The last row of houses in the village of Asira al-Qibliya, near Nablus in the West Bank, looks like a sort of fortress. Eight residential dwellings whose windows are protected with bars, courtesy of a European aid organization, their yards covered with a smattering of stones that have been thrown at them, encompassed by a fence, doors shuttered. The violent mountaintop settlement of Yitzhar next door has the people of this outlying region – not to say war zone – cringing with terror. The mobile homes of Shalhevet, one of nine unauthorized outposts that Yitzhar has spawned, are visible from the yard of the last house in Asira, looming ominously on a hilltop above the rest of the Palestinian village.
Across the way is an Israel Defense Forces base whose soldiers almost always show up together with the settler-ruffians, protecting them and sometimes also joining in the attacks on their Palestinian victims, firing live rounds into the air as well as stun grenades and tear gas. Next to Shalhevet’s trailers stands a round green structure. When there’s a light on inside, villagers say, they’re calm, but when it’s dark it’s a sign that yet another “price tag” action – some sort of retaliatory act – can be expected. Hence their name for the structure: the “price tag building.”
Occupants of that last row of homes in Asira know the drill: gather the children into one room, especially on weekends – “Friday-Saturday” is synonymous here with settler assaults – and turn up the volume of the television when they approach, so the frightened children won’t hear the barrage of stones the settlers let loose at their homes or the sounds of the soldiers’ stun grenades and shooting. Every night of the week a man from a different family stays awake to guard and to warn others if something is happening. That’s been the routine for almost 20 years. Last weekend, too.
Abd al-Basath Ahmed is a hardscrabble construction worker of 50 and the father of seven children, one of them with special needs. Last Saturday, he was at home with his wife Maisa and the family while the neighbors, some of them his relatives, went out to harvest olives in their groves nearby. Ahmed’s house and that of one of his sons are the last two houses in Asira; a simple metal fence separates them from a valley below and the hill on the other side where Yitzhar is perched. The fence was torn this week, following the latest attack by the settlers.
At about 3:30 P.M. on Saturday, he told us when we visited this week, Ahmed’s nephew, who lives in the house behind his, called to say that he could see settlers descending from the mountain. Ahmed immediately looked outside. This time they were coming from the northeast, from the direction of Shalhevet. Ahmed spotted a group of 18 to 20 settler men, dressed in white – they always wear white, in honor of the Sabbath – marching down the slope of the hill toward the village. When they drew closer they put on masks, as they always do. They carried stones. Big ones, some of them folded up in their shirts. Ahmed’s impression was that they were an organized group, all apparently in their 20s.
Quickly he hustled the children and grandchildren into his house and went up to the roof with Maisa to see what lay in store. The raiders were busy breaching the metal fence outside his yard. Ahmed decided to go down to try to stop them, a stick in his hand. His fear was that the group would break into his house, and he was the only adult male left in the area; all the others were helping in the olive harvest.
The settlers tore open the fence, and one of them entered the yard. A hail of stones was unleashed by the others. Ahmed had nowhere to escape and no way of protecting himself. One stone struck his skull, another his left shoulder and a third slammed into his thigh, smashing the mobile phone in his pocket. The settlers didn’t utter a word, he recalled, only threw stones.
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Ahmed is wearing stained work clothes, his face etched with weariness, as he talks to us. As blood streamed from his head, he says, the settlers retreated: They had had enough. But by then, the army had arrived from the hill across the way, from the all-seeing base overlooking the entire area. As usual, the mission of the soldiers, six in number this time, was to protect the assailants. They aimed stun grenades at Ahmed’s house, while acting as a buffer between it and the settlers and firing live ammunition in the air. The empty casings remained in his yard. Material evidence.
The soldiers were relatively restrained this time, Ahmed relates: Breaking with custom, they didn’t fire tear gas into the house. He terms this a “gesture.” He has a permanent kit to be used against tear gas, at home: rags soaked in a solution of baking soda. It helps, he says. They also have a fire extinguisher, for any contingency.
The settlers actually renewed their stone throwing when the soldiers showed up. Hiding behind the troops, they apparently felt safer, more protected. The soldiers didn’t lift a finger to stop them – they never do, Ahmed says. They ordered him to hide until a Palestinian ambulance arrived to take him for treatment. He sat in a corner of the yard, blood oozing from his head; Maisa tried to stanch the bleeding with a piece of cloth. In the meantime, seven more settlers showed up to join their friends. Ahmed waited an hour for the ambulance to arrive; the soldiers made no effort to assist or evacuate him.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office issued the following response on Wednesday to Haaretz: “Last Saturday, there was friction between Israelis and Palestinians in the village of Asira al-Qibliya, which involved the throwing of stones by both sides. An IDF force was dispatched to the scene to serve as a barrier between those disturbing the peace, in order to put an end to the incident, among other ways by means of crowd dispersal. As opposed to what has been claimed, the stun grenades that were in use were not directed at the house in the village.”
Ahmed was taken to Rafadiya Hospital in Nablus, where he received six stitches in his head and then was released.
A few months ago, when the Israeli Civil Administration removed a mobile home, deemed illegal in Yitzhar, the settlers’ attacks intensified, taking place daily over the course of a week. That was the outlet for their anger.
This situation has continued unabated since 2002. In some cases the settlers raid the village at night and damage residents’ cars – as they did in 2012, setting some vehicles on fire – but for the most part they attack the houses at the edge of the village stones, and don’t dare enter it.
In April, Ahmed’s brother planted a fig tree in the area between his house and the hill across the valley. Yitzhar’s security officer arrived immediately and ordered him to uproot the tree. He refused. The next morning he found the tree had been set on fire.
Two years ago, the same brother tried to file a complaint with the police after settlers torched his taxi. Following a humiliating wait of hours, he was told by the police that he hadn’t paid an old traffic ticket, and that unless he did so they would not accept his complaint. Since then, the family has stopped making complaints to the police about the attacks on them.
In some instances the settlers arrive only to provoke or frighten the villagers. They take up positions next to the metal fence near the houses and dance and sing. One way or another, there isn’t a quiet Saturday.
“And now another Shabbat is coming,” Ahmed told us with a bitter smile before we parted.
The yard of a house in another village, Burin, on the other side of Yitzhar. Imad Zaben, a blacksmith of 59, sits surrounded by his wife and children, wearing a neck brace following the spinal surgery he underwent three weeks ago.
Last Friday, the day before the attack on Asira al-Qibliya, wearing his brace, Zaben and his family – his wife, his brother and some children and grandchildren – were harvesting olives in the family grove about three kilometers from Yitzhar, in the valley below. Never had they encountered problems during the harvest; this time, too, the day began quietly.
But after a few uneventful hours, at around 12:30, stones began to rain down on them from above. Zaben’s son, Mohammed, 32, suffered a skull fracture when he was struck by a stone. Another son, 28 (who asked that his name not be used), suffered a broken arm; a stone fractured the arm of Zaben’s brother, Bashir, 64; and his nephew, Ahmed, 34, Bashir’s son, was also struck in the arm. All told, four members of one family were injured. Zaben, who was careful and very worried because of his back surgery, managed to emerge unscathed; his sons protected him bodily.
The rain of stones surprised them: Because the settlers throwing them were situated above them, just meters away, on the hill, initially, the Zaben family didn’t see them.
“In the name of God, don’t throw stones at us,” they pleaded with the settlers, who didn’t utter a word but kept up their barrage – as in Asira the following day.
Despite his head injury Mohammed rode off on the horse he had brought to the site, and the settlers started to flee, though not before throwing a few more stones. Other members of the family quickly got into their cars and hurried home. Mohammed was taken by ambulance to Rafadiya Hospital and from there was transferred to the intensive care unit in Istishari Hospital in Ramallah. He was discharged after three days.
The Zaben family won’t be returning to their grove this harvest season.