The day after Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire, I was working in my garden, in Ramallah, in the West Bank, when I heard shooting near my home. Fear gripped me. My first thought was that the settlers from one of the three major settlements perched on the surrounding hills—Beit El, Dolev and Psagot—had attacked. Days earlier, my nephew had called and said that friends of his had been shot at by the settlers in a nearby valley, where I’m fond of hiking. He warned me not to go. Minutes later, I heard another round of shots—this time even closer to my house. I went inside, certain that armed settlers were marching through Ramallah’s streets, firing at civilians. Later, I learned that the shooting was from Palestinians who were celebrating Hamas’s claim of victory.
Two weeks later, there is a feeling of good riddance at the likely removal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but no reduction in the fear here. There is no rejoicing that Netanyahu would be replaced by the far-right politician Naftali Bennett, who served as the director general of Yesha, the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Bennett supports the annexation of much of the occupied territories, and he is committed to the rejection of a Palestinian state. His ascension is a disappointment for anyone who believed that this was a propitious time for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a victory for the far-right settlers whom Palestinians fear.
Ramallah is surrounded by the three settlements and numerous Israeli outposts and farms—some of which are illegal under Israeli law. These communities are often where the more violent settlers live. Each week, there are reports of settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. During the first three months of 2021, more than two hundred incidents were recorded, including one Palestinian death. In most of these cases, the motivation was both to take over land and to intimidate and terrorize Palestinians. These actions were exacerbated by the failure of the Israeli authorities to enforce the rule of law on settlers who were guilty of attacks.
The Israeli human-rights organization Yesh Din reported that only twenty-five, or nine per cent, of the two hundred and seventy-three completed police investigations of violence between 2014 and 2019 led to the prosecution of offenders. The other two hundred and forty-eight investigations were closed without indictment. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that a settlement outpost to the east of Ramallah, which was established about three years ago as a cow farm, was a fount of violence during the first five months of 2020. Residents of three Palestinian villages in its vicinity (Jibya, Kobar, and Umm Safa) reported that settlers from the outpost have conducted systematic intimidation and violence over the past year, including assault.
In recent months, more attacks, some under the protection of the Israeli Army, have taken place in the West Bank. On May 4th, settlers stoned the home of Ghadah and Ibrahim ‘Eid and their eight children, in the village of Burin. The house is about a mile from the settlement outpost of Givat Ronen. When Palestinian neighbors tried to help defend the family, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas at them. On March 17th, a sixty-five-year-old farmer named Nu’man Samhan, from Ras Karkar, a village a few miles northwest of Ramallah, discovered that settlers from the nearby outpost of Zayit Ra’anan had plowed an acre of his land, uprooting fifteen mature olive trees and damaging a well. Since the outpost’s establishment, the Israeli military allows Samhan to access his plot only twice a year, during the plowing and harvest seasons. Last year, settlers set a mosque on fire in Ramallah’s sister city of Al-Birah and sprayed-painted an inscription on a wall: “Siege on Arabs, not on Jews! The Land of Israel is for the Jewish people.”
The pattern unfolding in the West Bank represents a reversal of roles. In the first intifada, from 1987 to 1993, Palestinians stoned settlers’ cars and blocked roads. These days, settlers do this to Palestinians. Palestinians hoped to convince settlers that they were not welcome here, and to get them to move back to Israel. Now it is the settlers who are trying to drive us away and telling us that this is their God-given land—and that we, Palestinians, don’t belong here. When Israeli settlers are removed from the West Bank, they have a country to return to. Palestinians have nowhere to go. Many of us in the West Bank are refugees who were forced out of our homes, in 1948, when Israel was established, and were barred from returning.
In the past, my fear of Israel ethnically cleansing the Palestinian population from the West Bank was allayed by the fact that the only place to push us was into Jordan. Should this happen, it would destabilize that country, a development that the United States and other nations would not favor or tolerate. This gave me some comfort that we were safe from mass expulsion.
Palestinians have different experiences of Israeli occupation. The two million people living in Gaza have experienced modern fighter jets firing rockets at them. The 2.7 million living in the West Bank have been spared that crime. To watch Gazans suffer the noise, tremors, explosions, and uncertainty of whether the next bomb would destroy their home was wrenching.
In the West Bank, we have experienced rising settler violence for decades. When I was the director of the human-rights organization Al Haq, in the nineteen-eighties, settler attacks were infrequent. Since the start of the pandemic, settler attacks are a near-daily occurrence that are supported by the Israeli government and Army in the hope of creating a greater Israel.
Israel calls any and all Palestinian resistance to the occupation, including nonviolence, terrorism. Last year, Israel declared attacks by its Army on unarmed protesters “combat operations.” This broadened the boundaries of what soldiers can do, and expanded the state’s immunity for injuries caused to Palestinian civilians.
I used to believe that much would change if Israelis knew what was taking place in their name, and of the failure of Israeli law-enforcement officials to stop it. But settlers are only growing more emboldened. In a memoir, the former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon reported that Noam Livnat, a settler from the far-right settlement of Yizhar, told him, “If Arabs behaved themselves and acquiesced to our dominion, we’d allow them access to water and a bit of electricity. The fact that we hadn’t yet driven them over the Jordanian border was, to his mind, a sign of our benevolence.”
Settlers see themselves as new pioneers, inspired by Israel’s founding fathers. Many likely think that the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that made possible the establishment of the Jewish state justifies the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank. A few years ago, I had an encounter with a settler from Dolev who questioned my right to walk in the valley where my nephew’s friends had been shot at by settlers. When I told him that I live in Ramallah, he said, “Unlike you, I really live here.” Today, that encounter seems peaceful compared to what has transpired since: shooting with no questions asked.