Opinion

A Violent Gang of Young Settlers Haunts a Palestinian Village

Nothing prevents Palestinians from returning to their lands in this area of the West Bank – except for the so-called hilltop youth that was supposedly expelled from the area 14 years ago

Mufid Shakehr Abu Hussein, 71, a Palestinian shepherd from Burqa who was attacked by settlers from Homesh.
\ Alex Levac

The road leading to the ruins of Homesh is strewn with rocks, concrete blocks, garbage and the remains of burned tires. An ominous silence hangs over the abandoned road, which supposedly leads nowhere. Alongside it are curbstones painted blue and white, which peek out from the refuse and are the only signs left of the northern West Bank settlement that was evacuated on August 23, 2005, during the Gaza disengagement almost 14 years ago. A water tower on the hilltop is the only structure still standing, but we didn’t manage to reach it during our trip to the site this week.

We sought to reach the ostensibly vacated Homesh to seek out the violent gang of so-called hilltop youth who swept down from there a few weeks ago and apparently had no qualms about attacking an elderly, helpless Palestinian shepherd of 71 from the nearby village of Burqa. They stoned him and were about to club him while he tended his flock peacefully on the slope of the hill belonging to his village. The rubble of Homesh lies on the summit. A rock struck the shepherd in the head; he collapsed, blood oozing from his wound, and briefly lost consciousness. He was hospitalized and had to undergo surgery.

The ascent to Homesh is scary. No one from Burqa dared join us, even though supposedly nothing prevents the locals from returning to their lands. The seizure order the Israel Defense Forces issued back in 1978 – calling for dispossession of the inhabitants and establishment of an outpost of the Nahal paramilitary brigade – was annulled in 2013. That followed a petition to the High Court of Justice filed in 2011 by the rights group Yesh Din on behalf of the Burqa council head and some villagers.

Thus, eight years after Homesh had been evacuated, the state informed the High Court that it was rescinding the seizure order. As far as is known, this was the first time the state announced that it was canceling such a directive, issued in regard to Palestinian lands in the West Bank for settlement purposes.

A few months later, in the summer of 2013, the closure order that had prohibited the Palestinians from accessing their lands was also annulled: The landowners were supposed to get their property back and be able to work the land again.

Back in May 2013, after the seizure order was revoked, we tried to reach the ruins of Homesh. As we approached, a group of masked individuals, two of them armed, darted out from the bushes menacingly; they eventually drove us off with shouts and threats. Someone who seemed to be their rabbi watched from a distance and didn’t lift a finger. Maybe he was proud of his violent pupils.

This week, after the incident with the elderly shepherd, we tried again to get to the evacuated settlement. Just before the last pile of rubble on the road, which we had to clear away to pass by, a young man emerged from the bushes wearing a white mask. Recalling our previous experience vividly, we quickly turned around and left.

Once more it was clear: Homesh was never evacuated.

A yeshiva called Homesh Hamehudeshet (Renewed Homesh) was established on the site about 12 years ago, headed by Rabbi Elishama Cohen, though it’s not known whether it still operates on a regular basis. The years following the evacuation saw mass pilgrimages to the site, marches and demonstrations, ritual ceremonies and assemblies, in the presence of cabinet ministers, MKs and rabbis. The last such event was the inauguration of a Torah scroll last June. No one stopped them. Between one pilgrimage and the next, a group of “hilltop youth” remain at the site, possibly from the nearby settlement of Shavei Shomron or from the violent settlement of Yitzhar.

According to Dror Etkes, an expert on settlements and the founder of Kerem Navot – an NGO that researches and monitors land-use policy in the West Bank [full disclosure: Haaretz photographer Alex Levac is a member of Kerem Navot's executive board] – the young settlers who are currently squatting on or near Homesh land (perhaps in caves or temporary dwellings, it was impossible to verify) are unruly and particularly dangerous. Etkes too was attacked by them several years ago. During the bad winter weather, the site is meagerly populated and probably empty at night. But in general, residents of Burqa are living under the threat of a group of ruffians who have seized the hill above their village. Over the years, not one Palestinian has ever gotten an inch of his land back.

In response to a query about why the army doesn’t expel the intruders, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said: "A demarcation order has been imposed on the area where Homesh formerly existed that prohibits any individual from entering except by authorization of a commanding officer. The IDF enforces this order based on assessments of the situation there and on information concerning illicit activities taking place at the site. Permission to allow Palestinians to enter will be considered in light of land ownership claims and security considerations."

From the front door of his home, shepherd Mufid Shakehr Abu Hussein gazes fearfully at the hill looming above, forbidding and foreboding. The intruders could be spotted lurking behind a row of trees. Since the violent assault he suffered in December he hasn’t dared graze his flock on the hillside pasture land. Dozens of sheep and goats are locked in the pen in the yard of an adjacent structure, a centuries-old stone ruin. Burqa should be a heritage site instead of a poverty-stricken, partially neglected village that lives in fear of settler terror.

Mufid and his wife Yusra, 64, have eight children. He speaks Hebrew from the days when he built homes in Ramat Aviv, an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood. “Good place, Ramat Aviv, near the university,” he says. “Do you know it’s also called Sheikh Munis?” – a reference to the Palestinian village on whose ruins Tel Aviv University stands.

December 26, a Wednesday, is etched deeply in Abu Hussein’s memory. As every day, he set out at about 8 A.M. with his sheep and goats, guiding them up the steep road to where the grazing land is. He’s in good shape, climbing up there every morning, using a wooden staff to lean on and to prod the animals, returning home at midday.

He was also attacked four years ago by Homesh hooligans, he tells us now: As he watched over his flock on the hill, six young people lurched out of the rubble with shouts and started hitting the animals. They tried to beat him as well, but he warded them off with his staff and ran for his life, leaving the flock behind. Returning an hour and a half later, he found that the thugs had killed two sheep and made off with a third. Since then, he says, he has had no problems.

The weather was fine on December 26, and he took his usual route. The sheep scattered to graze. At about 10 A.M., Abu Hussein recalls, 10 young people suddenly rushed down from the summit. They had long curls and wore small hats, he says, adding that he didn’t notice if any of them were armed. Three of them, about 25 years old he thinks, got about a meter and a half [5 feet] from him and tried to attack him with clubs, but he fended them off with his staff. Others in the group urged them on: “Hit him! Hit him!” A volley of stones rained down from high up on the hill, one of them striking the shepherd in the head. He fell to the ground and blacked out for a few minutes.

The settlers fled; Abu Hussein says he’s certain they ran off because they thought they had killed him. After about five minutes he regained consciousness and saw his bloodstained clothes. Somehow he got up and started to make his way down, toward his house. In the meantime, the sheep, scared off by the hail of stones, fled toward their pen.

Yusra, seeing the flock return without the shepherd, was seized by panic and rushed out, finding her husband slowly descending, bleeding from his head. She helped him get home and called their son Amar, the principal of a local school, who called a taxi to take his father to Rafidia Hospital in Nablus, where he underwent surgery.

The medical report by the Palestinian Health Ministry states that Abu Hussein suffered serious skull fractures. He was hospitalized in intensive care for two days and spent another two days in a regular ward before being discharged.

About a week later, he began to suffer from convulsions and a tingling sensation in his left leg; he was hospitalized again for four days. Since then, he has been taking medication to control the convulsions but is experiencing dizzy spells. Two months after the incident, Abu Hussein doesn’t dare return to the hill. “I’m afraid,” he says. With no one else to tend the flock – his children all work – the only solution is a very expensive one: procuring food somehow, and feeding the animals in the pen. When will you go back to pasturing the animals? “When I feel better, I’m going back.”

On January 15, he filed an assault complaint with the Ariel police department. “Form confirming submission of a complaint, Samaria Police in Ariel, File No. 22313/2019: The charge: Assault causing actual bodily harm. Level: Misdemeanor. Date of start of event: Jan. 5, 2019. Date of end of event: Jan. 5, 2019.” The incident, we recall, occurred on December 26, 2018. The intensive investigation is still proceeding apace.

Abu Hussein also submitted a complaint to the Palestinian police, but they have no authority regarding settlers.

We walked to his pasture land, on the slope of the hill. It’s only about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from his house, but it’s a very steep ascent, dotted with sheep droppings. On one side is the pasture, on the other the cemetery of one of the village clans. Abu Hussein was wounded next to the oak tree. Everything around it is verdant now, full of life.