‘Silent annexation’: Settlers dispossess West Bank Bedouins amid Israel war

As the world looks towards Israel’s war on Gaza, occupied West Bank settlers attack Palestinians, take their homes.

Kids play under a tree at the Bedouin encampment of al-Khan al-Ahmar near the West Bank city of Jericho May 30, 2018.
Kids play under a tree at the Bedouin encampment of al-Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank {File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

On the morning of October 12, the men of Wadi al-Siq were dismantling their family homes when a group of heavily armed Israelis from nearby illegal settlements – alongside army reservists – stormed the village.

Their wives and most of their children had vacated the village, driving a few of the Palestinian Bedouin village’s sheep ahead of them, the day before. They were all frightened.

Israeli peace activist Guy Hirschfeld had warned on Facebook two days prior of a rumoured call for the massacre of the Wadi al-Siq community. So the village, led by their mukhtar, Abdelrahman “Abu Bashar” Kaabneh, decided to leave.

Translation: Final preparations for pogrom and deportation at Wadi Sik near Rimonim settlement. Please call the Benjamin police and ask for troops to be sent. 02-9706444Stop ethnic cleansing!

Wadi al-Siq is among the Palestinian Bedouin villages in the occupied West Bank that are being forcibly displaced in a tide that has grown these past two weeks, according to rights organisations.

Heavily armed Israelis from illegal settlements attack these communities on a daily basis – concentrated, organised attacks that go unimpeded and sometimes aided by security forces, according to witnesses and human rights organisations.

While this has happened for years, it has increased in intensity and frequency as the world looks away, focused on the horror of the Israel-Gaza war that began on October 7.

“It’s all over the West Bank,” said Hirschfeld, who was in the area four or five times since the start of the war. “[The settlers are] taking advantage of the situation and doing whatever they want.”

Leave today, or live and die this way

A north-south stretch of 20km (12.4 miles) east of Ramallah is being cleared of nearly all Palestinians, pushing an already fraught security situation for Bedouins in these remote areas to a breaking point.

Area C – a stretch of the occupied West Bank under Israeli security and civil control – has seen about 545 Palestinians forcibly displaced from at least 13 communities since October 7, according to information from the West Bank Protection Consortium (WBPC) and Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din.

The land is nominally earmarked to be negotiated over in future talks, according to the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993.

INTERACTIVE - Israeli settlers dispossess Bedouin communities-1697730217
(Al Jazeera)

The violence stretches across Area C, including the South Hebron Hills, the area east of Ramallah towards Jericho, the Jordan Valley, and Nablus.

Witnesses and humanitarian coordinators say more communities are leaving or have begun dismantling their villages and leaving for Area B, rather than meet the same fate as Wadi al-Siq, the first village to have been entirely depopulated by settlers since October 7.

Armed settlers, nearly all wielding guns, stage violent incursions while Israeli law enforcement seems content to look the other way, villagers and human rights organisations told Al Jazeera.

Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has been distributing even more guns to well-armed Israeli settlers since hostilities broke out on October 7.

‘We have nothing’

Wadi al-Siq, a village of 187 Bedouins – its houses barely more than shacks perched on hardscrabble rocky ground, is in the barren mountains east of Ramallah that have been populated by Palestinian shepherds for decades.

Nearby Ein Samiya was the first to be fully displaced by settler violence earlier this year and, along with recently displaced villages al-Baqa and Ras al-Tin, was a chilling vision of the future for Wadi al-Siq.

Some families had left Wadi al-Siq earlier in the year to seek safety from settler attacks on them, their property and even their school. But, since the outbreak of war, the situation deteriorated sharply, with villagers speaking of nearby settlers terrorising them daily.

Palestinian Bedouin eviction
The villagers of Wadi al-Siq had already gathered their things to leave [Al Jazeera]

That fateful October day, the armed settlers and reservists fired one shot into the air and told the villagers that they would be killing any Bedouins still around in an hour.

“They entered the houses and prevented us from taking anything,” Abu Bashar said, adding that they dragged out all the Bedouins they found and beat them.

“They told us: ‘If any of you are in this area in an hour, you’ll be killed,’” he said.

The villagers ran, fleeing with little but the clothes they were wearing. According to Abu Bashar, about 30 villagers were injured either from the attack or while fleeing into the nearby mountains.

“We have no food. No water. No electricity. Nowhere to sleep. We have nothing,” said Abu Bashar over the phone, the sound of harsh winds blowing in the background.

Since they were forced out, villagers reported seeing settlers looting their former homes. With nothing left to live off, many of the villagers have resorted to begging, Abu Bashar said.

“What’s happening to us is exactly what happened to our ancestors in 1948 who were forced to leave with nothing,” said Abu Bashar, referring to the 1948 Nakba, when most Palestinians were expelled from their homeland.

The Wadi al-Siq villagers are desperately calling for international assistance to at least create a two-hour humanitarian corridor so they can gather their belongings.

A Palestinian Bedouin boy waves a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli soldiers at al-Khan al-Ahmar near Jericho in the occupied West Bank July 4, 2018
A Bedouin boy waves a Palestinian flag at al-Khan al-Ahmar, occupied West Bank [File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

However, with the region in chaos, their calls are going unheeded, according to Abu Bashar and humanitarian organisations.

‘No protection at all’

The panic among Palestinian Bedouin communities is growing.

Their area, now all but emptied of Palestinians, had received donations and support in recent years from EU missions who saw the Bedouin communities as integral to the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.

But now, the pattern seen in Wadi al-Siq – closing access roads followed by concentrated attacks and forced displacement – is happening elsewhere in Area C, where the population of 300,000 is outnumbered by the 400,000 heavily armed Israeli settlers.

Since the outbreak of war, the Bedouin communities across Area C have been left with essentially no protection as even the activists who monitored and supported them were cut off.

In Wadi al-Siq, three Palestinian volunteers from the Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission who were monitoring the situation were so badly beaten by the settlers that they had to be hospitalised, according to witnesses and a Commission representative.

Israeli activists at the scene were also beaten and restrained. “All the leftists are traitors,” one of the Israeli settlers in military apparel said during the attack, overheard by one of the activists. “I think we need to kill them all.”

The armed Israelis took everyone’s phones, deleting any videos or photos of the attack.

With checkpoints closed and roads too dangerous to pass, foreign missions and humanitarian organisations have been unable to reach the villages of Area C.

“They have no protection at all,” said Dror Sadot, spokesperson for Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. “So the settlers, of course, know that.”

Calls for “elimination” and “expulsion” are becoming commonplace in settler chat groups, fuelled by rhetoric from political leaders like Ben-Gvir applauding violence towards Palestinians.

“The roads … are closed to the movement of the Arab enemy, there won’t be olive picking in the area, and no enemy can come near you,” declared one post in a settler chat group, which directed settlers to keep at least 100 bullets and full cartridges and to “liquidate/wipe out” any approaching Palestinians.

The gradual encirclement of Bedouin villages by settler shepherding outposts over the past years is now making travel between the villages all but impossible.

“The army has a strong hand on the trigger – a pedestrian or a vehicle that goes out into the street will die immediately!’” said one post in a settler chat group. “And that’s how it should be.”

No discernible action is being taken to address the rising threat of violence by Israeli authorities.

injured arm
Abu Bashar said about 30 villagers were injured either in the attack or fleeing to the mountains [Al Jazeera]

“Everyone knows what their agenda is. They know who they are. They could stop it. That’s not happening as far as we know,” said Allegra Pacheco, chief of party for the WBPC.

The Israeli army did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Empty of any Palestinian people’

Reports of attacks and deaths at the hands of soldiers and settlers are rising at a rate not seen in years, with Reuters confirming at least 64 Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank since October 7.

A video emerged recently of a settler entering the village of al-Tawani in the South Hebron Hills, approaching a Palestinian man and shooting him at point-blank range as Israeli soldiers looked on.

In Sair al-Ganoub, three families were displaced when their homes were burned down by settlers.

“I received phone calls from more than 20 communities giving me the same message: We’re scared the settlers will come and massacre us,” said a humanitarian coordinator in Area C, who wished to remain anonymous due to employer rules.

According to Yesh Din and the WBPC, a partnership of European states and NGOs seeking to prevent the forcible transfer of Palestinians, reports are coming in of Bedouins forced to flee their communities under threat of force across Area C.

In the communities of Ein al-Rashash and Mughayar al-Deir, located along the same corridor as Wadi al-Siq and formerly Ein Samiya, Ras al-Tin and al-Baqa, villagers were warned by security guards from the nearby settlements of Rimonim and Ma’ale Michmash that they should leave before they are killed.

Ein al-Rashash has now been dismantled completely, most of the inhabitants of Mu’arrajat Center have left, and East Taybe Bedouin families have moved closer to Area B.

Mughayar al-Deir is the only Palestinian community that remains in the entire area, with forced displacement likely there as well.

Families have also fled under duress in other areas, including Khirbat al-Radhim, al-Farsia, al-Nusira, and Ain al-Shibli, according to Yesh Din.

“By forcing out all these communities, all of this area from Jericho and east of Ramallah will become empty of any Palestinian people. It will become … a huge area for the settlers and their expansion,” said the humanitarian coordinator. “It’s a silent annexation.”

“The settler violence is not separate from state violence. It’s an unofficial arm of the state to take over Palestinian land,” said Sadot of B’Tselem.

“That was their plan before, and it is the plan right now. So, of course, they’re exploiting the fact that no one is looking at them at this moment to take over Palestinian land en masse.”

Source: Al Jazeera