Gideon Levy

When Settlers Beat Palestinian Fathers in Front of Their Sons

A 45-year-old Palestinian farmer who was gathering food for his sheep was violently assaulted by settlers from a nearby outpost who regularly launch attacks on villagers, entering their homes and beating them

Jumaa Rabai in the hospital.
Alex Levac

The corridor near the entrance to the operating room, on the third floor of Princess Alia Hospital in Hebron, just after 1 P.M. on Monday. About a dozen family members are sitting on a bench, waiting for their loved one to emerge from surgery that had begun some four hours beforehand. Finally the door opens. An orderly pushes a hospital bed toward the elevator and from there to room 7 in the surgical ward one floor down.

Jumaa Rabai, 45, is lying on the bed, eyes half-shut, still groggy from the anesthetic, an IV attached to his arm. Gray-haired and bearded, dressed in a white hospital robe, he’s covered with a blue synthetic blanket. Occasionally he mumbles something to the family members gathered around his bed – among them his firstborn son, Raafat, 21, and his youngest child, a 7-month-old daughter in the arms of her mother, Saria, 40. The couple have eight children.

Three days earlier, last Friday. The Palestinian village of Al-Tuwani, in the South Hebron Hills. Rabai got up at 5 A.M. and headed for his fields, about two kilometers away, where he intended to gather fodder to feed his small herd of sheep. Before leaving home, he asked Raafat to follow about an hour later with the family’s mule, which would bring back the two sacks of food to the pen next to the family’s home.

The village’s calamity is Havat Maon, a rogue outpost of violent settlers that was established in the adjacent grove as a satellite of the settlement of Maon. Villagers relate that settlers enter their homes at night and threaten and beat people, and that there are repeated attacks on shepherds in the fields as well.

In the last two weeks, Havat Maon settlers have run wild and attacked farmers from Al-Tuwani. On Friday morning two weeks ago – after the morning prayers in the village mosque – some 10 Israelis made their way from Havat Maon to the village and threw stones at homes and cars there. The windshields of two cars were shattered; a 29-year-old Palestinian was lightly wounded.

That evening, unknown assailants damaged about 20 trees belonging to villagers. When dozens of locals arrived at the scene to assess the damage, a few dozen armed settlers from Havat Maon swooped down on them. Two young people, Basil Edra and Baker Rabai, suffered light injuries after being beaten. One of the armed Israelis entered the local mosque, from which worshipers fled when he threatened them with his rifle.

This is the way these villagers live. And the same routine repeated itself last Friday, too, when the farmer Jumaa Rabai went to his field early in the morning.

While Jumaa was undergoing surgery, we sat in the hospital courtyard with blue-eyed Raafat, who was a witness to last Friday’s violence. He’s naturally shy, but the traumatic effects of the assault on his father are plain to see on him. He tells us that the family herd numbers 16 sheep, but they also look after another 60 sheep that belong to his grandmother, Fatma.

Last year, Raafat snuck into Israel and worked for about half a year tiling floors in the Bedouin locality of Segev Shalom. After being caught twice by the police, however, and knowing that a third arrest would mean a prison term, he says he no longer tries to enter Israel to work. Since then, the young man, who is engaged to be married, has been compelled to make do with earning a living by helping his father in his agricultural work.

At about six o’clock on Friday morning, an hour after his father left home, Raafat set out with the mule for the field, which is a few hundred meters away from Havat Maon. It was light outside by the time he arrived. Below, in the valley, he saw his father collecting food for the sheep. After tying the mule to a tree, he walked down the hill to Jumaa, who had already filled one sack. Raafat took it and started to walk back, to load it on the mule, before returning to help his father again.

A few dozen meters separated father and son. All was quiet and tranquil, when suddenly Raafat saw Jumaa break into a run as though he were trying to escape from someone or something. At first he didn’t understand what had got into his father, but very quickly he noticed five figures who had burst into the field from the direction of Havat Maon. One was in hot pursuit of his father.

At one point, the settler struck Jumaa on the foot with his rifle butt, but the Palestinian continued to run for his life, jumping into a bush in an effort to hide, without knowing what lay below it: He fell down a hill a distance of about two meters, twisting and mangling his leg.

Raafat heard his father screaming in pain. He saw the Israeli draw close and hit his father in the head with his rifle butt, as he lay helpless at the foot of the hill. Raafat recognized the man from an attack the previous week, when he had also acted brutally. Jumaa urged his son to escape, so the thugs wouldn’t hurt him, too. When the settler aimed his pistol at Raafat, he did indeed back off a few dozen meters.

While his father lay injured and groaning with pain, Raafat hid in the bushes and called volunteers from “Operation Dove” – Christian peace activists from Italy who live in Al-Tuwani and help protect the villagers. He also summoned some of his fellow villagers, along with a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Nassar Nawaja, who lives in nearby Susiya. The settlers, understanding that he was calling for help, ran off. Raafat heard one of the say, “Let’s beat it, the Arabs are coming.”

It took the villagers half an hour to get to the site. In the meantime, Raafat had reached his father, who was lying on his side on the ground, writhing in agony. He tried to help him get up, but his injured leg buckled.

In the meantime, three Israel Defense Forces soldiers arrived at the scene, after having been summoned. The terrain is impassable for a vehicle, so one soldier went up the hill to fetch a stretcher to move the wounded man. In the meantime, however, a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance arrived from the town of Yatta, and parked on the hill above in order to evacuate Jumaa. All told, about an hour and a half passed from the time his father was injured until he was moved.

The ambulance took Raafat’s father to a clinic in Yatta, and from there to the Hebron hospital. Three fractures were diagnosed in his left thigh, above the knee. Another B’Tselem field researcher, Musa Abu Hashhash, who also arrived at the hospital to investigate the incident, relates that Jumaa continued to suffer from searing pain until he underwent surgery this week.

We sat with the family outside the operating room, in the hospital’s new wing, which was built with World Bank funding and dedicated in 2016, according to a marble plaque on the wall. The family seemed to take the violent incident in stride, the way one would react to some sort of recurring natural disaster. They have become accustomed to this outrageous situation, in which their lives are in constant danger, their honor is trampled, fathers are beaten before the eyes of their sons, their land is plundered – and no one protects them. They say they may submit a complaint to the Israeli police about the assault, although they know that nothing will come of it.

From the roof of the hospital, the whole city of Hebron is spread out below – a very large city where only one huge flag is visible, flapping in the breeze above a building in the heart of the urban sprawl. An Israeli flag, flying above a settler house in the city.