When Yitzhar Settlers Attack

The violence of the settlers in Yitzhar hardly began with the slashing of the tires. Ask Fuad Shehadeh, 54, who has been hospitalized for six weeks.

Alex Levac

He is suffering from no fewer than 10 fractures – eight along his right leg and two in his left arm – and painful bruises on his head and his right arm. It is a month and a half since Fuad Shehadeh was beaten savagely by masked individuals wielding iron rods who came from the direction of the Yitzhar settlement, near Nablus. He is still in Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, groaning with pain. For a month and a half, he hasn’t been able to stand; for a month and a half, his son has been living in an armchair next to his bed, the two of them alone in a hospital in the big city.

For years, those who were appalled at the violent attacks on Israeli soldiers by Yitzhar settlers have turned a blind eye to the violence of those same settlers against their Palestinian neighbors. The vicious assault on Shehadeh wasn’t even reported in the Israeli media, and the Israel Police have not yet bothered to take his testimony. A gang of 15 or so people, their faces covered, attack a helpless farmer in his olive grove, bludgeon him mercilessly with iron rods, breaking his bones in 10 different places, an Israeli soldier looks on without lifting a finger – and no one is even questioned.

Shehadeh, a decorator aged 54, married and the father of three, runs a small curtain-making business in his home town of Hawara on the outskirts of Nablus. For the past month he’s been in the orthopedic department of Ichilov Hospital, after having spent some two weeks in Rafadiya Hospital in Nablus. After undergoing surgery at Ichilov and spending weeks on his back in bed, his leg and arm are still in a cast and he has a long way to go before he can stand on his feet again. His neighbor in the hospital room is a religiously observant Jew; Shehadeh told him only that he fell and was injured. “He thinks I am a good Arab. If I tell him that settlers did this to me, he might be afraid of me,” Shehadeh says. Our conversation is conducted in a whisper, lest the religious Jew on the other side of the divider overhears and discovers the truth about his Arab neighbor.

The incident occurred on Friday, February 28. That morning, Shehadeh’s friend Ahmed Oudeh suggested they go together to the olive grove that belongs to their families on the slope of the hill above Hawara, some 500 meters from the town. It was the tree-pruning season, so they took some tools and drove to the site in Oudeh’s car.

They worked until midday, together with Shehadeh’s uncle and his children, who had joined them. At about 1:30, they were almost ready to head back home, and they made a small fire to burn the branches they’d pruned. The uncle and his children walked down the hill. Shehadeh and Oudeh collected the tools, loaded them into the latter’s Renault Express and got into the van for the short trip home.

As they drove in reverse on their way out of the grove, the van was suddenly pelted by a volley of stones – the overture to the pogrom. A dozen or so masked individuals, who came, Shehadeh says, from the direction of Yitzhar, loomed before them, armed with iron rods and stones. They did not have firearms. Oudeh tried to turn the vehicle around to get away, but he was in a panic and it stalled. “Let’s get out and run for it,” Shehadeh urged, deathly afraid. Stones continued to smash against the van.

The two started to run down the hill toward Hawara, leaving the Renault behind. After taking a few steps, Shehadeh saw an iron rod land on his leg. “The leg was broken on the spot,” he says. Staggered by the intensity of the blow and the pain, he fell to the ground on his back. Then he saw six more masked vandals coming toward him up the hill, in addition to the dozen charging from above. They rained down blows with the metal rods as he lay helpless on the ground. Shehadeh tried to protect his head with his hands, “so they wouldn’t smash it open.”

“On the head, give it to him on the head,” Shehadeh, who speaks fluent Hebrew, heard one of the assailants say. “I saw my grave with my mind’s eye,” he recalls.

One of the blows struck his hand, with which he was protecting his head, fracturing it in two places. The others hammered down on his legs, fracturing one of them in eight places, along its entire length. He was also struck on the side of the head, causing the area to swell up, and on his other arm. “All six of them were on me and all of them were beating me.”

An Israel Defense Forces soldier who was standing not far away observed the scene. He made no effort to stop the assailants, who stood above Shehadeh, who lay wounded on the ground. Oudeh came to Shehadeh’s aid by throwing stones at the attackers. It was only then, according to Shehadeh, that the soldier who was watching the incident ordered the attackers to desist. “Yallah, enough,” he heard the soldier say.

At which point the assailants left. Friends from Harawa who were summoned urgently to the scene rushed Shehadeh to the hospital in Nablus. On March 16, he was moved to the orthopedic department at Ichilov. There he underwent surgery and has been hospitalized since. He was informed by the Palestinian Coordination and Liaison Directorate that the Israel Police had detained (and released) the assailants, who claimed that “he was going to burn Yitzhar” and that “he is not allowed to be there.” Yitzhar is three to four kilometers from the olive grove where Shehadeh was pruning trees. The only fire he lit was to burn the deadwood.

Now and then his son Mohammed, 20, wheels him down to the hospital courtyard in the bed. Shehadeh’s brother, who has a permit to work in Israel, visits him occasionally. The rest of the family is denied entry into Israel. To this day, Shehadeh has not heard anything from the Israel Police. No one has asked him to make a statement, not even now, when he is hospitalized in Israel. He was told they might phone him, but they did not. Palestinian liaison staff told him to go to the police and give testimony after he is discharged. There’s no rush – in any case, no one will do anything with the testimony.

He says he would not be able to identify the assailants, because they were masked. “If the police want to, they could find them,” he says. But he can identify the soldier who stood by and did nothing. “Happy holiday,” he tells us as we part on Passover eve.

The Israeli organization Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights, which is handling Shehadeh’s case with the Israeli law enforcement authorities, last week published the data from their inquiries of the past two years. No fewer than 97.3 percent of the investigations of violent events in the Yitzhar area, where attacks by settlers are rampant, ended with no results. To put it another way: The probes failed. Of 45 cases that were investigated, only one produced an indictment.

Shehadeh’s case is likely to be added to these disgraceful statistics, which tell the whole story. Yesh Din has approached the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers and the headquarters of the Samaria and Judea District police. Shehadeh’s friend, Ahmed Oudeh, filed a complaint the day after the attack. Shehadeh is still waiting for police to come to the hospital and take his testimony.

The spokesperson for the Judea and Samaria district of the police, in response to a query this week, told Haaretz that, after checking, it had no knowledge of the incident at Hawara. After receiving the police file number from us, the spokesperson hastily promised to send an investigator to Shehadeh – a month and a half after the attack and the filing of a complaint. It then sent the following statement:  “After receiving an inquiry from Yesh Din regarding the investigation of the mutual attack between Palestinians and masked settlers, adjacent to Hawara, an investigator was sent to take testimony from the injured party, and to continue the investigation to determine the identity of the attackers. At the direction of the district command, an officer was appointed to check the handling of the investigation.”