How to Chase Palestinians Off Their Land

Residents from ten Israeli shepherd outposts north of Ramallah found a formula that works: attack Palestinians, then claim you were attacked first

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70-year-old Mohammed Mleihat Ka'abneh points at the field where he was attacked. 'They struck me on the head with clubs, and my arms and from behind.'
70-year-old Mohammed Mleihat Ka'abneh points at the field where he was attacked. 'They struck me on the head with clubs, and my arms and from behind.'Credit: Nadal Shatya
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

At 7:30 PM, the assailants arrived at the tent where Hajar and Mustafa Ka'abneh live in the family encampment at Ras al-Tin, northeast of Ramallah. “We were sitting in the tent, and suddenly, four civilian cars and a military one showed up,” Ka'abneh said. “Around 15 Settlers got out of them and another four or five soldiers. I stood at the entrance to the tent. More than one settler attacked me. One of them beat me with a club and someone sprayed pepper spray into my eyes. My wife came out, and one of them attacked her with a club. Not one strike. Five. She passed out.”

It happened on June 14. Two weeks later, in a conversation with Haaretz, Mustafa and his sons also mentioned a shot being fired into the air and the throwing of a tear gas canister. Hajar was hospitalized for 10 days with a skull fracture, bleeding in the brain and a broken arm. She had two operations. Mustafa was rushed to the hospital to run tests in light of his head wound and with a bruised shoulder. No fracture was found, and the wound in his head was cleaned.

The all-female, illegal outpost of Maoz Esther is seen in front of the Israeli settlement of Kohav HaShahar. Two other illegal outposts can be seen in the background.Credit: Nadal Shatya

The ridge on which Ras al-Tin is located is east of the villages of Kafr Malik and Al-Mughayyir. Some communities of the Ka'abneh tribe are spread on the ridge in a few compounds. Originally living in the South Hebron Hills, many families were pushed northward in the 1970s because of military bases and firing zones being declared. In recent years, new neighbors have arrived.

In an area of 65,000 dunams (about 16,000 acres), about 10 Israeli shepherds’ outposts have been established, unauthorized and illegal. These are the advance guards of settlements and outposts like Adei-Ad, Kokhav Hashahar, Rimonim and Mevo’ot Yeriho.

And as the outposts multiply, the area in which Palestinians can tend sheep and till fields shrinks. Like everywhere in the West Bank, Israelis don’t make do with letting their animals grazing in areas that have been used by the Palestinians for decades and more. They also invade the sown barley and wheat fields of villagers and Bedouins. In some cases, the Israelis assault and wound Palestinians; in most cases, they damage their flocks, their fields, their orchards, their harvest, their animal field and agricultural equipment.
Giving orders to soldiers

Between January and last Wednesday (July 6), 40 assaults by Jewish Israelis against Palestinian farmers and shepherds have been documented (out of 370 assaults by Israelis against Palestinians documented by the United Nations in that period in the entire West Bank, including East Jerusalem).

The assaults have occurred against residents in the villages of Deir Jarir, Taibeh, Al-Mughayyir and Kafr Malik, and against the Bedouin communities from Auja in the east to Ras al-Tin and Ein al-Rashash in the west. Over times, the Palestinians and Israeli activists escorting them to work their fields have learned to recognize some of their attackers and some of the shepherds living in the outpost.

Mustafa Ka'abneh, right, and his brother Mohammed, last month. 'We were sitting in the tent, and suddenly, four civilian cars and a military one showed up.'Credit: Nadal Shatya

Among the trespassers at Mustafa and Hajar’s encampment on June 14 was “someone tall, who we’ve seen a few times wearing an army uniform, but this time he was in civilian clothes, with a mandil” – a sheet of cloth – “on his head,” Mustafa Ka'abneh said. The man gave orders to the soldiers, “arrest this one, do that,” Ka'abneh added.

Hajar and Mustafa’s two sons were arrested at the scene, handcuffed and blindfold by the soldiers. “When we stood there like that, cuffed and with our eyes covered, they (settlers? soldiers? who knows) walked by and struck us,” one of their sons said. Mustafa was arrested by the soldiers at dawn on June 15, a few hours after returning from the hospital.

During their interrogation at the Binyamin police headquarters, they deduced the settlers were claiming that shortly before, they had assaulted a 15-year-old Jewish boy who was herding sheep near Kokhav Hashahar – an accusation they utterly rejected. Mustafa said he asked the police to allow him to treat the wound on his head, but that they said there was “no need.” (The police spokesman’s office said in response to a request for comment: “If complaints are raised against the conduct of police at an incident, they are to be examined by the authorized officials.”) The three were confined to Ofer Prison, north of the settlement of Givat Ze’ev. Mustafa was released on bail three days after he was assaulted. The two sons were released on bail four days later.
A spike, after years of gradual increase

The police have not been able to find evidence supporting their allegations against them of stone-throwing, assault and harm to area security, although they were given six days to complete the investigation, following the first ruling by the military judge, Lt. Col. Avri Einhorn, to release them on bail. Einhorn wrote in his ruling on June 16: “An examination of the investigative material reveals disagreements in testimonies about the very fact of the first assault and what happened at the home of the suspects, when local Jewish residents arrived accompanied by the military, which the military force apparently did not supervise sufficiently and allowed the parties to mutually attack each other.” A mutual attack? In the Bedouin compound on which the settlers trespassed, uninvited?

The remains of Hajar and Mustafa Ka'abneh's family encampment at Ras al-Tin, northeast of Ramallah.Credit: Nadal Shatya

According to the army spokesman’s version, in a response to a query by Haaretz, the military force arrived on the scene after the settlers, and not with them. The spokesman did not reiterate the claim of a teenage Israeli boy having been assaulted beforehand and said: “On June 14, a physical dispute was reported between a number of settlers and Palestinians near the settlement of Kokhav Hashahar. A military force arrived at the site to disperse the dispute. During the action, two Palestinians threw stones at the force. Subsequently, the force arrested two suspects who were involved in the incident and they were taken for further police interrogation.”

The police spokesman’s office said: “Following a report and a complaint received of a suspected violent act in the area near Kokhav Hashahar, the police launched an investigation, in the framework of which those suspected of assaulting a number of settlers were arrested. With its conclusion, the military prosecution decided to release them under restrictions.”

Forty assaults by Israelis in six months in an area of about 65 square kilometers: This is a spike, after years of gradual increase. In all of 2021, according to the United Nations records, there were 26 Israeli assaults against Palestinian farmers and shepherds in the area. In 2020, there were 27 assaults, 23 in 2019, and 14 in 2018.

To Mustafa Ka'abneh’s family, the ever-intensifying message of the assailants and their protectors in the army and the police was loud and clear, and they left their home three weeks later, on July 3: Fourteen souls, a flock of sheep, a few tents and some collapsible wooden structures. That was not the first time. About two years earlier, the family left its previous residence near the spring of Ein Samia. “That same settler who attacked us this time, he was the setter who harassed us and others three years ago, and because of him we left the place then,” Mustafa said. Indeed, the outpost known as “Micah’s Farm,” established near the spring in 2018, moved a bit farther north nearer to the Ras al-Tin encampment.

Others have also been forced to leave, under the pressure of increased violence by Jewish shepherds in the area, and what is perceived as a green light and backing from the police (who arrest the victims) and the army, which protects the assailants. According to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, over the past two years at least a dozen Bedouin families have left the places where they have lived for decades, as well as their animals’ grazing grounds. Precisely because of this methodical Israeli violence, Ascherman, among the founders of the human rights group Torat Tzedek, and other Jewish Israelis have been accompanying the shepherds and the villagers on their way to their lands for years. Before their very eyes, an undeclared and unpublicized expulsion is taking place, little by little but methodically, and despite their many approaches to the military, the police and the Civil Administration, in real time. Now, the expulsion is showing signs of acceleration.

Mustafa Ka'abneh's family encampment at Ras al-Tin, northeast of Ramallah, before it was dismantled.Credit: Nadal Shatya

The pattern of violence from the shepherds’ outposts comes up in hundreds of media reports and investigations, the most recent of which is by Dror Etkes of research group Kerem Navot, entitled “The Wild West: Grazing, Seizing and Looting by Israeli Settlers in the West Bank.” As of the date of publication of the report in June, there were a total of 77 settler outposts whose economies were based on the herding of sheep and cattle, most of which were established over the past decade.

Overall, there are around 170 unauthorized outposts of all kinds (some though have been legalized). The pattern shows careful and precise planning. Etkes found that through these shepherd outposts, settlers have taken over some 240,000 dunams, almost 7 percent of Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli military, administrative and planning authority. Etkes estimates that just in the area discussed in this article, between Auja and Mughayyir, and without including the approximately 6,000 dunams taken over by settlements in the area, the approximately 10 shepherds’ outposts have managed to take over about 29,000 dunams of Palestinian land, driving out Palestinian shepherds and farmers. As of now.

And in fact, as these lines are being written (on Saturday, July 10, the first day of Eid al-Adha) another extended family is packing up its belongings and flocks at Ras al-Tin – parents, daughters and sons, some with families of their own – on their way to an area west of the Allon Road. The family was assaulted on July 6, a day after a group of Israelis demanded some of its members to leave a nearby grazing land.

Afterward, on Wednesday evening, eight Israelis trespassed onto their tent compound, and according to testimony obtained by Haaretz, stole slabs of wood and animal feed and set fire to them, and threw coals and embers at residences. For more than four hours, they danced and shouted around four bonfires they had set, said the frightened family, which didn’t dare get closer to protect its property. The family says that they called the police several times. (The police spokesman did not respond to Haaretz’s query on the matter. Israeli activists were told by police that its hotline did not receive reports of this assault on that night)

Among the 10 Jewish shepherds’ outposts in the area, the most veteran and prosperous is the one known as Omer’s Farm, established in 2004 in the Ain Al-Auja Valley north of Jericho. The youngest outpost, as of July 11, popped up about four months ago a few kilometers to the west in a crevice north of the road that winds its way upward from the Auja plain to Taybeh Junction.

This is an offshoot from an older outpost, near the settlement of Rimonim. Mevo’ot Yeriho, an unauthorized farming settlement from the 2000s (which the government legalized in 2019) delivered last year another shepherd outpost. These three outposts, with their flocks and their shepherds, are taking over the grazing lands that have been used for decades by Palestinian shepherds: those who live in permanent dwellings in the village of Auja, and those of the Ka'abneh tribe who live in tents and shacks south of Taybeh-Auja Road. By various means, whether by threats, outright violence or through soldiers who declare the area “closed,” the settlers block the access of the Palestinian shepherds and their flocks to grazing land.

On Saturday June 18, at 4 PM, Mohammed Mleihat Ka'abneh, aged about 70, went out to graze his flock and his brother’s flock in the field on the other side of the road. Immediately, an Israeli car appeared, he told Haaretz about two weeks later. Three men exited the car holding clubs. Ka'abneh recognized the fourth man as the owner of a flock in the new outpost in the crevice. “They struck me on the head with clubs, and my arms and from behind,” he said. “I fell down. My relatives saw me from the encampment and came to rescue me, but the soldiers prevented them from approaching me.” When he was a boy, right after 1967, he stepped on an old mine that blew up in the area of the former border at Beit Hanina and lost his leg. Now, he couldn’t even think about fleeing his assailants.

Children walk in the family encampment at Ras al-Tin before its destruction.Credit: Nadal Shatya

After the attack, he discovered that his prosthesis had been cracked. Where he’ll get the money for a new prosthesis is a question that hurts him even more than the pain in his head. He believes that he lay bleeding alone for about an hour before he was put in a Palestinian ambulance that took him to the hospital in Jericho for treatment. The ambulance driver told him that an Israeli came out of Omer’s Farm and struck the ambulance with his car.

One of those who ran to help him was his nephew, Ibrahim Mleihat. . He told Haaretz: “I was just coming back from my construction job in Ramallah, and I heard that the settlers had attacked my uncle. I hurried in my car. I got there about a quarter or half an hour after the assault began. Soldiers and settlers stopped us, didn’t let us approach him and also hit us. Settlers questioned us as if they were police, they checked the car, took our i.d.’s and cellphones, gave instructions to the soldiers. After, I found out that some of my work tools were missing.”

Ibrahim and five of his relatives were arrested. “They laid us on the ground, cuffed our hands behind us,” he said. They were taken to the Binyamin police station and questioned on suspicion of attacking the Israelis and harming the area’s security. They denied all the claims against them. Two were released there, and the four others were taken to Ofer Prison and found themselves in the same cell with the sons of Mustafa and Hajar.

They were released on bail six days later, without an indictment. The military court’s minutes mention settlers from Mevo’ot Yeriho who had supposedly been assaulted by the Mleihat family. Ruling to release the men, the military judge, Maj. Uriel Dreyfus, stated: “I found no medical records in the file that would attests to the bruises of the Jewish residents, but medical records were presented attesting to the injuries of the sheikh,” he wrote, referring to Mohammad Mleihat.

The military spokesman, on the other hand, stated in response to Haaretz query: “On June 18, 2022, a report was received of a Palestinian acting violently against an Israeli teenage boy who was herding sheep in the area of Mevo’ot Yeriho. Before a military force reached the location, about 30 Palestinians gathered who assaulted with clubs and stones a group of Israelis who had also come to the site. The military force went to the site and began to disperse the crowd and separate those involved to stop the rioting and violence in the sector. After dispersing the crowd, a number of Palestinians clashed with IDF combat troops. A number of suspects with knives, axes and clubs were arrested by the soldiers.”

“The settlers were filming the whole time,” Ibrahim Mleihat said. “If we had attacked the settlers, there would have already been an indictment against us and we would not have been released,” he added. Mleihat said that he and his relatives asked to file a police complaint when they were arrested, but the police refused. “They only heard the settler who claimed that we tried to attack him,” he said.

When his uncle Mohammed got out of the hospital, he went to the Binyamin police station to file a complaint, and was told that there was no Arabic-speaking detective and to return the next day. And so he did. The detective who signed the confirmation that a complaint was filed is one Rafael Elbaz, a family violence investigator.

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