Jericho, occupied West Bank – Salman Khalayfeh lived in the village of al-Muarajat in the occupied West Bank’s Jericho with his family for more than 50 years. But near-daily harassment and violence by Israeli settlers forced the 62-year-old Bedouin farmer to move out of the area.
Last July, he decided to relocate to Taybeh on the outskirts of Ramallah – a hard choice for the father of 10 who had lived in al-Muarajat along with some 40 other Bedouin families.
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The villagers make a living by herding livestock, but it has come under threat from new Israeli settlers who have been increasingly encroaching upon their grazing land.
Israeli settlers have set up two illegal outposts in the area in the past several years. Khalayfeh said settlers would pick fights with the shepherds in the village regularly, steal their sheep and threaten to burn them and their homes down.
“We couldn’t graze our sheep by day, and we couldn’t sleep at night,” Khalayfeh told Al Jazeera.
Since the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 with the goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has grown from about 260,000 to nearly 700,000 living in 293 illegal settlements and outposts, according to the latest Peace Now figures.
Settlements are considered illegal under international law, but successive Israeli governments have continued to expand them in violation of international law and the Oslo Accords. These increasing settlements, Palestinians fear, not only threaten the viability of their future state but also their livelihoods.
While the built-up area of settlements – all 146 of them, where most settlers live – does not exceed 2 percent of the occupied West Bank, it is estimated that some 147 outposts take about four times that area.
Outposts are not authorised by the Israeli authorities, but many of them have been retroactively legalised, including nine two weeks ago.
Rising number of farming outposts
A 2022 report by Israeli rights group Kerem Navot shows that at least 50 of those outposts, the majority of which are farming outposts, were set up in the past five years.
Most farming outposts start with one family of settlers, volunteers, and livestock, which are used to gradually cross over lands Palestinians use for grazing.
“The speed and efficiency in which settlers take over Palestinian lands by building farming outposts is coupled with a lot of violence,” Dror Etkes, Kerem Navot founder and settlement researcher, told Al Jazeera.
According to the latest United Nations figures, 2022 recorded the highest number of settler-related incidents since the international organisation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs started monitoring them in 2006.
“Palestinian herders are not going to leave their land unless they are threatened,” Etkes said, adding that the establishment of outposts is usually associated with a huge amount of violence.
Mohammed Marei, who was born and raised in Qarawet Beni Hassan in the central West Bank’s city of Salfit, says settler violence has gone up.
The 52-year-old father of nine says last month he witnessed a couple of dozen settlers arriving from the nearby farming outpost, attacking Palestinians on the outskirts of the village, and fatally shooting a 27-year-old man in his head.
That was not the first attack, albeit it was the most violent in recent months. In the weeks prior, settlers had harassed and assaulted him, and stole some of his sheep at gunpoint.
“My children were heading out north with the flock when an armed settler threatened them and started directing the sheep towards the outpost. We chased him quickly, the army came and right under their eyes, settlers stole six sheep,” he said.
An atmosphere of impunity for settlers
Palestinians have often accused the Israeli army of providing an atmosphere of impunity for settlers.
Israeli human rights group Yesh-Din data from 2005 to 2022 show that 93 percent of all investigations into ideologically motivated crime in the West Bank are closed without an indictment.
The Israeli army denies it condones violence, adding that it acts against Israelis involved in “violent incidents or incidents aimed at Palestinians and their property”.
“They are authorised to act to stop the violation of the law, and if needed to detain or arrest the suspects, until police forces arrive on the scene,” the Israeli army told Al Jazeera in a statement.
Shahed Fahoum, a researcher at the Yesh-Din, said Israeli settlers have felt more “empowered” by the new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Israeli settlers don’t have any fear any more and it shows – they have been entering Palestinian villages and attacking homes and vehicles … they don’t cover their faces any more when entering these Palestinian spaces and committing crimes – they’re not afraid of the consequences because there are rarely any,” she told Al Jazeera.
It is no secret that farming outposts are established with the support of official and semi-official Israeli bodies, including the civil administration, local councils, and the agriculture ministry, among others, with an aim to uproot Palestinian grazing and farming communities, Etkes said.
A task, he argues, that requires the legal knowledge, technical skills, and planning capabilities – as farming outposts are supposed to fill the areas traditional settlements or older outposts did not – to control more Palestinian lands and encircle Palestinian communities.
Palestinian herding communities are the most vulnerable as they are small, scattered, mostly detached from larger Palestinian cities or villages, and above all, located in areas designated by Oslo Accords as Area C – the 61 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control.
‘We’re on our own’
Khalayfeh, Marei and other herders said they know that there is little the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank, can do to protect them or their lands.
The sheep he lost earlier in February are worth about $3,000, but Marei says it was nothing compared with losing grazing land and a sense of security.
He said ever since the outpost of Havat Yair was set up in his village last year, he keeps half of his 220 sheep at home while he tries to graze the other half, mainly because of the violence that rendered the grazing land off-limits.
“Instead of the sheep helping us make money, my children now work in construction to feed the sheep,” he said, adding that his children now want him to sell his sheep.
Their multiple requests for the PA to help them by subsidising fodder have yet to bear fruit.
The PA deputy minister of agriculture told Al Jazeera that Palestinian farmers get their value-added tax back.
“Discussions to apply the same for those raising livestock are under way,” Abdullah Lahlouh said. “I hope they’ll hear good news soon.”
Until then, herders such as Marei have no sense of safety or security.
“The land is gone, livestock is about to … We’re on our own,” Marei told Al Jazeera.