How Israeli settlers are expanding illegal outposts amid Gaza war

(Al Jazeera)

In the secluded hills south of Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, Abu al-Kabash used to wake up daily to his prized possession: a grove of pomegranate and fig trees that towered over the six different kinds of aloe plants enveloping his home.

That is all gone.

Since Israel started its war on Gaza following Hamas's October 7 attacks, assaults on Palestinians by Israeli settlers became so violent that the 76-year-old farmer had to abandon the land passed down to him from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

“It was a choice between life or death,” Abu al-Kabash said.

He is far from the only one. More than 1,200 Palestinians across the occupied West Bank have been forced from their homes since the conflict started, according to rights groups and the United Nations.

Data gathered by activists and verified with satellite images by Al Jazeera's verification unit, Sanad, show that between October 2023 and January 2024, settlers in the occupied West Bank have built at least 15 outposts and 18 roads - illegal under both Israeli and international law. In addition, settlers built hundreds of metres of fences and multiple roadblocks, further limiting Palestinians' movement.

The unprecedented uprooting has led to the disintegration of at least 15 Palestinian communities so far, with Israeli settlers fast expanding their presence. Their goal, experts say, is to reshape the demography of the West Bank while breaking the backbone of the territory earmarked for a future Palestinian state.

“When there is a war, that is when settlers take advantage and try to establish as many outposts as they can,” said Mauricio Lapchik, an activist with Peace Now, an Israeli organisation documenting settlement activities. The group recorded a similar uptick in illegal outposts during the years of the second Intifada in the early 2000s.

INTERACTIVE settlers building illegal outposts and roads@2x-1710929446

Illegal outposts

Outposts are typically makeshift encampments ranging from single caravans to a few modular structures built on rural Palestinian land.

They are built by members of Israel's wider settler movement, which seeks to enforce an Israeli presence on illegally occupied land. The outpost builders are often driven by an ultra-hardline ideology that demands Jews populate all of Palestinian land and force Palestinians out.

All outposts, like settlements, are illegal under international law. Israel, however, considers only the outposts illegal, claiming they were erected without government approval. Yet, outposts are often approved retroactively as settlements.

Satellite images show outposts built in the first four months of the war scattered across the occupied West Bank, suggesting Israeli settlers have become bolder and are pushing their presence beyond areas close to existing settlements.

Drag the slider to see before and after images of outpost construction over the past few months.

Illegal roads

Roads are key to establishing a presence in remote areas, and several have been cut through private Palestinian land since October 7.

The dozens of roads not only take Palestinian land but also become lines Palestinian farmers and herders know are dangerous to cross because settlers will attack them.

The verified satellite images below show dozens of new roads built after October 7 linking outposts to other Israeli-controlled areas, such as farms or settlements.

Settler violence on the rise

A Palestinian man inspects a car damaged
A Palestinian man inspects a car damaged in an attack, reportedly by Israeli settlers, in the village of Asira al-Qibliya, south of Nablus, in the occupied West Bank on February 13, 2024 [Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP]
A Palestinian man inspects a car damaged in an attack, reportedly by Israeli settlers, in the village of Asira al-Qibliya, south of Nablus, in the occupied West Bank on February 13, 2024 [Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP]

Settlers force Palestinians out of their land in the occupied West Bank by violently intimidating them or by shrinking their access to grazing land by building outposts and roads around their communities, forcing them to move seeking safety and livelihoods for their families.

This has been happening for decades but has expanded in scope and intensity since the start of the war -  on the back of an already record year for violence in the Palestinian territory.

In the first 10 months of 2023, the UN recorded at least 1,038 incidents of setter violence - an average of three attacks per day. The same figure nearly tripled since October 7.

INTERACTIVE Israeli settler violence on the rise-1710393573

On October 7, Hamas fighters stormed communities in the south of Israel, an attack that killed 1,139 people, mostly civilians, and took captive more than 240.

The unprecedented attack on Israel - which came after more than 16 years of Israeli blockade and multiple wars on the enclave - unleashed a ferocious response. Israeli forces have killed more than 31,000 people in the Gaza Strip and displaced nearly the entire 2.3-million population, turning more than 80 percent of the enclave into rubble.

Five days after October 7, dozens of settlers arrived at the village of Wadi al-Siq, home to about 180 people. They were dressed in military fatigues, armed to the teeth and escorted by the police.

“This land is not yours,” community leader and farmer Abu Bashar recalled a settler screaming at him in what would have become his last night on his land in the mountains east of Ramallah. They destroyed their houses, smashed windows and stole animals.

Rights groups and villagers say that Israeli soldiers often assist and back the activities of settlers.

“Nothing happens without military support, it can be more or less direct, but it's always there,” said Droro Etkes, the founder of Kerem Navot, a group tracking land management policy for more than two decades.

Israeli authorities told Al Jazeera they "act regularly" against unlawful construction but did not respond on why the outposts were still there and failed to answer a question on Israeli soldiers' presence and support during settlers' violent attacks.

Israel's policy of expanding settlements

An aerial view shows the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, June 29, 2020. [Ilan Rosenberg/REUTERS]
An aerial view shows the illegal settlement of Maale Adumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, June 29, 2020 [Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters]
An aerial view shows the illegal settlement of Maale Adumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, June 29, 2020 [Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters]

Outposts flourished in the 1990s under the first Israeli government to be led by the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu - who is also the current prime minister. They have since grown to cover more than 390,000sq km (150,000 square miles), according to estimates from Kerem Navot.

But outposts are not the only way Israeli civilian presence is being entrenched.

Since 1967, Israel has established more than 160 settlements across the West Bank, their bright red roofs, high fences and imported pine trees dotting the landscape of the occupied Palestinian territory.

By the late 1990s, the government began expanding existing settlements by giving housing permits, rather than building new ones. In 2022, the election of the current far-right government was seen as a boon for the settler movement.

Today, there are as many as 700,000 settlers - 10 percent of Israel's nearly 7 million population.

Last year, the government transferred administrative powers on settlement land administration from military authorities to civilian officials - a move the UN said could facilitate the annexation of the West Bank.

Netanyahu also gave settler Bezalel Smotrich, co-founder of settler organisation Regavim and leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, settlement planning approval control in the occupied West Bank.

Last year, the minister presented a plan to introduce half a million more settlers across the occupied Palestinian territory. And, on March 6, Israel's settlement-planning authority announced it had approved the construction of some 3,500 new housing units in the West Bank, the first such move since October 7.

Palestinian land and their access to it are shrinking, but uprooted people like Abu al-Kabash have not lost all hope of returning to his green patch.

“Life is scary, but we want to go back,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera