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Israeli settlers step up attacks on Palestinian farms, expanding West Bank outposts

Nadav Weiman, deputy director of Breaking the Silence, walks through the abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the occupied West Bank on Feb. 19.
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Nadav Weiman, deputy director of Breaking the Silence, walks through the abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the occupied West Bank on Feb. 19.

ZANUTA, West Bank — Nadav Weiman pulls up in an SUV to the small Palestinian sheepherding community of Zanuta, high in the West Bank's South Hebron Hills. The small grouping of stone houses and newly built school was once home to 250 people and thousands of sheep. The community now lies abandoned.

The villagers fled at the end of November, chased away by violent Israeli settlers living in outposts that Israel hasn't authorized, according to groups documenting violence in the West Bank.

Weiman was an Israeli special forces soldier between 2005 and 2008 and served all over the West Bank. Today he's deputy director of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli army veterans that advocates to end Israel's military occupation of the territory.

About 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the United Nations' human rights office. Israel has promoted the settlements, which much of the international community condemns as a violation of international law. But settlers are trying to expand those settlements by building a network of smaller outposts, without Israeli government approval, and eating into more Palestinian land. The U.N. human rights office says there are now more than 160 unauthorized outposts in the region. Violent settlers and unauthorized outposts are a growing source of tension between Israel and the United States.

Weiman says settlers have stepped up attacks on Palestinian communities while the world's attention has been focused on the war in Gaza triggered by the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack in Israel.

"Since Oct. 7, 16 Palestinian communities of sheepherders have fled," he says. "Sixteen! That's a number I never thought I would say."

The U.N. humanitarian affairs office has recorded 650 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since Oct. 7, harming residents and property. It says settlers have killed at least nine Palestinians in the territory and Israeli security forces have killed more than 400 Palestinians in that time.

School bulldozed

Weiman often stops by to check on Zanuta because he says the villagers are hoping to return after the war. But during this visit, something seems different.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, film this!" he says, stunned by what he sees when driving up to the village's school: A noisy flock of sheep is grazing inside the fenced schoolyard. Weiman yells out in Hebrew to a woman tending to the sheep, asking whom the livestock belong to. She doesn't answer him and quickly gets on her phone.

The school has been bulldozed by settlers since Weiman last visited. Desks and chairs lie among the rubble while children's drawings are still taped to its crumbling walls. Weiman says the settlers are trying to make sure the Palestinians don't come back.

The remains of a school that was destroyed by settlers in the abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the occupied West Bank.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
The remains of a school that was destroyed by settlers in the abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the occupied West Bank.
The Palestinian villagers fled at the end of November. Palestinians and human rights groups say they were chased away by violent settlers living in unauthorized outposts nearby.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
The Palestinian villagers fled at the end of November. Palestinians and human rights groups say they were chased away by violent settlers living in unauthorized outposts nearby.

"Why demolish the school? I'll tell you why," he says. "Because you want families to feel they are not safe here. With no school, the kids cannot return. And if you don't have kids, you don't have life. It's not just about stealing livestock. It's about destroying the sense of being safe, of living, of going to school."

Weiman says one settler is responsible for this village fleeing: Yinon Levi. He owns a bulldozer and lives in an outpost unauthorized by Israel that's visible on a neighboring hillside.

It's not just about stealing livestock. It's about destroying the sense of being safe, of living, of going to school.

Weiman says the outposts are sprouting up all over the South Hebron Hills, with at least seven new ones since Oct. 7. He says the settlers who live in them are more extremist.

Sanctions on settlers and outposts

Levi is on the list of several settlers recently sanctioned by the Biden administration. "Levi led a group of settlers who engaged in actions creating an atmosphere of fear in the West Bank," the State Department said in a Feb. 1 fact sheet about the new sanctions. It said he led assaults on Palestinian and Bedouin civilians and threatened more violence if they didn't leave their property.

The United Kingdom and France have also recently slapped sanctions on Israeli settlers committing violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, and the European Union is set to follow suit.

And this month, in addition to sanctioning individual settlers, the U.S. escalated further by imposing sanctions on two settlement outposts. "These West Bank outposts are owned or controlled by designated individuals, have acted as a base from which to launch violent acts, and are illegal even under Israeli law," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said last week. The latest sanctions could also make it harder to support or do business with these outposts, as Israeli news outlets have reported.

But there's a debate over whether sanctions can actually help control these settlers, who Weiman says are protected by the Israeli army and supported by its military occupation policies in the territory.

Weiman says settlers are acting with impunity, supported by Israel's most right-wing government ever. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is able to hold on to power thanks to the support of some small extremist parties in his coalition.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right leader of the Religious Zionist Party, has called international efforts to rein in Israeli settlements the result of an "antisemitic lie spread by Israel's enemies with the aim of discrediting the pioneer settlers."

Just last month, Smotrich — himself a prominent settler — announced Israel would build 3,300 new settlement homes in the West Bank.

His announcement came after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis at a West Bank checkpoint. Weiman says Israel responds to Palestinian violence by building more settlements, which in turn makes the idea of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel more and more remote.

"Each square meter of land we take from Palestinians will never go back to them," he says. "It's a zero-sum game."

A structure destroyed by Israeli settlers in the abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the occupied West Bank.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A structure destroyed by Israeli settlers in the abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the occupied West Bank.

As Weiman and NPR's reporting team leave Zanuta, the drive winds through rocky hillsides covered in olive groves and flowering almond trees. A lush green carpet of grass and moss brought out by the spring rains covers everything. Weiman points out several of the latest unauthorized outposts.

He says they often begin with a simple Israeli flag planted on a hilltop. Soon a bench appears — and then a guard post with an Israeli soldier. Then a house, a family and some sheep.

"They bring one family with some livestock and a couple settler youth who maybe dropped out of school, but who can protect them," he says. "And then they graze their sheep in the entire area and go onto Palestinian lands, and our soldiers have to protect them."

He says sometimes settlers deliberately mix their sheep with Palestinian herds and then accuse the Palestinians of stealing them. "You just need one [settler] family and 400 sheep and you make the life of all the Palestinian sheepherder communities around you miserable," Weiman says.

He says Israel's military occupation facilitates the stealing of Palestinian land in the West Bank through its myriad laws, including some he says were based on laws used by the area's past Ottoman rulers.

The methods also include denying permits for Palestinians to build, while freely granting permits to settlers. Weiman says if Palestinians do build, their structures are then subject to demolition by Israel.

He shows maps and official records of building permits authorized and denied by the Israeli government.

"The mechanism that steals Palestinian land works every day, every minute," he says. "Every day that goes by there is less and less land for Palestinians."

B'Tselem, a human rights group in Israel, says Israel also restricts Palestinian use of land in the West Bank by declaring areas as military firing zones, nature reserves and archaeological sites. The rights group says Israel uses the zoning to justify its refusal of Palestinians' building plans for homes linked to water and electricity infrastructure.

Settlers man the checkpoints

There are other ways life has gotten more difficult for Palestinians living near Jewish settlements since Oct. 7, says Weiman. The Israeli soldiers guarding checkpoints are no longer regular army conscripts from different parts of Israel. Those soldiers have been sent to the front in Gaza and the embattled northern border with Lebanon.

The reservists now manning the increasing number of checkpoints are the settlers who actually live here.

He illustrates the problem with a comparison to America's notorious white supremacist group.

"Think if you got into a fight with your neighbor, and your neighbor was a member of the Ku Klux Klan," he says, "and then all of a sudden, you discover that he's been made chief of police."

The Israeli military has tightened restrictions on Palestinians' movement across the West Bank in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack. Many additional roads have been closed with iron barriers or simply blocked with massive mounds of dirt and gravel. Weiman says Palestinians are now forced to take long, circuitous routes just to go between home and work.

NPR also traveled to the flashpoint town of Huwwara, north of the Hebron Hills and just south of the city of Nablus. The once-bustling West Bank town has been the scene of violence between Palestinians and settlers since even before Oct. 7. In February 2023, a settler attack on the town killed several Palestinians.

Stars of David are spray-painted on an old structure in the abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the occupied West Bank on Feb. 19.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Stars of David are spray-painted on an old structure in the abandoned Palestinian village of Zanuta in the occupied West Bank on Feb. 19.
An Israeli settlement in the South Hebron Hills region of the occupied West Bank.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
An Israeli settlement in the South Hebron Hills region of the occupied West Bank.

The town has almost come to a standstill these days due to blocked roads in and out and many stores being closed on order of the Israeli army.

A Palestinian resident there, Abdullah Odeh, 62, looks as if he the weight of the world on his shoulders. He says his dreams are up in flames — literally. He points to a truck from his towing business that was recently torched by settlers, he says, from the Yizhar settlement just above him.

In 2008, Odeh opened a small country club in this quiet, hilly area, with a swimming pool and a Turkish hammam, or public bath.

Odeh says business was quite prosperous. "Palestinians would come from all around for entertainment," he says.

But about four years ago, he says, settlers from Yizhar started harassing them. And since Oct. 7, the attacks have escalated. Odeh says they have sent drones over his club, dropping what he says is poisonous liquid into the swimming pool. His family tried to talk to the leader of the settlement, who told them they had no control over the "young rascals" doing such things, Odeh says.

Abdullah Odeh says all his dreams went up in flames when his business was torched by settlers from the settlement of Yizhar in the occupied West Bank.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
/
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Abdullah Odeh says all his dreams went up in flames when his business was torched by settlers from the settlement of Yizhar in the occupied West Bank.

Odeh has appealed to the Palestinian police and the Israeli army, to no avail.

"No one can help us," he says. "The settlers are supported by the soldiers. They don't come here to protect us. They come here to protect the settlers."

Just then a patrol car of Israeli soldiers passes by on its way up the hill to the settlement.

Human rights groups say Israeli military law in the West Bank offers Palestinians far fewer freedoms and protections than those enjoyed by Israeli settlers under Israeli civil law. Palestinians have little recourse when they are attacked or their property is damaged by settlers.

Under the 1993 Oslo accords, some parts of the West Bank are administered by the Palestinian Authority, while the largest contiguous area is under Israeli security forces' control.

But in reality, Weiman says, "whatever the official designation of the areas, the Israeli army is the sovereign power in the entire West Bank."

The city of Huwwara is in an area where the Israeli army is responsible for security, rather than the Palestinian police.

The Israeli government generally does not comment on increasing attacks on Palestinian lives and properties in the West Bank. Officials have said certain cases are under investigation.

But Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups say settlers are rarely punished.

The mayor of Huwwara, Moin Dmaidi, tells NPR that attacks against Palestinians in the entire Nablus region have skyrocketed since Oct. 7.

A boy sits on a swing in a playground in the Palestinian village of Susya in the occupied West Bank.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A boy sits on a swing in a playground in the Palestinian village of Susya in the occupied West Bank.
A road leading to a Palestinian village that was blocked by Israeli settlers is seen in the South Hebron Hills in the occupied West Bank.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A road leading to a Palestinian village that was blocked by Israeli settlers is seen in the South Hebron Hills in the occupied West Bank.

"We can say that the attacks have been at least four or five times what they used to be," he says. "But unfortunately, the [Israeli] soldiers are not helping in any way whatsoever."

Country club owner Odeh says the foreign sanctions against settlers might look good in the media, but they don't do much on the ground. "They'll continue to come and burn things and harass us," he says.

He says the United States should talk to settler leaders to stop them, because "They don't follow any rules now."

There's running water, but not for them

Back in the South Hebron Hills, not far from the deserted village of Zanuta, 63-year-old Palestinian farmer Azzam Nuwaja walks through his olive and fruit groves. Israeli warplanes can be heard in the sky overhead. His village of Susya is also near a large settlement and surrounded by several unauthorized outposts.

Nuwaja pulls back slabs of tin he uses to cover his water storage cistern since its concrete top was bulldozed off and rocks and gravel were dumped in. Cisterns are the only source of water for Palestinians and their animals here. They aren't allowed to connect to the water pipes of the nearby settlements, even though those pipes sometimes run across their land.

Nuwaja says everyone knows who did this to his cistern.

"In the days after Oct. 7, two, three days later, bulldozers and vehicles started arriving around the village," he says. "They were recognizable bulldozers; we knew they belonged to Yinon Levi."

Nuwaja says that since the war began, the pressure has become worse.

Azzam Nuwaja, a Palestinian farmer, stands for a portrait outside his home in Susya in the occupied West Bank.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Azzam Nuwaja, a Palestinian farmer, stands for a portrait outside his home in Susya in the occupied West Bank.

"Some of the settlers are now in army uniforms and armed" with rifles, he says. "They started to come into the village in the day, during the night, to enter into people's houses and scare and intimidate the children and the women. It's like being surrounded by crime families. How is it possible that this is the reality? That we're afraid to leave our houses because over here there are 15 of them, over there there are 10. It's like the mafia!"

Nuwaja says they can no longer pick their fields or tend their olive and fruit trees.

After the U.S. sanctions in February, Israel's settler-finance minister, Smotrich, blasted the measure, telling reporters the government would not allow for Israeli citizens to be harmed in that way.

But Levi's personal and business accounts were frozen.

Israeli banks declined to comment to NPR, but the Bank of Israel issued a statement saying it would comply because evading sanctions would expose Israeli banks to significant risk.

Weiman says at least symbolically, the sanctions are a big deal.

"Since the sanctions that were imposed by the U.S., England and now France, everybody's talking about settler violence," he says. "Israelis understood we stopped living in a bubble, because now everybody understands there's a price."

But Nuwaja says it will take more than sanctions on a few individuals to bring peace and equality to the West Bank.

"There are so many larger, more destructive elements than Yinon Levi and a few settlers who live here," Nuwaja says, referring to the war in Gaza.

"Just look at what's going on with the support of the American and the European governments who know and who see it, but who don't do anything about it."

Nuha Musleh contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank; Eve Guterman contributed reporting from South Hebron Hills in the West Bank and Tel Aviv, Israel.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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