As Coronavirus Spreads in West Bank, Palestinians Also Face Greater Settler Violence

A worrying rise in violence might correlate with Israel closing down educational institutions — and if there are no legal consequences, observers fear it will only get worse

Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
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Naji Tantara being taken to hospital after being attacked with an ax in the village of Umm Safa in the West Bank, March 24, 2020.
Naji Tantara being taken to hospital after being attacked with an ax in the village of Umm Safa in the West Bank, March 24, 2020.Credit: Courtesy of Naji Tantara
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf

On March 24, in the West Bank, Naji Tantara was hospitalized with a skull fracture after being attacked with an ax. Arua Nasan was hit in the face with a hammer and beaten by youths with iron rods. Eight settlers surrounded Ali Zoabi while he was lying on the ground, and kicked him repeatedly.

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Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

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Israeli security forces and human rights organizations have recorded a rise in attacks on Palestinians by Jews in the West Bank in the past few weeks. Sources in both attribute it to the Israeli government closing down educational institutions because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Violent incidents.

According to data provided to Haaretz by a defense official, 16 physical confrontations were recorded in March between settlers and Palestinians, compared to only nine in February and five in January. Human rights organizations operating in the area corroborate the trend: Out of the 51 cases of violence, vandalism, theft and threats recorded by monitor B’Tselem since the beginning of 2020, 21 took place in March alone.

Ax, hammer and iron rods

On March 24, in the early afternoon, a settler and his herd of cows arrived at the olive orchard of the village of Umm Safa north of Ramallah. Residents of the village who spoke with Haaretz said the settler is known to them, has lived in the nearby agricultural outpost for the past two years and occasionally tries to prevent village residents from walking around the area.

Said Tantara, a resident of the village, says that when the cattle arrived at the orchard, a few youths threw rocks at the herd in an attempt to drive them off. Naji Tantara, Said’s cousin and the deputy head of the village council, said he came down to the site to speak with the settler and ask him to distance his cows from the orchard.

Several minutes later, say Naji and Said, four more settlers showed up – two of them with rifles, one with an ax and another with a wooden club. Naji said he felt blows on his head and back and lost his consciousness. A short while later soldiers arrived and the assailants fled, they say. Naji was brought to hospital in Ramallah where he underwent surgery for a skull fracture.

“I spent five days in hospital and left the moment I could, fearing I’d contract corona,” Naji, 45, says. “I still lose my balance every time I try to get up, and feel dizzy. Ordinarily I’d have stayed in the hospital longer – but this is not an ordinary situation.”

Two days later, says Said, policemen came to the village, after having received a report of the incident. But nothing had been heard of the police since then.

Arua Nasan, of the village of Al-Mo’eir north of Ramallah, says that he and his cousin were on their way to pick akub (known as dwarf chicory in English, or Gundelia tournefortii in Latin, it is a wild plant popular in Palestinian dishes) at the Ein Samia spring, which is frequented by both settlers and Palestinians in the region.

The Ein Samia spring in the West Bank

“We were on the main road when we saw three settlers on donkeys heading our way,” he said. “At first we didn’t even see they were settlers. They were 16-17 years old, practically children, and when they came close to us they asked what we were doing here and said we’re not allowed to come here.”

At this stage, one of the youths phoned someone, he says. Within minutes two cars showed up from the direction of the settlement of Kochav Hashahar.

Nasan’s cousin doubled back to call for the help of a military vehicle they had seen nearby, and the youths shouted at Nasan to throw down the hoe, with which he had been planning to pick the akub with. “I didn’t throw it down because I wanted to keep it for self—defense,” he says. One settler threw a hammer at him, hitting him in the face, while the others beat him with metal rods, he says.

At that point the military vehicle drove up and most of the youths got into a car and fled the scene. The soldiers took the phone numbers of those who remained. “I told them to check the boys’ phones and see who they had called to come and attack me,” Nasan says.

He was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with injuries to the jaw and shoulder. He was released several hours later, and filed a complaint the following day at the Binyamin police station in the West Bank.

“I want to see if they do anything about it – after all, if I had hit someone Jewish I’d be in prison now,” he says. So far no one has spoken to him from the police. “If they do nothing I’ll know the law doesn’t protect me – not as a Palestinian or an Israeli – but as a human being,” he says.

‘Violence will only increase and spread’

Information gathered by the Yesh Din human rights NGO shows that 91 percent of the cases opened by Israel Police in the West Bank following complaints of settlers’ crimes are closed without charge.

“The quantity and severity of the violent cases we’ve handled in recent weeks is mind boggling,” says Yesh Din Director Lior Amihai.

“As long as authorities continue to disregard Palestinians’ lives instead of protecting them and arresting the hooligans, the settlers’ violence will only increase and spread,” he says.

The former settlement of Homesh, in the West Bank

Over the last few weeks, residents of villages near the Homesh settlement, which was evacuated in 2005 as part of the disengagement plan, have reported five violent incidents perpetrated by settlers. Despite the settlement’s evacuation, Palestinian landowners haven’t been allowed for years to access their lands there, while settlers have come to the symbolic site frequently, and even established a yeshiva on it.

Last December, the court ordered the state to enable Palestinian land owners access to Homesh, but the settlers at the site still won’t allow them to come anywhere close.

Ali Zoabi, a resident of the nearby Fandaqumiya village, says he was going to pick za’atar on his land with another villager, Asam, on March 24. They left at about 5 P.M. because they were told the settlers leave the site in the early evening.

“We didn’t see them at first, but suddenly eight settlers who must have been hiding behind a rock appeared,” says Asam. “I ran in one direction and Ali in another, but I could still see what happened.”

Ali Zoabi receiving medical care after being beaten by Israeli settlers near the former settlement of Homesh, West Bank, March 24, 2020.
Ali Zoabi receiving medical care after being beaten by Israeli settlers near the former settlement of Homesh, West Bank, March 24, 2020.Credit: Courtesy of Ali Zoabi

Ali says he fell while running away, and the group surrounded him and kicked him. A few minutes later a Palestinian car drove by and the assailants fled. Ali was taken to Jenin, where he was hospitalized for two days with injuries to his arms and legs.

Asam reported the incident to the Palestinian coordinating office in Nablus and Jenin, which is in charge of coordination with Israel, he says.

Four days earlier, when Ali went up the mountain, stones were thrown at him, he says. Asam says that since the coronavirus outbreak, violent incidents have increased.

“The increase is clearly felt,” he says. “They have no shame and at this stage won’t let anyone from the village go there.”

On other occasions, assailants from settlements have vandalized Palestinians’ property. On March 15, windows of 12 cars in Huwara, near the restive settlement of Yitzhar, were smashed and their tyres slashed. The cars belonged to Abadallah Odeh, who owns a car lot in the town. The incident was captured on CCTV, on the very same day, police officers and soldiers came to collect the footage. Odeh was told they had opened an investigation, but since then nothing has been done.

“They told me they’d be back the following day, but nobody has spoken to me since,” he says.

The police commented that they take a grim view of any act of violence or thuggery and that complaints to the police are investigated “professionally and thoroughly.”

“Complaints were filed about the described recent incidents and investigations have been launched and are ongoing, apart from the incident on the 24th in Homesh, about which no complaint has been made,” a police statement said.

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