” following October 7.

‘They stole [the contents of] my whole house. They destroyed and took everything: stove, kitchen utensils, cabinets.’

Like other communities in the area, the people of Wadi al-Siq suffered violence and threats even before the outbreak of the war, but these escalated significantly afterward. Theapproximately 180 residents who make up the community, from around 20 families, fled for their lives after an attack on the village on October 12 and threats that preceded it. The residents split up and today live in makeshift dwellings on the outskirts of several Palestinian villages, on land to which they have no rights and which they fear they will be forced to vacate.

“On October 11, we took the children and women to relatives in another village, to sleep there. We thought it would be for two or three days and then we’d bring them back,” relates Abd el-Rahman Mustafa Ka’abneh, from his new temporary residence on agricultural land near the village of Taybeh. The next day, while some of the villagers were busy packing their belongings, settlers and soldiers came and attacked them at the site. Several residents and activists who had come to help them were arrested and detained for hours inside the village. Some were beaten and subjected to abuse, including, as previously reported in Haaretz, severe beatings, burns and attempted sexual assault.

“They told us we had half an hour to leave, people ran away,” Ka’abneh recalls. Hunched over, he looks despondent as he describes what happened. “We didn’t know where to go. At first we went out on foot. There were small children whose parents carried them and there were young people who hid in the wadi. When it got dark, people from the villages of Ramun and Taybeh gave us tents.”

The police told Haaretz that the investigation into the attack in Wadi al-Siq is ongoing, while the IDF gave the same response regarding an investigation by the military criminal investigation division into the conduct of the soldiers. Haaretz learned that several soldiers and a civilian were interrogated with a warning as part of the investigation. In October, the IDF dismissed the commander of the military force who belongs to the Desert Frontier unit and who was involved in the incident.

In view of the inability of the army to assure the residents that they will not be harmed if they return home, they do not dare return. The only time they came to their village after fleeing to collect the belongings they left behind – in coordination with the Civil Administration and escorted by activists – they discovered that most of their equipment was gone.

“They stole [the contents of] my whole house. They destroyed and took everything: stove, kitchen utensils, cabinets,” Ka’abneh says. “We found almost nothing.” In his estimation, the value of the property stolen from the house was about 200,000 shekels ($53,000).

In an attempt to recoup their losses, community members took out loans, sold part of their livestock and received donations from organizations. “I had 100 sheep and I sold 40 for nothing, because there was a war and we fled,” says Suleiman Mustafa Ka’abneh, another member of the Wadi al-Siq community.

He and his family now live on the outskirts of Ramun village, alongside other residents. “I personally owe 40,000 shekels today,” he adds. The loss of grazing land has severely affected the livelihood of the residents – partly because they’re now forced to purchase food for their flocks, at significantly higher costs than before.

At the end of March, the residents filed a petition with the human rights organization Torat Tzedek, demanding that the state dismantle the outpost set up near their village so they can return to their homes. In the petition, submitted by attorney Tamir Blank, it’s argued that since the outpost is a source of violence and is involved in land incursions, the state must prioritize and expedite its evacuation.

Until the matter is resolved, the residents face an uncertain future. Abd el-Rahman Mustafa Ka’abneh and his family, for example, live on private land belonging to a resident of Taybeh. “It’s temporary. We have no lease here and the agreement was that we would leave after the war. We didn’t think the war would last so long,” he says.

The transience is evident even in small details, such as the fact that the community’s current residence has no toilets. “There is no future, this is the end,” says Suleiman Ka’abneh. “This is someone else’s land. They will let us sit here for four months, six months, a year – but ultimately it’s their land and they won’t want us here.”

Constant vigilance

Since the beginning of the war, the human rights organization B’Tselem has documented 18 pastoral communities that were displaced from their homes throughout the West Bank.

According to Etkes, when dealing with what happened in the Allon Road area, an area larger than the 126,000 dunams between Duma and Maghayyir A-Dir must be factored into the equation. He explains that due to state land declarations and the displacement of additional communities in the area between Ma’aleh Adumim and the settlements of the Jordan Valley, in effect there are now about 160,000 dunams where Palestinians are no longer herding.

In addition to this area, five more pastoral communities in the South Hebron Hills have been displaced or expelled since the beginning of the war, and two communities were kicked out even before that.

In Khirbet Zanuta, the largest of the communities to be expelled in the South Hebron Hills area since October 7, the local school was very badly damaged in what seems to be a vandalism incident. On a visit to the place almost six months after the expulsion of the residents, textbooks were scattered on the floor among the rubble, and an English studies poster was still hanging on one of the walls. Outside, an inscription in Arabic adorned what remained of the building. “We have the right to study,” it stated.

The uprooting of the communities is inextricably linked to the outposts adjacent to the Palestinian lands. The outposts have multiplied greatly in recent years, and it is clear that the United States and other countries that have begun imposing sanctions on settlers recognize this.

The Khirbet Zanuta community, for instance, lived near Yinon Levy’s Meitarim Farm, an illegal outpost that was subject to U.S. sanctions on the grounds that it was involved in attacking and threatening Palestinians. In the case of Wadi al-Siq, the neighboring outpost that was established in early 2023 is called Havat Machoch and its leader is Neria Ben-Pazi – a well-known settler shepherd who has also been subject to U.S. sanctions in recent weeks.

He was even barred from the West Bank for a few months by order of Israel’s Central Command commander. Following this order, several religious Zionist rabbis – including Dov Lior and Shmuel Eliyahu – came to visit Ben-Pazi’s outpost as an act of solidarity. The sanctions against settlers were met with a strong protest by extremist ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Before the war, Mohammed Suleiman Malihat, a resident of a herding community called Maraja’at, used to cross the road near his village with his herd. On the other side of the road, an outpost called Zohar’s Farm was established in recent years: at some point, all the remaining herders gave up on crossing it after repeatedly being driven away by settlers in the surrounding area.

“From the moment the war started, if the settlers saw me enter even 2 meters into the area, they would come immediately. I felt that for my safety, I just can’t do it anymore,” says Malihat. He also sold part of his flock due to the reduced size of his lands for pasture. He says that since another grazing area, heading toward the settlement of Mevo’ot Yericho, also became inaccessible to the residents of the community – he only grazes on land adjacent to the village.

A few days before Haaretz visited Maraja’at, two structures belonging to families who had fled were set on fire on the outskirts of Ras al-Uja, another village in the area. Settlers were recorded at the location and a military source confirmed to Haaretz that according to the IDF’s knowledge, it was settlers who torched the buildings. The message resonates strongly with the residents of Maraja’at. Malihat’s family also says that late at night settlers sometimes stand armed at the entrance of their house, without saying a word.

As a result, the community lives in constant vigilance. During our visit to the site, residents noticed a herd belonging to the settlers grazing at the top of the hill, and Malihat’s daughter, Aaliya, ran there to film it while other residents called the police. According to them, the sense of threat has worsened in recent months, especially after the neighboring community left due to the harassment. “The settlers succeeded in driving them out, and that whetted their appetite,” reflects Malihat. “Since then, they’ve started coming to us more.”

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